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Ukrainian refugees: EU rhetoric or paradigm shift

www.gatewayhouse.in | April 7, 2022

The unprecedented consensus within the EU in accepting Ukrainian refugees presents it as a global humanitarian power. But is this truly a ‘paradigm shift’ or is it a continuation of the West European Cold War strategy, based on a moral high ground narrative, of accepting people who had fled the ‘evil and undemocratic’ Soviet-bloc countries during and after World War II?

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, 4.2 million people have fled to neighbouring countries, including the European Union (EU) member states of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, that share borders with Ukraine. Those leaving Ukraine are mostly women and children as able men were asked to stay back to fight. People are leaving the country by road and rail, and the international media reports paint a grim picture of their anxiety and desperation to get to safety abroad. On reaching the EU states, they take shelter in welcome centres, hotel rooms, shopping malls, churches, and wherever spaces are available; but many families are separated. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) observed this as one of the massive population displacements and potentially the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. As per the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics released on April 4, 2022, Poland has received the lion’s share of 2,469,657 refugees, Romania 648,410, Hungary 394,728, and Slovakia 301,405. Many Ukrainians have relocated to other EU countries through the Ukrainian diaspora networks in Europe.

Despite the consequential impact and costs of this refugee influx on the political, economic, social, and humanitarian landscapes, especially with Europe already overwhelmed with past refugee waves, the EU countries were unanimous and quick in extending uncharacteristically fervent support to the Ukrainians entering their territories. Entry procedures were relaxed, including identity proof submission and biometric passports. Reception centres and shelters were set up; large billboards with solidarity notes were erected; easy access to Consular assistance was rolled out; and information about legal requirements for entry, stay, onward travel to other EU States, and their rights in the destinations were circulated at EU borders.

Some states like Luxembourg adjusted administrative provisions for stay for displaced Ukrainians and those already in Luxembourg with soon-expiring residence permits. They were spared tedious asylum application procedures and the Dublin Regulations mandating the processing of refugees at the country of initial entry.[1] The EU has taken an unprecedented step to offer immediate temporary protection to displaced Ukrainian citizens and third-country residents in Ukraine. This provision is activated for the first time since the Temporary Protection Directive[2] became a part of EU law. However, it does not cover international students, including Indians, and third-country nationals without Ukrainian residency visas who are expected to return to their home countries.

If the combat in Ukraine persists, the protection status provided for a year starting March 4, 2022, can be renewed for up to two more years.[3] The collective humanitarian response of the Union’s interior ministers and the new-found solidarity and unprecedented consensus among its member states were widely viewed as the EU rising to the occasion. The collaborative approach was also presumed as an inadvertent reversal of the EU’s controversial refugee policy.

However, on critical evaluation, it can be inferred that this so-called ‘paradigm shift’ in the refugee policy is in effect a continuation of the West European Cold War strategy, based on a moral high ground narrative, of accepting people who had fled the ‘evil and undemocratic’ Soviet-bloc countries during and after World War II. Correspondingly, the distinct EU response to the Ukrainian refugees is an emphatic political act of rejecting Putin’s unignorable power and presenting the post-Cold War Russia as authoritarian and menacing. After all, the war is happening on the European continent, at the EU doorstep, and hence it is of direct geopolitical and foreign policy interest for the Union, unlike any political situation in Africa, Syria, Yemen or Afghanistan.

The EU is eager to win back Ukraine’s European interest blocked by the pressures from Moscow. This is apparent from the statement of Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, saying “Ukraine belongs to Europe. They are fighting for our values [of democracy and peace]”. Other than great power politics, the EU countries sharing the border with Ukraine are the primary asylum destinations for millions fleeing the war. The EU-wide support for the Directive is thus also prompted by the practical logic of burden-sharing of this European refugee crisis. All these aspects suggest that the current reaction from the EU member states is more geopolitically motivated than a policy shift and hence, there is no surety that any future influxes, especially from non-European countries, will be handled in this pragmatic manner.

In contrast to the EU’s humanitarian rhetoric, there were reports that non-Ukrainians, including Africans, Afghans, and Yemenis, who were legal residents in Ukraine before February 24, 2022 and hence qualified for Temporary Protection, were deprioritised and racially discriminated against at the entry points to the EU states and poorly treated while seeking assistance post-entry. There is obscurity regarding the extent of accessibility of non-Ukrainians to critical aid in the EU States as the Directive is not automatically extended to all people fleeing Russian military aggression. Non-Ukrainian-origin residents have to prove their inability to return to their countries of origin, to access the temporary protection and/or can otherwise apply for asylum. These groups face persisting political conflicts and economic instability at home, hence repatriation is not a viable option. Thus their immediate and long-term future in the wake of this crisis is of concern, even though the Directive stipulates that “the Member States’ obligations regarding the conditions of reception and residence of persons enjoying temporary protection should be fair and non-discriminatory”.

