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The EU’s real refugee policy: Division and delay

When it comes to refugees, the European Union’s treatment of those fleeing the war in Ukraine is the exception — to a dark and deadly rule. 

The millions of Ukrainians who have sought refuge in the EU have received a very different welcome from those fleeing other conflicts, including the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, where some of the bloc’s countries have been directly involved. 

Just as the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine upended EU policies on everything from NATO expansion to where the bloc sources its energy, the EU’s approach to refugees was quickly revisited. 

Where European capitals largely responded to previous conflicts with efforts to stop asylum seekers from arriving, Ukrainians were quickly given a temporary status that grants them many of the same rights to live and work in the EU as the bloc’s own citizens. 

It is the first time the EU has agreed to grant these rights, under a legislative mechanism called the Temporary Protection Directive that was introduced in 2001 after the Balkan wars as a response to the kind of mass influx of displaced persons the war has produced.   

The response to the war in Ukraine stands in sharp contrast to the reaction to other high-profile mass movements, such as those sparked by the war in Syria and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last summer after Western forces pulled out. While thousands of refugees from those conflicts were welcomed, the Temporary Protection Directive was not activated, and the broader effort was geared toward preventing asylum seekers from arriving.

The disparity in the approach has prompted accusations of racism from inside and outside Europe.

“The Russian-Ukrainian war revealed the ugly face of Europe. It showed their racism against Arab and African immigrants despite all the human rights slogans,” wrote Marwa El-Shinawy, an academic and regular columnist for Daily News Egypt. European governments “seem to believe that the protection of refugees is a right for Europeans only and that the rest of the races are not human beings,” she added.

Whether or not the disparity in the response is an indication of racism, it once again raises important questions about one of the EU’s biggest pieces of unfinished business: How to manage migration — especially when it comes to people seeking refuge from conflict or persecution.

Will the current crisis, which is already reshuffling coalitions among EU countries, mark a step-change in attitudes? Will the empathy that has been extended to Ukrainians be extended to those fleeing other conflicts?

Many NGOs and experts POLITICO spoke to who have tried to influence EU policy in recent years are skeptical. “I’m quite pessimistic, whether the current situation will mean a break,” said Evelien van Roemburg, head of the EU office at Oxfam.

The influx from Ukraine is the latest in a series of shocking and deadly events over the past decade that have prompted calls for a reform of the EU’s migration policy. All the previous efforts have failed, mired in infighting among EU governments reluctant to take in foreigners.

It remains to be seen whether the impetus for change created by the biggest refugee crisis since World War II will suffer the same fate.

If shock and compassion were all that was required to build a EU-wide migration policy, the bloc would have one by now.

Shock and compassion was exactly the response to the sinking of a 27-meter long fishing boat packed with over 800 people off the Italian island of Lampedusa in April 2015.

It was the deadliest maritime disaster in the sea off Europe’s southern coast for decades. The ship had issued a distress call, and a nearby Portuguese container ship, the King Jacob, answered it.

But most of the desperate passengers perished in the black water after their novice captain, Mohammed Ali Malek, accidentally rammed into the side of the massive container ship, sinking the migrant vessel. Many of those on board were locked in below deck. Hundreds drowned.

Rescuers were “literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water,” then Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in the aftermath of the tragedy. Just 28 people were pulled from the sea alive, including Malek, who later received an 18-year sentence for manslaughter and human trafficking.

The shipwreck was far from the first or the last in the Mediterranean, but it provided a political jolt to the EU, and within days, a special meeting of European leaders had pledged to get to grips with the issue by creating a “more systemic and geographically comprehensive approach to migration.”

It was the start of a push at the EU level to find a bloc-wide solution to the migration issue. It was also one of the first signs of the number of migrants who were about to come to Europe between 2015 and 2016, mainly from war-torn Syria.

In September 2015, after a summer in which hundreds of thousands had crossed European borders in search of safety and a better life, then Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker devoted a large chunk of his State of the Union speech to the migration crisis. He cajoled European leaders to meet the issue with compassion and substantive action.

“Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hungry and weary souls. Europe is the students in Munich and in Passau who bring clothes for the new arrivals at the train station. Europe is the policeman in Austria who welcomes exhausted refugees upon crossing the border. This is the Europe I want to live in,” he told members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

“We need more Europe in our asylum policy. We need more Union in our refugee policy.”

