Does the EU practice selective sympathy when dealing with refugees? 

By Ana Dadu

When I woke up on the 24th of February, I had once again anxiously checked my phone. I have been doing so every morning for the past month following reports of Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine’s borders, hoping another day will pass of Putin simply “bluffing”. On the 24th we all found out he wasn’t. Russia invaded Ukraine from its eastern, northern, and southern borders. I remember receiving images in a group chat with my Ukrainian relatives of them hiding in Kyiv’s metro system as air raid sirens were going off. You’d think it’d be something taken by the Associated Press or the New York Times as part of their war reports. It wasn’t. What followed was Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. Over 7 million people have been displaced internally in Ukraine, and as of the 29th of November, 7.8 million Ukrainian refugees have crossed into Europe. 

In the following days, I’d wake up and anxiously check my phone for what went on during the night – did the Russians drop any bombs? How are the fighters in Zaporizhzhia doing? What is going on at the borders, are Ukrainians being let into Europe easily? I knew the influx of refugees would be massive, and I was worried they’d all be trapped, either inside Ukraine’s borders or in crammed refugee camps, unable to escape. I thought back to the 2016 refugee crisis in Europe – the brutality shown by European border police, the pictures of crammed boats crossing the Mediterranean, and the little Syrian boy washed up, dead, on Turkey’s beach. I was expecting Ukrainians to be marginalised by the European Community in a similar way. After all, it’s not like Eastern Europeans are seen as a desirable part of the EU’s west. What I also knew, and what has often been reiterated by EU politicians, Europe struggled to deal with such large influxes of people. They definitely struggled in 2016, it will be the same now, no? But it wasn’t. In the midst of the horror I’d read about every morning, at least the European Union was showing support.

Seeing the entirety of Eastern and Central Europe accept Ukrainians as if they were their own made me proud to be Eastern European too. Yes, the lines to cross the border into the EU were long, people, primarily women and children would wait for days. The processing times were slow and finding shelter and food was not easy. Yet Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the Baltics and other EU member states did it. Poland had welcomed more Ukrainian refugees than any other country. The Polish government set up registration centres where Ukrainians could apply for a Polish ID number so they could access the labour market, health care system and social benefits. The Slovak government did something similar with their system of temporary refuge. At the grassroots level, people themselves showed solidarity. Many voluntarily drove to the borders to help with transportation needs and refugees were easily welcomed and hosted as guests in private homes. Even in countries like Romania, which has had a complicated history with Ukraine, all that was left behind and its people offered support. The unity created out of the wrath experienced by Soviet rule has prevailed over any differences these countries may have. And this unity was clear in the unquestioned acceptance of Ukrainian refugees. 

In regard to my concern with “the West” – Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, and the Scandinavian countries – and how they’d deal with the influx of refugees, I was positively surprised. Walking around in any of these countries’ capitals and you’ll see Ukrainian flags everywhere. They all condemned Russia’s attacks and offered financial and some kind of military support to Ukraine. Germany froze the certification of the 11 billion EURO Nord Stream 2 project, and all collectively imposed sanctions on Russian oil and oligarchs. Speaking more from a personal experience, even students at Leiden University quickly organised collection points for donations that were to be sent to Ukraine. The Wijnhaven steps were filled with boxes full of canned food, diapers, clothes, and medicine, not students. To be quite honest, I haven’t seen anything like that done for any other similar situations. 

The pride I felt in being Eastern European, in being part of the EU, and the relief I felt that Ukrainians were not being turned away, was quickly clouded by guilt. Why were the experiences of Syrians, Libyans and Iraqis fleeing war and persecution in 2015-2016 so different from those of Ukrainians fleeing war and persecution? Why did Europe welcome Ukrainians with open arms, but paid millions to Turkey and Libya to fish Middle Eastern refugees out of the Mediterranean so they wouldn’t wash up on our shores? Why did the EU deal with the 2016 influx so poorly, yet relatively well with this one? In the next following paragraphs, I’ll explore why. 

