EU’s Solidarity With Ukraine Shows No Two Refugees Are The Same

Europe hugs war-torn neighbour with one hand, but continues to push back refugees from the rest of the world with the other.

 

As Afghan refugee Jamal hid behind fruit cartons on a goods carrier from Tehran to Maku, hiked a mountain range to Turkey, boarded an unventilated freight container from Istanbul to Trieste in Italy and crossed the Channel Tunnel from Sangatte in France to London precariously perched underneath a lorry, he was living the life of a million refugees who embark on treacherous journeys to what they presume as safe spots in Europe. Twenty years into the release of In this World, a docudrama by British director Michael Winterbottom, dreams are still bought on the intangible assurances of people smugglers, the dangerous routes to safety are still in demand and the paths to refuge, as always, are fraught with perils of claustrophobia.

According to mid-2021 data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 26.6 million refugees in this world. Global forced displacements have spiked to 84 million from 79.5 million in 2019-end. The recent war in Ukraine has only exacerbated the problem, with 5.8 million people having crossed the country’s borders as per the UN data. Neighbouring Poland has taken in 3.1 million so far, while favourable border policies have helped Ukrainians to travel further west to enter Germany. The latest UN statistics say 2.4 million refugees moved beyond countries neighbouring Ukraine following the February 24 Russian invasion, with around 500,000 arriving in Germany.

Germany has been the most accommodating of countries when the refugee influx from war/terror-hit Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq choked European shores in 2015. According to the country’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, Germany received over 1.6 million asylum applications between 2015 and 2019. Additionally, the country’s interior ministry claims to have granted admission to 18,800 Afghans, after the Taliban captured power last August. However, the war in Ukraine has turned the tables on many of these refugees as they are now being allegedly forced out of their shelters to make way for those arriving from Ukraine. 

According to Foreign Policy, Afghan refugees were told to clear out their homes for Ukrainians at short notice. Though they were provided with alternative government-paid accommodation, they had either shared bathrooms or kitchens or both. The government justified its action, saying Afghan refugees were evicted from “arrival centres” meant only for a short stay. Berlin’s Senate Department for Integration, Labour, and Social Services claimed that Ukrainians needed to be consolidated into a few defined arrival centres to simplify processing. 

However, things have gone from bad to worse for the displaced lot. They have been uprooted from their familiar surroundings and social structures. Some have been separated from their families, after receiving accommodation elsewhere. Parents are worried about how they will send their children to schools, which are far away from their new housing. Settling down on a safe patch has become such an unsettling experience, but it is in no way unexpected or surprising.

The only silver lining is that developed nations have now accepted the reality of massive migration. When the 2015 refugee wave went through the roof, then European Council president Donald Tusk opined that refugees should be detained for up to 18 months in holding centres across the European Union (EU) while they were screened for security and terrorism risks. But when it came to Ukraine refugees, the Polish politician lashed out at the UK for its poor contribution and insistence on visas. “Solidarity in action. The UK has granted 50 visas to the Ukrainian refugees while the Poles have welcomed 1.2 million Ukrainians in two weeks,” Tusk said in a post on social media in March. The same person had in 2016 lamented how Europe was running out of its capacity to accommodate migrants. Double standards indeed!

Nobody assumed it to be the sole responsibility of Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia – the EU neighbours of Ukraine – to protect and nurture the fleeing crowd. People wholeheartedly welcomed them as EU member states briskly implemented an open-door policy that allowed Ukrainians to travel beyond their immediate neighbouring countries without intense scrutiny. Juxtapose this with how Asian, Middle Eastern and African refugees were the responsibilities of the country where they first entered Europe, according to the Dublin Regulation. If an asylum seeker had fingerprints taken in one Dublin country and then entered a different Dublin country, then the latter will not process the application. Instead, the applicant will be sent back to the first country. 

 

This tedious process virtually drained refugees, with only basic needs addressed during the waiting period. For example, Germany’s Asylum Seekers’ Benefits Act guarantees benefits in cash and kind to cover accommodation, food, heating, clothing, health and personal hygiene requirements of asylum seekers. However, it also means only absolutely unavoidable medical care and utterly necessary goods will be at their disposal. And if an asylum seeker manages to find work, it will most likely cut into the amount of benefits he/she receives.

 

But Ukrainians were spared of such inconveniences, thanks to the activation of the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) that was created In the aftermath of the massive refugee influx from the Balkan region as ethnic strife and armed conflicts ruled the roost following the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s. Under the scheme, those displaced from non-EU countries will get residence permits in EU states without having to apply for asylum during the period of protection, which can be from one to three years. They also have rights to access medical treatment, education for children, employment, housing and social welfare schemes. Now compare this with the high voltage clamour between EU member states over the mandatory refugee quotas since 2015!

 

Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic had slammed the door on refugees during the 2015 crisis, while xenophobic reactions were quite common in the EU neighbourhood of Ukraine. But when the crisis in Kyiv unfolded, Poland and Slovakia even let in those without a valid travel document, whereas Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was heard saying, “I’ve seen people who have no travel documents, but we’re providing them with travel documents.”  

 

The ‘solidarity tickets’ that allow free public transport and the affordable/free roaming and international calls for Ukrainian refugees show how the EU’s heart beats for its eastern neighbour. Probably, a reminder that the fear of Russian belligerence is a reality for the whole of eastern Europe. The fact that the TPD was invoked for the first time during the Ukraine war also shows political will works in consonance with familiarity and geographical proximity. Since mid-2017, Ukrainian citizens holding biometric passports have the facility of visa-free travel to the Schengen zone for a period of 90 days within any 180-day period for purposes other than employment. So, Ukrainians naturally will have a fair share of family/friendly connections in EU nations unlike those from third world countries, who have nobody to call for help.  

Though the Ukraine war has manifested Europe’s ability to treat refugees better, it is also a grim reminder that international laws for refugees work well only when the hosts could relate with the arriving crowd geographically, culturally or racially. Simply put, the lofty ideal of unity in diversity does not work in this world, where the irony of escape still haunts the ‘other’ refugees.

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