FOCUS on Ukraine: Refugees

Elsie Tierney
S
taff Writer 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, an estimated 3.1 million Ukrainians have fled the country, reported by the Brookings Institution as of March 18.  It is currently estimated that the number may reach 4 million if Russia’s military offensive continues at its current rate.  

The European Union has acted quickly to accommodate the influx of refugees, specifically countries bordering Ukraine including Poland, Hungary, and Romania. Poland and Romania prepared reception facilities with capacities of up to 1 million people each before the war even broke out, according to the International Centre for Migration Policy Development.

The EU unanimously enacted the never-before-used Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) on March 3.  It was developed in 2001 after the Yugoslav Wars during the 1990s and allows for a specific, clearly defined group fleeing a conflict to receive a collective protection status in the EU.  It also allows Ukrainians to move through the EU, unlike national temporary status.  

TPD acts as a symbol of political unity across the EU and openness to the incoming group of refugees.  While the EU has adopted this policy, not every other region has been as welcoming.  The United Kingdom has done next to nothing to help Ukrainians fleeing their country, reports Al Jazeera.  However, while the UK stated that it will not be offering refugee status to Ukrainians, it will try to speed up family unification.    

On Sunday, March 13, the British government announced it would be starting a program called “Homes for Ukraine” wherein the government pays 350 pounds ($456) a month to individuals or charities who host an uncapped number of Ukrainian nationals for at least six months.  This program is aimed at those trying to enter the UK with no family ties.  

This response from the UK isn’t out of the ordinary. The Conservative party-led government is trying to pass the Nationality and Borders Bill through Parliament, which has been criticized by many human rights groups as a legal assault on refugee rights.  Furthermore, UK citizens have been able to enter Ukraine without visas since 2005, yet that policy has never been reciprocated.  

Hungary, which similarly has a long history of opposition to immigration with refusal to accept refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, opened its borders to all refugees fleeing Ukraine, including third-country nationals very early on, says the Associated Press.  However, during the Syrian refugee crisis, Prime Minister Victor Orban legalized pushbacks, put up razor wire fencing, and closed their border with Serbia.

There are some clear motivations for Eastern Europe to be more open in the current refugee crisis.  For example, Ukraine is a neighboring country and there are large Ukrainian diasporas in many countries in Eastern Europe.  Many countries in the region similarly know the experience of living under Soviet aggression.  

The crisis has also ignited debates about the racial part of the EU’s response to this refugee crisis vs. the Syrian refugee crisis.  Currently, in Ukraine, numerous students from Africa and India have gotten stuck in the country.  However, at the borders, buses taking people to safety have only been prioritizing Ukrainian nationals, reports CNN.  There have also been accusations of violence against these students at the borders by Ukrainian or other local police and military.  

These issues are also still prevalent in the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive: it doesn’t clarify if it will protect Ukrainian nationals who are refugees or any refugees fleeing Ukraine.  

In addition, many refugee crises start with an overwhelmingly positive attitude and support from the public. However, this typically fades over time as governments and citizens try to integrate into their new homes.  The second stage of the TPD, where refugees are spread out around the EU into volunteering host countries, may never come to pass because of bureaucratic barriers.

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