The reluctance to host non-European refugees, i.e. non-white and non-Christian, in the EU was often motivated by ethnic and colour racism, prevailing xenophobic politics, the upsurge of far-right parties and anti-immigrant public opinion. Even though the EU has denied any acts of discrimination from its end, the stark contrast in its response to the Ukrainian crisis, where the Temporary Protection Directive was activated expeditiously, and the 2015 Syrian crisis, where contentious debates over ‘quota system’ and ‘refugee caps’ resulted in sealing of its external borders, indicates no paradigm shift in its otherwise ‘exclusionary’ asylum policy. The Syrian refugee crisis and the EU’s deal with Turkey to provide financial support to admit Syrians caused enduring political strife over the distribution of refugees and the burden-sharing in the EU. It has left millions of refugees in prolonged limbo without access to critical aid and integration.

Countries that were reluctant in taking in non-European refugees in the past are now on the front lines of welcoming Ukrainians. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic resisted the Quota System and the Temporary Protection Directive in 2015 since they did not want to take in Syrians. The same fate awaited refugees when Italy and Malta tried to activate the Directive following the 2011 Arab Spring-prompted influx.

Recently, after a military impasse, Poland constructed a high fence along its border with Belarus in January 2022 to prevent the entry of Muslim asylum-seekers from Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Many were stranded in makeshift tents along the Belarusian side of the border, and several deaths were reported due to their exposure to freezing temperature in the outdoors. The 2021 Belarus-Poland border crisis also manifested the unfortunate case of asylum seekers being used to settle political scores.

Likewise, during the Syrian refugee crisis, Hungary shut its border with Serbia, and the government of Victor Orban passed laws that legalised pushbacks of asylum seekers by law enforcers. In these cases, the operationality of civil society groups was restricted, and even aid workers and volunteers faced legal actions for assisting refugees. Such measures are systemic violations of the fundamental human right to asylum and due process of EU law. However, Hungary, going to the polls for its National Assembly election on April 3, 2022, is at the forefront to host and support Ukrainian refugees, even though the country is ill-equipped for handling refugees.

Poland welcomed more than half of the Ukrainian refugees even though the influx is overstretching Polish asylum systems. These numbers are in addition to the Ukrainians who migrated to Poland following the Crimean Crisis in 2014. While Ukrainians were regarded as a potential workforce which could contribute to the Polish economy, non-European asylum seekers have often been framed as racially and culturally incompatible irregular migrants who could be burdensome and a threat to the security and cultural identity of the country.

Over the past two decades, public debates over migration and refugees propelled the proliferation of populist and far-right parties across Europe. This has changed the political agendas and the socio-political milieu of Europe, and public opinion has tilted to a more anti-immigration stance. Islamophobia is widespread, and hard-line anti-immigration sentiments and racial ‘other’ing are often a winning electoral strategy in Europe. In these circumstances, the current solidarity and policy consensus in the EU attests to the criticality of political will in cooperating and resolving divergent and often conflictual national interests related to migration and asylum. However, the impact of any refugee crisis can last indefinitely, and the efficacy of the EU initiatives must look beyond its geopolitical interests, to its preparedness for the long haul. The greatest challenge before the EU is to maintain existing support and avoid any backlash as refugees need substantial financial layout from the state and the EU exchequer. Balancing the humanitarian responses to refugees and migrants without jeopardising their popularity will be a concern for EU politicians. This is especially valid in the case of Poland, where the parliamentary election is due in 2023.

By accepting refugees from Ukraine, the EU presents itself as a global humanitarian power; however, its attitude and treatment toward non-European refugees and migrants in the past and current crises reflects the hypocrisy and double standards of the EU and its member states. To overcome this impression, the EU will have to extend its humanitarian commitments to non-European refugees without discrimination, by putting their precarious condition at the centre of EU policy and public discourses. Better still, instead of fortifying its external borders, the EU needs to establish a Union-wide inclusive asylum system and strengthen its migration agencies to be future-ready for the inevitable waves  from across the globe. The current crisis is a chance of a lifetime to reframe the conversations on migration and asylum and the proposed New Pact from a more inclusive and migrant-centric perspective.

Divya Balan is Associate Professor of International Studies, FLAME University.

This article was published under the aegis of The Gateway House-FLAME Policy Lab at FLAME University, Pune.