Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Europe is facing its largest migrant crisis since 2015 when 1.3 million migrants applied for asylum in the 28 European Union (EU) member states, Norway, and Switzerland. The majority of the asylum seekers in 2015 originated from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Many were fleeing conflicts, both long-standing and fresh, including the Syrian civil war. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, 12 million people have left their homes. This vastly exceeds the previous record of 700,000 in 1992 after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union.
Five million Ukrainians have successfully fled to other countries and seven million are still displaced in Ukraine. The EU unanimously enacted the never before used Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) on March 3. The TPD was developed in 2001 after the Yugoslav Wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. It allows a specific, clearly defined group fleeing a conflict to receive a collective protection status in the EU. Unlike national temporary status, this also allows Ukrainians to move through the EU to reunite with their personal ties.
In the specific instance of Ukrainian refugees, the TPD gives them residence permits to stay in the European bloc for one year, which can be renewed for as long as three years. Under the TPD, Ukrainian refugees and their families are granted access to education, health, employment, and housing. This protection can be granted in any EU country, not just the first country the refugee arrives in.
With the implementation of the TPD, the EU is showing what has been deemed, “uncharacteristic flexibility” for those who were forced to flee their homes without passports or any other means of identification. The European Commission says that member states can relax border controls and allow people to enter, so they can be brought to a safe location where ID checks are then conducted.
The TPD does not automatically grant these refugees asylum status. For those under this special protection regulation, they can submit asylum applications at any point during their stay. However, there inevitably will be backlogs of asylum cases due to the substantial number of people entering the EU in search of asylum. 3.5 million Ukrainians had already registered for temporary protection in the EU by the end of June 2022.
There are a lot of bureaucratic hurdles that the EU must overcome to ensure these people are not stuck in limbo. Some of the smaller, poorer countries—such as Moldova or Slovakia—do not have much space capacity, and, due to their geographic location, are prime destination countries for these Ukrainian refugees. Any Ukrainians seeking asylum in the United States and join family members there are having difficulty crossing the ocean. The Biden administration has offered to take 100,000 people, which is nothing compared to how many are displaced in Europe.
Europe responded to the Ukrainian refugee crisis incredibly quickly and was much more accommodating than the region has been in the past to incoming refugees. Many observers have noted as this conflict progresses that many other refugees have often been shunned by Western countries, while fleeing Ukrainians have been welcomed. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of Amnesty International Ukraine stated, “this is the biggest armed conflict or war since the Second World War in Europe, which might be one of the reasons why the level of solidarity is higher in European countries.” Despite this, he also noted the “double standard” in the treatment of refugees that this crisis has revealed. He cited an incident that occurred at the end of June 2022 in which 23 migrants died during an attempt to flee to Spain from Morocco. The United Nations denounced the authorities on the Spanish Moroccan border for using, “excessive force” and deeming it, “unacceptable.”
Pokalchuk emphasized that different refugee groups had not been treated equally in their reception by EU members, citing instances within the Ukrainian refugee crisis that were racialized, including non-nationals living in Ukraine at the time of the invasion who did not speak the local language, the majority of whom were students from Africa and India. Many of those students became trapped in Ukraine. At the borders, busses taking people to safety have been prioritizing Ukrainian nationals. There have been accusations that the Ukrainian or other local police and military have committed acts of violence against these students at the borders.
Since the migrant crisis in 2015, Europe implemented external border controls which reduced irregular arrivals to the EU by 90 percent. There is a general theme that can be noted in migration policies in the EU in the past seven years. The response in 2015 focused mostly on strengthening the borders and managing the different routes migrants were taking. The most recent response in 2022, focuses on those things as well, but there are also more policies directly related to humanitarian aid. The response in 2022 is significantly more immediate than in 2015.
A direct example of this is on April 4, 2022, when approximately $17 billion of EU funds became available to help refugees from Ukraine. The European Council (EC) adopted a new regulation on Cohesion Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE) which allows for the quick release of cohesion policy funding. In addition to this, member states of the EC were allowed to use the Recovery Assistance for Cohesion and the Territories of Europe (REACT-EU) which was created as one of the largest post-pandemic EU public investment programs.
On the opposite end, the policies adopted in 2015-2016 did not focus on humanitarian aid as urgently as the current response. On September 23, 2015, there was an informal meeting with the heads of state or government in the EU. They set a list of priorities for action, including responding to urgent needs of refugees, assisting the Western Balkan countries in managing their refugee influx, and handling the situation at the EU’s external borders— but this was only a discussion. On October 8, 2015, there was a conference held to address the Western Balkan routes, marking the first step to addressing any of these issues.
The first concrete step towards humanitarian aid did not come until February 3, 2016, in which the member states agreed to finance an approximately $3 billion EU refugee facility for Turkey that would allow the EU to deliver more humanitarian assistance to the refugees in Turkey and their host communities. More of the same came on February 4, 2016, when the former EC president Donald Tusk announced an approximately $3 billion contribution to assist the Syrian people, both in the country as well refugees who had already fled.
While these each were a step in the right direction, these reactions were nowhere near as urgent as the policies put forward in 2022. Hungary closed its borders on September 15, 2015, barring anyone from entering the country. Upon this move, the UN refugee agency warned refugees could, “find themselves moving around in legal limbo” and different border control measures by European states “only underlines the urgency of establishing a comprehensive European response.”
2015 may have taught the EU lesson because their response in 2022 was much more comprehensive, unified, and prepared than their response in 2015. Regardless of whatever policy responses happened in the past, there is an ongoing refugee crisis now that needs to be addressed.
The migrant crisis is a direct result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine but another direct result of this is the current energy crisis in Europe. There is an energy scarcity in Eastern Europe right now due to Russia curbing gas exports. The uncertain energy supply is causing an unprecedented price increase across the EU. Market intervention, protectionism and price capping have become part of the transatlantic energy policy agenda. In the EU, the highest inflation rate due to this gas shortage was in Estonia at 20.1 percent. However, the effects of this were felt all over the world with the U.S. reaching a 40-year high of 8.6 percent inflation in May 2022. There are also major fuel shortages in Ukraine due to the war. Before the war, 80 percent of the country’s fuel was imported, mostly by rail from Russian ally, Belarus.
There are some steps currently being taken to help this situation. The Slovak Economy Minister Richard Sulík announced that the Druzhba pipeline, which delivers Russian oil to Central Europe could be converted to send this fuel back into Ukraine. Additionally, the Ukrainian energy company Ukrtransnafta recently signed a contract with the Hungary-based company MOL to upgrade infrastructure and supply to 35,000 tons of fuel per month. However, the current delivery capacity is a maximum 5,000 tons per month— a seventh of Ukraine’s monthly fuel consumption.
Ukraine and the rest of the EU need to find a solution to the energy crisis before winter. This situation is exacerbated by the extensive damage to many of the buildings in Ukraine’s urban center. Even if there was enough fuel for heating, there are houses with shattered windows and general damage which would require more energy. The UNHCR has already published a winterization strategy that includes handing out building materials to Ukrainians.
The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has cause Europe to encounter its largest migrant crisis since 2015. The response in 2022 has been far more urgent and more based in humanitarian aid than in 2015, which could be due to preparedness or solidarity, but it could also be due to racial biases. Overall, this invasion has caused widespread problems including an energy crisis that will worsen the effects of the migrant crisis as well.