The EU’s welcoming of Ukraine refugees: remarkable or discriminatory?

This article was written by Joana Purves, Mathilda Grivell, and Thomas Leroux.

Cast your minds back to February 2022: the Russian full scale invasion of Ukraine forced millions to flee their homes, in search of refuge. As many of them headed westwards, all eyes turned to Brussels, to see how the European Union would respond. Just a few years prior, hostility was shown by several member states towards refugees and migrants coming from outside the EU and the political backlash led to the rise of far-right anti-immigrant rhetoric becoming increasingly visible and powerful in EU politics. This time, the EU showed a compassionate and coordinated response towards those fleeing Ukraine, albeit showing worrying signs of double standards within their migration policies. In this edition of Insights by OCC, we talked to Kama Petruczenko from the British Refugee Council; Marzena Zukowska, co-director of POMOC, a UK-based immigrants rights organisation; and Leah Zamore, an author, a human rights professor, and vice-chair of the board of directors of Asylum Access, to explore the EU’s remarkable response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis as well as highlighting the contrast with previous responses. 

A surprisingly proactive response

Following the full-scale invasion, the EU triggered its 2001 Temporary Protection Directive for the first time in its history to help support those fleeing Ukraine. The directive grants temporary protection to those fleeing conflict, allowing them access to a residence permit, rights to work, access to housing, education, medical care and banking services in any EU country. In this situation, the directive applied to all Ukrainian nationals and nationals of a third nation who had international protection or equivalent in Ukraine. In addition to the directive, the Council of Europe adopted legislative amendments making it possible for member states to redirect resources to assist the refugees and pledged €17 billion in April 2022. Assistance also took the form of administrative and logistical support, such as allowing displaced persons from Ukraine to exchange up to 10 000 hryvnias to euros free of charge, the setting up of specific advice lines, translation of information into Ukrainian, and more.

Europe was unified in the sense that the majority of member states responded proactively. Countries in Eastern Europe felt the brunt of the crisis and were compelled to respond rapidly as they were the first port of call for Ukrainian refugees in the first few weeks of the war. According to Marzena Zukowska, in many of those countries, civil society played a large role in responding to and coordinating long-term provisions for Ukrainian refugees. Poland received the largest number of refugees fleeing Ukraine and its response was therefore immediate by default of location. Whilst 1.5 million refugees were granted temporary protection within the first 10 months of the conflict, the response from the Polish government was reactive, providing short-term accommodation, food and other necessities for those crossing the border (UNHCR, 2023). 

Overall, the EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been positive and demonstrates the ability to both adapt and introduce policies that allow refugees to be housed, to work and integrate into the host country. This generosity towards Ukrainian refugees should be celebrated and in no way criticised but it does demonstrate the stark difference in responses to refugees fleeing the global south. Triggering the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time since it was created in 2001 demonstrates the urgency by which EU states responded to the war but begs the question as to why it took 21 years for the directive to be triggered despite the number of equally destructive conflicts and wars that took place within that time frame.

The reasons why the directive was triggered in 2022 are varied and debatable. It could be argued that one of the reasons was to portray a sympathetic response to the crisis to the rest of the world. It is worth noting that when the war broke out in 2014 in Donbas, Eastern Ukraine, the directive was not triggered and there was significantly less media coverage of the war. Consequently there was less of a coordinated response amongst EU states, particularly from those in the West. The widespread media coverage of the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 placed pressure on EU states to respond accordingly and demonstrate to EU citizens that there was a sense of compassion and empathy for those that are close to us in both location and in the values they uphold. In 2014, this response wasn’t being showcased in the same way to the rest of the world, which highlights the power of the media in influencing European society’s attitudes towards refugees.

The double standard

As said previously, the reception of Ukrainians, as simply put by Leah Zamore, “relatively remarkable”, “extremely generous”, “exactly as it should be” and following the Geneva convention on refugees. Yet, the welcoming of refugees or migrants from other parts of the world following other conflicts (apart from the start of the Syrian Civil War), has been done in a very different way, as the EU barricaded itself in and turned into “Fortress Europe”, as Marena Zukowska highlights. This was done by building large walls, and investing considerably in FRONTEX (EU border guard service), which handles migrants and refugees in an often extreme and violent manner. 

As Zamore points out, this was exposed more than ever when “at the [Ukrainian] borders, you saw a sort of sorting [system] where Ukrainians were let through pretty much with ease with an open door policy. And then there was still the closed door policy for everybody else”. This is a reference to nationals from Global South countries fleeing Ukraine, but were blocked at the Ukrainian border or pulled off trains to prioritise Ukrainian nationals (Ovuorie, 2022).

