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Ukraine war forces EU refugee policy reversal

Bernd Riegert Brussels
March 5, 2022

The European Union wants to take in millions of refugees from Ukraine, in a move that could inadvertently shift the decades-old fight over asylum and migration policy. Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

A crowd of people and a 'refugees welcome' placard in Berlin, Germany
Refugees from Ukraine have been broadly welcomed in the European Union since hostilities began in late FebruaryImage: Müller-Stauffenberg/imago images

Just six weeks ago, Poland began construction on a wall along its border with neighboring Belarus. It was meant to ward off refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who were attempting to reach Europe via Minsk.

The fate of thousands of individuals was up in the air for many days, stuck along the border in freezing temperatures, unable to advance into Poland or return to Belarus.

And now? Just over a week ago, Poland, like all other EU member states, flung its borders open to take in war refugees from Ukraine. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has promised that everyone will be welcomed.

Ukrainians with their belongings wait in front of a refugee facility in Cologne, Germany
Many Ukrainians have made their way to Germany, such as this group waiting to enter their new home in CologneImage: Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance

'A very different response'

"What a difference!," said Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) in Brussels. She, along with a coalition of dozens of aid organizations, has been dealing with migration policy for years.

More than 1 million people have already fled Ukraine in just over a week since Russia invaded on February 24. The EU is expecting as many as 4 million people to make their way into the bloc, in what would be the largest group of refugees in Europe since World War II.

A map of Eastern Europe, showing the routes that refugees are taking

"Europe is able to cope now and it was able to cope in 2015, but of course we see a very different response," said Woollard.

Starting in 2015, roughly 1 million Syrians fleeing civil war arrived in Central Europe via Greece and the Balkan countries. The contentious debate over the distribution of these refugees plunged the EU into an entrenched political battle, one that remains unresolved to this day.

Woollard is pleased that the EU has, so far, reacted very differently with regard to the people fleeing Ukraine. "We appreciate that. We hope that this persists," she said. "Clearly, a collective response to this kind of number makes the situation manageable."

Rare consensus among member states

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson has also been pleasantly surprised at the speed with which EU interior ministers were able to reach a consensus on how to help the people arriving from Ukraine, after years of discord over EU migration policy.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson speaks to reporters
Johansson welcomed the decision to quickly accept all refugees arriving from UkraineImage: Aris Oikonomou/AFP/Getty Images

"I am proud to be a European, I am proud of the solidarity individuals are showing, the local and regional authorities, the border guards, the NGOs, the governments," she said earlier this week, after the EU's 27 interior ministers agreed to quickly accept all refugees arriving from Ukraine.

The ministers promised to guarantee the refugees at least 12 months of residency in any EU nation, and provide them with lodging and health care, school for their children and the right to work. They will be spared the tedious asylum procedures generally imposed on the migrants who have arrived by boat in Italy, Greece or Spain over the last few years.

Pressure eases at some EU-Ukraine crossings

Double standards

Without wanting to criticize the current willingness to help, Woollard said there were clear double standards when it came to migration policy in the EU. This was especially obvious in countries like Poland and Hungary — which has also sealed its southern border with a wall since the migrant crisis in 2015.

"Unfortunately, it is well-established that migration and asylum policies are shaped by factors such as race and religion and country of origin. There are biases in the system. These are issues to be addressed in the long term," she told DW. "We should see this kind of response wherever people in need arrive in Europe."

The EU is using extra cash from an emergency fund to provide assistance to Ukraine's neighbors, especially countries like Romania and Moldova, which are in desperate need of support. Laws stipulating that the country of initial entry into the EU is responsible for processing a refugee are also being waived.

Non-Ukrainians wait longer at border

Ukrainians are now free to travel to other EU states, even if they don't possess the legally required biometric passports. Such rules will not, however, apply to third-country passport holders with residency visas for Ukraine — such as students from Africa.

"They are being helped out of Ukraine. We are working closely with the Ukrainian side. All of them are being welcomed in Europe, [provided] with food and clothes and accommodation," said Johansson, outlining the bloc's approach to these students. "Then we reach out to the third countries where they are coming from ... and they will send planes to pick them up and bring them home."

2022 is not 2015

Johansson said this new solidarity and the "paradigm shift" in refugee policy could potentially affect the EU's contentiously "toxic" migration policies on a broader scale. But why can things be done in 2022 that could not be done in 2015?

Germany's Social Democratic interior minister, Nancy Faeser, doesn't have the answer, but she has a hunch. "The only explanation that I have is that the war is very close. It is in the heart of Europe. The level of concern is different when you see what is going on there," she said.

Now, proposals for legislative reform to EU migration and asylum laws — on the table long before the war in Ukraine — are slated to be hurried along.   

"Every minister at the table agrees we need to move much faster than we have so far. It is often the case that a crisis can resolve a blockade. We have to come to consensus. We have to make progress," said French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin this week. Darmanin currently holds the rotating chair of EU interior ministers during France's six-month tenure as president of the bloc.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser speaks to reporters in Brussels
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said the EU's acceptance of Ukrainian refugees has been 'historic'Image: Dursun Aydem/AA/picture alliance

'The way it is supposed to be'

A quick acceptance of the Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion is also in the EU's own interest, said Woollard. "It has to continue. The risk of panic and paralysis in the EU will only help to serve [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. We have at all costs to avoid a political crisis that we saw in 2015 and 2016," she said. 

Back then, the bloc was split between those EU countries that utterly rejected migrants and those that were willing to accept them, with contentious debates over so-called "refugee caps" or "upper limits." Over time, the general policy of deterrence largely prevailed, and borders were sealed off. Asylum procedures, which were supposed to be dealt with directly at the bloc's outer borders, still have yet to be fully implemented.

But the EU's handling of the refugee influx so far in 2022 has been "adequate and collective, as it needs to be," said Woollard.

Traumatized children flee war in Ukraine

 This article has been translated from German by Jon Shelton

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union