“I know what it feels like to have nothing”

Baker Dionysis Arvanitakis
Kos, Greece

Two weeks after Juncker’s speech, the effort was already falling apart. A Council vote on a plan to mandate the relocation of 120,000 refugees across the bloc triggered a backlash from some countries in the east, including Hungary and Slovakia, that opposed mandatory quotas. The Commission and the Luxembourg presidency of the Council decided to push the vote through using the qualified majority system, instead of insisting on the need for unanimity — opening a wound with migration-wary countries that has not healed.

“We would have preferred it to have been adopted by consensus, but we did not manage that. It was not for want of trying, I hasten to add,” Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s minister for immigration and asylum, declared regretfully at the time.

It was a foretaste of a succession of failed efforts to find agreement on the issue.

So far, EU countries have been reluctant to see migration as a bloc-wide problem, preferring to view the issue from their own vantage points. Those national lenses are heavily focused by politics and geography.

The bloc’s so-called Dublin regulation dictates that migrants must stay in the EU country they first arrive in, but southern countries like Greece and Italy — which until the Ukraine war received the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving in the EU — argue they cannot manage the problem on their own. They insist on mandatory solidarity mechanisms that allow migrants to be dispersed among other member states.

Their calls for solidarity have been repeatedly rejected by countries in the east, such as Poland and Hungary. Meanwhile northerners like the Netherlands have pushed for strict procedures to register arrivals and the bloc as a whole has pumped more money into the one thing it can agree on: tougher border control to keep migrants out.

“Nobody has any illusions that we can solve the problem today”

Donald Tusk, then president of the European Council. April 23, 2015.

Time since the first special Council summit on migration.

More than seven years after the April 2015 tragedy in the Mediterranean and despite thousands more deaths, the bloc is not much closer to a unified migration policy.

Last summer, even with an international crisis unfolding in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the prospect of a bloc-wide deal looked as far away as ever. In a statement on the situation, EU interior ministers, far from extending protections to Afghans, vowed to “prevent illegal migration from the region.”

The language — moving from the neutral “irregular” to the more ideological “illegal” —  marked a highly significant shift.

The European Commission itself argues that the phrase is damaging: “Terms such as illegal, undocumented, non-documented, and unauthorised migration can have different connotations in national policy debates. Due to this and the association with criminality, the term ‘illegal migration’ should be avoided, as most irregular migrants are not criminals.”

The big question looming over the EU’s migration debate today is to what extent the war in Ukraine will change it. The crisis has given some migration-skeptic countries new perspectives. Poland for example, traditionally a hard-liner, has found itself on the front line for arrivals.

This week, the mayor of Warsaw, which has experienced a 15 percent increase in population due to the incoming refugees, called on the EU institutions to create a centralized “platform” to facilitate the relocation of refugees. “[That] would work much better than just individual countries dealing with the Ukrainian problem on their own,” he told Bloomberg.

That has made some diplomats more optimistic. “When you see [Polish Prime Minister] Morawiecki going to Berlin to ask for solidarity on Ukraine sanctions, and then that solidarity arrives — it makes me think that’s a two-way street and that sooner or later the solidarity shown to Poland will come back,” argued a diplomat who works on migration files.

These new perspectives may also boost the Commission’s latest effort, unveiled late last month, to create legal routes to long-term residency for migrants.

Others, though, fear that as the initial shock of the invasion dissipates and economic hardships across the EU start to bite, the generous spirit toward Ukrainian refugees will wane — as it did with Syrian migrants before.

“If the situation is protracted … then I fear that the wave of solidarity might exhaust itself and provoke a backlash, which would make things more difficult,” Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, told POLITICO in a recent interview.

Leïla Bodeux, who works on migration policy at the Catholic NGO Caritas Europe, said that while Ukraine’s location and political ties to Europe partly explain the warmer welcome, her colleagues are troubled by the difference in the response to Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine.

“Several of our member organizations that are supporting all migrants and refugee regardless of the color, the countries of origin, are also worried by what … we can call ‘double treatments.'”

Still, Bodeux hopes that the empathy shown by so many Europeans for the plight of Ukrainian refugees — donating money for relief efforts and opening their homes — will bring wider changes.

It’s possible, she said, “that some people can realize that why a Syrian has made the decision to come to Europe is not so far away from why a Ukrainian has taken the same decision.”

A simple realization like that, she added, could transform the migration debate.

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