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The E.U. granted Ukrainian refugees temporary protection. Why the different response from past migrant crises?

People who fled the war in Ukraine wait for relocation at the train station in Krakow, Poland, on March 15. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)
6 min

In the three weeks since Russia’s invasion, nearly 3 million Ukrainians have fled to Europe. In response, the Council of the European Union activated its Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) for the first time. The directive allows all Ukrainians visa-free travel in the E.U. and the right to work, education, housing and health care for one year.

Offering Ukrainian refugees E.U.-wide temporary protection is only the most recent result of the bloc’s discussion over more unified migration policies. In the past 20 years, the E.U. has repeatedly used crises to expand its powers in governing migration, adding new migration agencies, joint operations with individual countries, and regional funding.

But despite efforts to create more equitable asylum systems, decisions about who receives protection in the E.U. largely depend on race, geopolitics and a country’s ability to host refugees.

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Temporary Protection Directive

In 2001, the Council of the E.U. adopted the Temporary Protection Directive as part of the bloc’s effort to build a unified approach to asylum. The E.U. can activate the TPD if there’s a “mass influx” of displaced people. The program is designed to remove pressure on a few national asylum systems near the external borders by spreading the migrants across all E.U. members.

The TPD is not a legal status and is not equivalent to asylum, refugee or subsidiary protection. Rather, it is a blanket decision that allows Ukrainians to apply for temporary residence permits in any E.U. country. Those governments are now required to roll out temporary accommodation, aid and access to education and work. Because the TPD is group-based, non-Ukrainians who need help — such as African or Indian students, or Belarusians and Russians who were living in Ukraine — do not qualify unless they prove they were legal residents in Ukraine.

Europe’s double standards

Europe is no stranger to migration crises. Last August, thousands of asylum seekers attempted to cross into the E.U. from Belarus, only to be pushed back by Polish border guards. Unlike now, the E.U. supported Poland, Latvia and Lithuania in detaining these asylum seekers and limiting their rights.

Following the 2011 Arab Spring, 40,000 people sought asylum in Italy within a few months. Italy and Malta requested the activation of the TPD but didn’t receive enough support in the E.U. Council.

And during the 2015 “long summer of migration,” as some called it, the E.U. never activated the TPD. Instead, the bloc created a quota system to relocate some 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy throughout its member countries. This system broke down when Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic refused to accept Muslim refugees.

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Why did the E.U. finally activate the TPD now?

The most obvious reason is discrimination. The E.U. is generously opening its borders to White Christian Ukrainians, but refused equal protection to Syrians, Afghans and other non-White asylum seekers. Journalists and politicians are not hiding their bias when they welcome Ukrainians because they are “relatively civilized, relatively European” or due to their cultural or religious similarities.

The second reason is geopolitical: The same E.U. members (Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) that blocked the TPD in 2015 need help today.

The E.U.’s Dublin system requires asylum seekers to apply in the first E.U. country they enter, which, if kept in place as it was in 2015, means Poland, Hungary and Slovakia would be responsible for all 3 million Ukrainian asylum applications and for offering them housing, education and aid. These countries opposed unified E.U. migration policies when they were not directly affected, but flipped when Ukrainians started arriving at their train stations.

The third reason is state capacity, or governments’ abilities to implement migration policies. The European Commission and Council consider capacity — such as the number of border guards, asylum officers, doctors, beds in reception centers — when deciding how to respond to migration crises. They also consider whether it can trust its members to actually carry out E.U. policies as they were intended.

My recent book shows that the E.U. delegated much of the responsibility to the United Nations for helping refugees in Greece in 2015 because that government lacked the capacity and political will to implement European policies. In contrast, Italy had more capacity and was committed to E.U. policies, and so the bloc channeled emergency refugee funding through the Italian government. The E.U. could allocate billions for humanitarian aid for refugees — as it did in 2015 — but is unlikely to trust Eastern European governments, especially when they have actively undermined E.U. values. Instead, they could again delegate much of the implementation of refugee aid to the U.N. or other humanitarian NGOs.

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Lessons from 2015

The E.U. could draw many lessons from its 2015 experience. For example, while the E.U. quota system was designed to share the burden among its members, national governments put up too much red tape to implement it in practice. When formal schemes are too cumbersome, people relocate through their own social networks. Just now, many Ukrainians are staying with family and friends throughout E.U. countries with a large Ukrainian diaspora.

While much of Europe is welcoming Ukrainians, experience suggests this will not last. In 2015, an initial outpouring of good will, donations and volunteers met a backlash. Some governments restricted civil society groups and arrested volunteers helping refugees; politicians who welcomed refugees lost popularity in subsequent elections.

The E.U. used the 2015 crisis to expand its governance of migration policies. For example, it increased the budget and staff of Frontex, renamed the agency the European Border and Coast Guard, and granted the EBCG enhanced powers to organize joint deportations with E.U. members. The E.U. also created what it called “hotspots” where its agencies took on new roles screening and interviewing new arrivals on the Greek islands.

The E.U. could use the Ukrainian crisis as an opportunity to further Europeanize migration policies. The TPD, necessary for the immediate crisis, will embolden E.U. migration agencies to be more active. The crisis will also add momentum to the proposed New Pact on Migration and Asylum.

The Ukraine crisis shows that the E.U. can and does cooperate on migration when it wants to — however, this is shaped by internal politics.

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Nicholas R. Micinski (@nickmicinski) is Libra Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Maine and author most recently of Delegating Responsibility: International Cooperation on Migration in the European Union (University of Michigan Press, 2022).