The EU has a complicated asylum system, and this is why previous refugee crises were so difficult to deal with. The EU shares competences on migration with its member states and lays down the conditions governing entry into and legal residence in member states for third-country nationals (TCNs). One of the systems governing irregular migration such as that experienced in 2015-16 and now in 2022, is the Dublin System. The Dublin Regulation III that is in place right now establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining the member state responsible for examining an application for international protection lodged by a TNC. This regulation also establishes the minimum reception conditions for asylum seekers all member states have to meet. Under the current Dublin Regulation, the country where an asylum seeker first enters the EU has the responsibility for examining their asylum application. The 2016 refugee crisis highlighted the weakness of the system as it did not provide harmonised conditions of reception. This means high pressure was placed on a small number of EU countries and there were imbalances in the distribution of asylum seekers. You had countries like Greece, Spain and Italy struggling to process the thousands of people arriving on their shores and cramming them in unfavourable conditions. 

You might be wondering, why didn’t the same happen this time? In 2015-16 the European migration system collapsed. In 2022, it was managed a lot more smoothly. The EU activated the temporary protection directive (TPD), making Ukrainians fleeing the war, legally speaking, not refugees. The directive was implemented in 2001 and offers “immediate and temporary protection in the event of an imminent mass influx of displaced persons from non-EU countries who are unable to return to their country of origin”. It can be activated when the Council of Ministers, on a proposal from the Commission, decides that there is a mass influx of people, in particular, if there is a risk that the standard asylum system is struggling to cope with the high demand stemming from the arrival of asylum seekers risking a negative impact on the efficient operation of the asylum system. As such, when Ukrainians flooded the gates of Europe, Europe was ready. Under this mechanism, Ukrainians do not have the same obstacles to applying for residency permits, access to employment, accommodation, social welfare, medical care, education for children under 18, and the ability to move to a different member state, before the issuance of a residency permit, as other refugees may have had. 

Now I am not saying it has been easy for the people of Ukraine. Many still face discrimination. For example, Ukrainian Roma people have not had a welcome stay in Hungary. After being denied humanitarian aid, many Roma made the decision to return to Ukraine. Ukrainians, despite their warm welcome, leaving your home so abruptly and moving to a new place is still a rocky process, and the struggle to integrate is still there. Moreover, there have been bloody packages and explosives sent to Ukrainian embassies all over Europe aimed at instilling fear. Ukrainians are constantly reminded that they do not deserve their independence. 

But it is difficult not to ask why the same mechanism wasn’t put in place in previous waves of max irregular migration towards Europe. Here are some arguments that have been put forward.

First, the speed and scale of Ukrainian arrival justified the activation of the temporary protection directive (TPD). The TPD defines “mass influx” very vaguely, however, a study on the temporary protection directive proposed the following indicators to be taken into account: an absolute number of asylum applicants arriving per day/week/month; increase in arrival as opposed to previous periods; the number of applications to be processed vs the number of caseworkers in function; the occupancy rate of reception facilities in the Member States as well as population, GDP, and the unemployment rate of the Member States receiving the arrivals. 

In the 2011 refugee influx resulting from the Arab Spring, the number of sea arrivals at Lampedusa between 29th of January and 11th of September was 55,298. Italy’s reception capacity was clearly overwhelmed, but the number still did not warrant activation of the TPD. In 2015, the refugee influx crossing the Mediterranean increased from 5,500 in January to 221,000 in October. One million persons had fled to the EU irregularly by sea. You’d think these figures grant the activation of the TPD, but when compared to the influx of Ukrainians, their arrival was much faster, and the number of displaced persons was much higher. As previously mentioned, as of the 29th of November, 7.8 million Ukrainians have sought refuge in the EU. 

There was a high likelihood of migratory pressure on the EU’s eastern borders, and it was estimated that half the Ukrainians coming to the Union would join their family members or seek employment, whilst the other half could request international protection. Moreover, there was a clear risk that the asylum systems of member states would collapse. Besides, there is a widespread assumption that Ukrainians are here temporarily, and they will go back, and for some reason, that assumption did not exist with previous refugee crises. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of people fleeing Russia’s unjustified war prompted the EU to activate the TPD. 