Kama Petruczenko voiced the same concern, stating “we treat [Ukrainian refugees] with a quite big degree of compassion and provide legal support […] and then there is everyone else who is not really getting that level of protection and support from European states.”

The double standard in EU migration laws, as said by Leah Zamore, has become “too obvious to ignore at this point” and  “is not mentioned as often as it should be”.

Why this is happening is a layered issue. There are some clear links to geopolitics as well as a greater cultural proximity, but also to the deeper issues of the colonial mentality that still remains in Europe and to systematic and ingrained racism and islamophobia which is found within the migration system, politics and within the populations of the West, as Marzena Zukowska highlights.

This is something that Western governments should be strongly concerned about. As said by Leah Zamore, the optics and the impression that this gives the EU in terms of public image is terrible, and can play a role in future geopolitics. In today’s world where we are seeing a potential future movement of “non aligned” countries, influence through image and good practice, might be crucial.

Greece’s case

Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, around 25,000 Ukrainians have been granted temporary protection in Greece, allowing them access to various resources including accommodation. However, as there was already a significant Ukrainian community in Greece before the war started, many who have arrived since 2022 have tended to stay with friends or family rather than in state-provided accommodation. 

Refugees from Afghanistan make up the largest group of asylum seekers in Greece: more than 37,000 Afghan nationals submitted asylum applications last year (Smith, 2022). In contrast to Ukrainians, Afghans have tended to have much longer waiting periods before being granted refugee status and are not allowed the same immediate access to work or accommodation. 

Indeed, despite Greece’s de-facto policy of pushing back migrants at its borders, Ukrainian refugees arriving in Greece have been greeted more generously by both local media and the country’s administration (Zafeiropoulos, 2022). The Greek minister of Migration and Asylum publicly pledged support and humanitarian assistance to those fleeing Ukraine in 2022, justifying this support by stating that Ukrainians were “real refugees”, a statement with no real basis in international or EU law but that brings to the fore Europe’s clear selectivity when it comes to the nationality of refugees arriving at its borders (Protonotariou et al 2022).

Remarkable and discriminatory

Europe finds itself at a crossroad about how to deal with refugees. The welcoming of Ukrainian refugees was done in a remarkable way, and many directives were triggered which aided their arrival and integration into society. This shows that Europe has the tools and the capacity to deal with large arrivals with very little notice, but it needs civil society on a grassroot level to support governments and institutions. 

To get this support, the media plays a major role in the coverage of conflict and the arrival of refugees, and they can influence the narrative that grassroots society has on the events. This could be a way to counter the double standards we currently see within EU borders, which, if continued, will have negative long-term consequences within future potential “non-aligned” countries. Thus, it will be of vital interest for the EU to make the welcoming of refugees “an area where Europe leads”, according to Zamore. Moreover, the actions taken for welcoming refugees from Ukraine could become a “new kind of floor” for the EU, and they could build on its momentum. As it is usually said, where there’s a will, there’s a way.


Ukraine Now aims to raise awareness across Europe about refugee movements after media coverage decreases, in order to develop new approaches to communication on migration and facilitate the inclusion of displaced people into local communities. It brings together four organisations at the European level: Mareena (Slovakia), ARCA (Romania), OCC (Greece), and OCC (Spain).

This project is co-funded by the European Union through Erasmus+.

Sources

Kapetanopoulo (2022). Refugee good…. only white, EphSyn, available at: https://www.efsyn.gr/kosmos/eyropi/334065_prosfygas-kalos-mono-leykos

Protonotariou et al. (2022). Ukraine war: the “real” refugees and the lies of the Greek government, Solomon, available at: https://wearesolomon.com/mag/focus-area/migration/ukraine-war-the-real-refugees-and-the-lies-of-the-greek-government/ 

Smith (2022). Afghans left in legal limbo in Greece while ‘real refugees’ helped to settle, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/oct/03/afghans-left-in-legal-limbo-greece-while-real-refugees-helped-to-settle

Zafeiropoulos (2022). Ukrainians welcome, “other” refugees unwelcome, Mediterranean Institute of Investigative Journalism, available at: https://www.efsyn.gr/ellada/dikaiomata/372865_eyprosdektoi-oi-oykranoi-anepithymitoi-oi-alloi-prosfyges

Ovuorie (2022). Escape from Ukraine: Nigerian student starts over in Germany, dw.com, available at: https://www.dw.com/en/from-nigeria-to-ukraine-to-germany-nigerian-student-resumes-studies/a-63692509 (Accessed: 29 November 2023). 

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