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Fact check: Does the EU prioritize Ukrainian refugees?

November 12, 2022

Organizations have criticized the EU for giving Ukrainian refugees preferential treatment over refugees from other countries. Are the accusations true?

Passengers with suitcases in front of train
Ukrainian refugees depart the train in Lviv, UkraineImage: Thomas O'Neill/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, some eight million Ukrainian refugees have registered across Europe. The EU has opened its borders and granted displaced Ukrainian citizens temporary protection. With 1.4 million Ukrainian refugees, Poland has taken the largest number.

According to Germany's Central Register of Foreigners (AZR), a total of 1,019,789 people had entered Germany for reasons related to the war in Ukraine by November 1. Organizations working for refugees have been raising the alarm, accusing European countries of unequal treatment towards Ukrainian refugees on the one hand and refugees from other crisis regions on the other.

Claim: Ukrainian refugees are given priority.

"At the [EU] refugee summit, [Interior Minister Nancy] Faeser missed an opportunity to turn around the [German] approach to refugees. This two-class politics and racism behind it are harming Germany," tweeted the Green EU parliamentarian Kassem Taher Saleh.

DW fact check: True

In order to provide Ukrainians unbureaucratic protection, the EU opened its borders this year on March 4. The so-called Temporary Protection Directive allowed Ukrainian refugees to enter the European Union without a visa and without formally requesting asylum.

In Germany, refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine don't need a visa for the first 90 days if they enter before November 30, 2022. After the first 90 days, they need to register and apply for a temporary residence permit. According to Germany's Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), this provision runs until February 28, 2023.

Depending on the host nation, the social benefits that Ukrainians refugees can access vary. In Germany, Ukrainian refugees have been incorporated into the welfare system since June 1, where they may receive public health insurance, permission to seek gainful employment, unemployment benefits, child benefits, financial assistance for students of higher education (BAföG) and retirement benefits. Ukrainian refugees are permitted to travel to Germany by train free of charge, and Germany’s national railway company DB even offers numerous concessions for local transport.

Refugees fleeing other conflicts get less

In contrast, refugees fleeing crises in other countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq receive less. This is in accordance with the so-called Asylum Seekers' Benefits Act. They can only hope for a residence permit after months or even years of proceedings. Then, after being recognized as refugees, they, too, have access to the welfare system.

Organizations working for refugees have criticized this unequal treatment in an open letter to the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Hubertus Heil.

In an interview with DW, Germany's Integration Commissioner, Reem Alabali-Radovan, promised reforms: "The unequal treatment of refugees has been bothering me for months. Let me be clear: Even before the war in Ukraine, we had decided in the coalition agreement that we wanted to bring about improvements for refugees. These need to happen fast in order for the situation to change."

Germany's Commissioner for Migration, Reem Alabali-Radovan
Germany's Federal Government Commissioner for Migrations, Refugees and Integration Reem Alabali-Radovan has criticized the unequal treatment of refugees withdiffering nationalities.Image: Malte Ossowski/Sven Simon/picture alliance

Claim: Non-Ukrainian refugees fleeing from Ukraine are subject to discrimination.

"Meet Chizoba, a Nigerian activist here in Poland, who has supported hundreds of black refugees from Ukraine since the war started. Racism is a common theme with everyone I interview," the US-based reporter Terrell Jermaine Starr reporting from Ukraine posted on Twitter.

DW fact check: Unclear

Especially in the early days of the war in Ukraine, refugees who were not considered "white" reported discrimination to various media outlets, including BBC. In March, the human rights organization Amnesty International observed the situation on the ground and found that refugees fleeing Ukraine who didn't hold Ukrainian passports, and especially People of Color (POC), were experiencing discrimination both in Ukraine as well as in host countries.

After speaking with 27 non-Ukrainians nationals, Amnesty writes that "[m]any reported discriminatory treatment both when trying to board trains or buses and near border check points, while some detailed physical and verbal aggression by Ukrainian forces and volunteers.”

In Ukraine, the report continued, students from Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa were hindered from boarding trains in order to leave the country.

However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) looked into these allegations and came to slightly different conclusions. When asked by DW, the press spokesperson Chris Melzer explained that Polish border officials had "never not let anyone in but instead offered all people protection. To my knowledge, refugees were given the choice to leave Poland within 16 days or make a formal request for asylum.”

Two young, male students
The students Xavier and Ikem fled the war in UkraineImage: Loveday Wright/DW

While it was true that refugees not holding Ukrainian passports were held at the Polish border longer, these were reportedly only individuals who carried no papers confirming their identity.

According to BAMF, non-Ukrainian nationals who fled from Ukraine to Germany would still be treated the same as Ukrainians if they were registered as refugees before February 24, or if they held a residence permit and were not able to return to their stated country of origin.

The association Migration Media Service says this regulation affected around 34,000 refugees, 14,400 of whom had already received temporary protection in accordance with the EU’s mass influx regulation for displaced persons.

But refugee organizations report that those who only held a temporary residence permit in Ukraine when fleeing to Germany were subject to individual examination at the respective alien registration authority. This provision predominantly affects students and replaces the interim arrangement for this group of third-country nationals that expired August 31. After the deadline passes, those affected by this regulation can remain in Germany for another 90 days and apply for a residence permit.

In summary, victim reports suggest that at least some non-Ukrainian POC experienced discrimination as they were fleeing the war. But it has difficult to prove institutionalized discrimination. That notwithstanding, it is clear that authorities, including German institutions, do treat non-Ukrainian refugees differently when they don't meet certain requirements.

Fleeing Ukraine: 'Bullets and bombs don't know skin colour'

This article has been translated from German. It was written in collaboration with InfoMigrants.