War in Ukraine Could Overhaul Europe’s Broken Asylum System

COntrition in politics is not common, particularly when it concerns the controversial issue of immigration. So when a senior European Union official lamented on March 23 that the bloc’s response to the 2015 refugee crisis had been “a failure,” it appeared to mark a turning point in a region where attitudes towards refugees have grown increasingly hostile.

The E.U.’s arrival was the key to the soul-searching of Ylva Johansson (Home Affairs Commissioner). Over 3.5 million Ukrainians. And on the surface, much has changed since Russia’s invasion of its neighbour on Feb. 24.

There has been unexpected support for those fleeing from war in Europe amid an outpouring on goodwill. A populist Italian politician on trial for blocking migrant rescue ships has offered to bus Ukrainians to his country; a British newspaper that published an article calling refugees “cockroaches” ran an appeal for the war victims; Eastern European nations that refused to take part in E.U.-wide refugee relocation schemes are now bearing the greatest burden with apparent grace and generosity.

However, advocates for refugees believe that the E.U. will be forced to address this crisis. While advocates for refugees hope that this new crisis will force the E.U. to reform its flawed asylum system and offer a warm reception to all refugees, others fear that the same mistakes of 2015 could lead to a deterioration in the international community’s goodwill.

“We have to be able to scale up dramatically to receive fellow Europeans in their hour of greatest need,” says Jan Egeland, a former U.N. diplomat who is now Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We have to work hard now for the generosity and the open door policy to sustain itself. It is a fight for the soul of Europe.”

He recalls the early summer 2015 when #RefugeesWelcome was a popular slogan in Europe. More than 1,000,000 people arrived to join the movement that was sparked in part by the civil war in Syria. But the positivity swiftly turned to hostility as the bloc’s chaotic mismanagement of the new arrivals was exploited by far right and populist forces. “To avoid the Refugees Welcome moment disappearing this time,” Egeland says, “there has to be governmental and public responsibility-sharing, complimented by volunteers.”

Ukrainians started fleeing Russian aggression, and began crossing the border into E.U. It was obvious that refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia were treated differently in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Hungary.

Suggestions from some European commentators and politicians that Ukrainian refugees deserved greater empathy than people from the Middle East or Africa—including the Bulgarian President who said they were “intelligent… educated people” unlike other refugees who could be “terrorists”—provoked outcry, as did reports that people of color attempting to flee Ukraine faced racism and discrimination.

Continue reading: They called Ukraine their home. However, they faced violence and racism when trying to flee Ukraine.

Different governments responded in different ways. The response of governments also varied. Three months ago Poland forced asylum-seekers, men and women from all walks of life, back across the Belarusian border. There, people died in the forest. Hungarian President Viktor Orban has referred to people seeking asylum as “poison” and a “terror risk.” Both nations have repeatedly blocked E.U. It has refused to participate in relocation programs for refugees and efforts to reform the refugee system.

They are now at the forefront of this conflict: Poland hosts 2.3 million Ukrainians, while Hungary is home to 365,000. The E.U. responded by activating its Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) for the first time. The E.U. activated the Temporary Protection Directive for Ukraine (TPD) in response. This means that Ukrainians who arrive in E.U. countries will be able to live, work and travel freely. All citizens of Ukraine have the right to travel, live, work and attend school in any E.U. country. country.

For Lina Vosyliūtė, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, the move demonstrates awareness of the shortcomings of the “lengthy and degrading” E.U. asylum process. “It would have been impossible to process people via the current migration and asylum system, which would mean people being detained in hot spots or temporary locations until they get their asylum papers,” she explains.

It was the E.U.’s reluctance to activate the TPD in 2015 that prompted Ylva Johansson’s contrition. “It really was a failure of the European Union,” she told an event organized in Brussels by Politico Europe. “It has been my task to try and make migration an ordinary, boring E.U. Policy area in which we may disagree [but] it’s not toxic, it’s not for drama queens…. It’s not toxic, it’s not for drama queens. [in 2015].”

The E.U. is responsible for getting the migration problem under control and ensuring that reforms are implemented without political conflicts. How will the E.U. manage the large number of Ukrainians in the coming months?

“A lot can go well or go wrong,” says Camille le Coz, a senior policy analyst with Migration Policy Institute Europe. “Right now, there is a very high level of support for hosting refugees, but we have seen in the past how this could vanish quite quickly.”

Continue reading: ‘I Have No Other Choice.’ The Mothers Returning to Ukraine to Rescue Their Children

TPD provides Ukrainians with many rights similar to those granted by the E.U. the right to reside in Ukraine for at least one year. However, it is unclear how countries will apply this. Where will the Ukrainians be hosted? Which schools will cope with the situation? Which trauma support will they get? How will the government assist them to find housing and work?

Egeland is concerned that there has been little evidence of a coordinated European response to the arrivals. Individual countries have dealt with them on an individual basis, often depending on civil society and volunteers for care. “Improvization is not the best way to meet the largest challenge in European history since the Second World War.”

To discuss the sharing of responsibility in hosting the Ukrainian refugees and how to continue funding and support, he is calling on the E.U., the other affected European nations, and U.N. members to attend a conference. He stresses that this should not come at the cost of aid to countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Yeman in times of crisis.

“That is my fear: that it is going to be dramatically worse in other crisis areas because all eyes and increasing resources are turned to Europe,” he says.

Global mismanagement of the response to the Ukraine war could have even broader implications for the world’s refugees. In addition to aid money being diverted and rising grain prices, there could also be a rise in food insecurity in many parts of the world. A deterioration between world power relations may lead to peace diplomacy becoming paralyzed.

That means war in Ukraine may end up creating more refugees elsewhere, but Le Coz warns there will be less hope of them being resettled in richer nations: “There may be less political appetite for resettlement if Europeans say ‘We are already hosting millions of refugees from Ukraine, we cannot host other refugees from other parts of the world.’”

It is still early days in the crisis, however, and Europe’s politicians have the chance to learn the lessons from the past and live up to the optimism and goodwill shown by their citizens.

“I hope there is a reckoning,” says Egeland, “and also an understanding that we don’t become poorer as society by receiving refugees and people who need protection. We become richer.”

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