Movement to action: How Russia’s war on Ukraine could reshape EU migration policy

The EU has responded to a huge influx of Ukrainian refugees with an unprecedented show of solidarity. It should take this opportunity to develop a common asylum policy.

Refugees from Ukraine who crossed Ukrainian-Polish border due to ongoing Russian military invasion are seen at a temporary shelter inside the reception point organized in a sports hall in Hrubieszow, Poland on April 1st 2022. Russian invasion on Ukraine causes a mass exodus of refugees to Poland. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto)
Ukrainian refugees who crossed the Polish border due to the ongoing Russian military invasion are seen at a temporary shelter inside a sports hall in Hrubieszow, Poland on April 1st 2022

Around 4.3 million people have fled Ukraine since 24 February, when Russia launched its all-out invasion of the country. Most of them have crossed into countries that neighbour Ukraine – mainly Poland, but also Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary – and many are now moving further west. This is not the first time the European Union has faced a large influx of people seeking asylum. Yet the current crisis is unparalleled in both its geographical proximity to the EU and the sheer number of refugees entering the union. Therefore, it requires an unprecedented European response.

So far, that response has been swift and decisive. On 28 March, the EU held an extraordinary meeting of its Justice and Home Affairs Council to discuss how to coordinate the reception of Ukrainian refugees. The EU and its member states have provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine since Russia began the invasion. And the European Commission is working to mobilise funds to help EU countries manage the refugee crisis.

In early March, the Council of the European Union unanimously adopted a Temporary Protection Directive for refugees fleeing Ukraine. This measure, which is in force for one year and is renewable, entitles anyone who legally resided in Ukraine before 24 February to seek refuge, work, study, and access social welfare in an EU country of their choice without formally requesting asylum. This is the first time the EU has implemented the directive since its creation following the wars in the former Yugoslavia more than 20 years ago.

The EU can invoke temporary protection in response to a massive influx of people displaced by war, violence, or overt human rights violations. However, in previous situations involving large numbers of people seeking refuge in the EU (such as the war in Libya in 2011 or the refugee crisis in 2015), European policymakers did not regard this option as politically viable. Following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in 2021, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell raised the idea of using the measure but it was never followed up.

The EU’s approach to asylum has long been the subject of heated debate among its member states. But Russia’s war on Ukraine has led to an unmatched show of solidarity with Ukraine from European governments and citizens. Indeed, even member states such as Poland and Hungary – which had long opposed relocation quotas and other solidarity mechanisms – have accepted the Temporary Protection Directive.

The EU is finally treating measures to assist refugees as the responsibility of all member states

The EU’s new approach resonates with Italy and other southern EU member states. Rome has often called for greater European support in the management of migration and in hosting refugees, especially during the 2015 crisis. But those calls often went unanswered – including by some member states that are now at the forefront of efforts to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Russia’s aggression may have finally created the political momentum to reform EU policy on migration, asylum, and refugees.

Nevertheless, policymakers will need to consider several key points if they do so. Firstly, the EU’s temporary protection mechanism is an emergency measure. Accordingly, it needs to be matched with a sustainable medium- to long-term strategy of the kind the union is currently debating. As Arturo Varvelli and I have argued, the EU should address migration flows as a structural phenomenon rather than a series of emergencies. Indeed, emergencies of this kind are now so common that one should expect them to occur on a regular basis. So, the union urgently needs to find more effective ways to manage them. By activating the Temporary Protection Directive, EU policymakers may have set an important and constructive precedent.

After years of facing stiff resistance to solidarity mechanisms for migration management, the EU is finally treating measures to assist refugees as the responsibility of all member states. However, it remains to be seen whether the union will continue to do this in response to crises that occur further away from Europe.

Moreover, while all Ukrainians fleeing to the EU should currently be eligible for asylum, this is not always the case for migrants who are leaving their country for reasons other than to escape a war, such as those who have left behind dire living conditions. As a result, the idea of shared European responsibility for managing migration in an interconnected world often results in tangled EU policy discussions. Such discussions could soon become even more complex, given that the war in Ukraine is having a significant impact on the Middle East and North Africa – particularly in areas such as food security. This could, in turn, lead to greater instability in the region and to further migration across the Mediterranean to EU member states.

Will solidarity and shared responsibility prevail if this comes to pass? Those words certainly did not feature heavily during the migration crisis that Belarus engineered on its border with Poland in 2021. Some member states’ response to that crisis reflected an unwillingness to deal with migrants, especially those from the Middle East and Africa. In fact, that attitude enabled Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka to weaponise migration in the first place.

In light of all this, the EU’s assistance for Ukrainian refugees could be seen as evidence of double standards, encouraged by years of populist and Eurosceptic rhetoric across Europe. As Lukashenka knew, such rhetoric has encouraged many EU citizens to see Middle Eastern and African migrants as a threat – in stark contrast to their views of Ukrainians, who they are widely depicted as having a moral duty to assist.

Therefore, it is time to reignite the EU debate on asylum and migration. Southern EU member states should take the lead in this, having been the most active in calling for an overhaul of EU asylum policy in recent years. This will require a wider reflection on the meaning of solidarity in a union that views the concept as one of its founding principles.

But there is no guarantee that the EU’s outpouring of support for Ukrainians will translate into effective reforms of asylum policy. Some EU countries could try to use their current efforts to welcome Ukrainians as a justification for not hosting other refugees or participating in a joint migration policy. To avoid this outcome, the EU will need to develop a migration policy that addresses the reality of Russia’s war on Ukraine and its future impact on member states – particularly their willingness and capacity to host refugees.

One should not assume that the war in Ukraine will revolutionise EU member states’ overall approach to migration and asylum. But, given that the conflict has already led to radical changes in challenging policy areas such as defence, it could also spark a productive new debate on migration.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Office Assistant, ECFR Rome

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