Second, Ukraine has a visa association with the EU, another factor making it easier for Ukrainians to legally enter the EU. For others, such as North Africans and Middle Easterners fleeing conflict, it is extremely difficult to enter the EU territories legally. Member states often close down their diplomatic representations in war-torn countries – for security reasons – but that leaves very little possibility for those fleeing to apply for visas. The European Convention on Human Rights does not oblige member states to grant visas to third-country nationals fleeing conflict. What third-country nationals can do is they can apply for protection at the EU’s external borders, but, and this also ties in with my fourth point that, the EU often externalises its asylum policy to non-member states such as Turkey and Libya. For example, in 2016, the EU entered into an agreement with Turkey to limit the number of asylum seeker arrivals. Illegal migrants attempting to enter Greece would be returned to Turkey, and in exchange, the EU offered to resettle Syrian refugees on a one-to-one basis, reduce visa restrictions for Turkish citizens and pay 6 billion euros in aid for Syrian migrant communities. Whilst this was done to relieve pressure from Europe’s southern borders, it’s also clear that Europe was simply exporting its problems elsewhere. EU leaders also cooperate with Libyan authorities who have a bad record of human rights abuses in detention centres. Cooperation increased with the adoption of a Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and Libya on the 2nd of February 2017, and the adoption of the Malta Declaration signed by EU leaders in Valletta on the 3rd of February 2017. The EU provides speedboats, a maritime coordination centre and training, and funds an overwhelming about of Libyan search and rescue operations. As such, it is almost impossible for a Syrian, Afghan or Iraqi asylum seeker to enter the union legally. 

On the other hand, Ukraine is a visa-free country for entry into the EU. There is also no “third country” to act as a buffer zone between the EU and Ukraine. Ukraine borders four EU countries, and Ukrainian nationals are free to cross the Union’s external borders for stays of no more than 90 days in any 180-day period. This makes their ability to arrive at EU borders as legal migrants much easier. As mentioned previously, the TPD has also made it easier for Ukrainians to settle in long term and integrate into European societies. It must also be noted that the cultural and linguistic similarities between Ukraine and many of its Eastern European allies have made this process smoother. 

Fifth, what must be highlighted is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought back the collective trauma experienced by Eastern Europe whilst they were under Soviet rule prior to and during the Cold War. Russia also justified its invasion due to Ukraine’s move towards the European Union and the West’s defensive military alliance, NATO. Thus, the EU as a whole has a direct interest in this conflict and sympathy for those fleeing. Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the Baltics, and other countries in the Eastern side of the EU have directly experienced what Ukraine is experiencing now, they could relate to the desire to be part of the West. The activation of TPD is a show of solidarity and acceptance of Ukrainians in the West, that they deserve to live a life free of Russian rule. 

One last question that crosses my mind is – why wasn’t the speed and scale of 2015-2016 refugee arrival enough to justify the temporary protection directive? It’s not like back then European leaders could’ve predicted Putin would lose his mind and decide to invade Ukraine. Or maybe they could have, but that’s another argument for another time. Alarmed at the number of persons arriving in Italy, MEPs called on the Commission to propose activating the TPD in 2011, but the requests made by the Italian and Maltese governments were rejected in the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting on the basis that the conditions for activation were not met. Similarly, in 2015, MP Elisabeth Gardini asked the Commission whether it agreed that the legal conditions for triggering the TDP had been met, and a proposal to the Council was submitted, but yet again, the directive was not implemented. The refugees from Aleppo brutally beaten by Europe’s border police were also victims of Putin’s bombardments. It’s difficult not to make the argument that Europe does have a double standard when dealing with refugees. Ukrainians are Europeans. Syrians, Afghans, Tunisians, Libyans and Iraqis are not. This is evident in how the EU granted Ukrainian nationals and refugees residing in Ukraine temporary protection, but asylum seekers, stateless persons and other third-country nationals such as students residing in Ukraine, are missing from the scope of temporary protection. Member states are encouraged to grant expand temporary protection towards them but are not obliged to do so. 

It has been argued that, in the 2021-2022 Belarusian instrumentalization of Iraqi refugees, many arrivals were men, and demographic assumptions raise questions as to why they were fleeing. Especially in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, the Brussels bombing in 2016, and the UK Manchester Arena bombing, letting men enter Europe has its security concerns. After all, most members of terrorist organisations are men. However, others have argued that Europe should at least register these people, instead of putting up fences and leaving them out in the cold to die. Isn’t registering them only providing EU border police with more information? 

There are certain factors that warranted the EU to respond to the Ukrainian refugee crisis much more swiftly. However, that does not take away from the double standards the EU has towards other refugees. I hope that by taking you on this little research process with me, you have gained a deeper understanding of the situation. The EU needs to figure out an asylum system in which all those seeking refuge are granted that right, and it is now working on an amendment to the current Dublin Regulation III. Whether that will make a difference, we shall see. 

Image: Markus Spiske on Pexels