Three lessons from Europe’s response to Ukrainian migration

Europe’s response to Ukrainian migration has shown the benefits of a humane approach towards refugees. It should set a precedent for a more compassionate European migration policy

Ukrainians standing in line at passport control after arriving in the evening train from Ukraine to Przemysl railway station. According to research conducted by Lalafo, about half of Ukrainians who came to Poland because of the war are of working age. Over 96% are women aged 30-50, 16% are under this age, and 10% are elderly. As per the Lalafo survey, almost 90% have children, usually one or two. Half of forced migrants from Ukraine want to return home after the war, while about 12% express a desire to stay in Poland. On Thursday, December 22, 2022, in Przemysl, Subcarpatian Voivodeship, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto)
Ukrainians standing in line at passport control after arriving in the evening train from Ukraine to Przemysl railway station
Image by picture alliance / NurPhoto | Artur Widak

Europe’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was fast, united, and massive. The European Union and its member states have shown unity in responding to Russia’s war and its consequences. Among these was the arrival of Ukrainian refugees in Europe. Ten days after the invasion, the EU unanimously passed a new law to grant temporary protection to Ukrainian nationals fleeing the country, activating the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time since its adoption in 2001. To be registered under the protection scheme, Ukrainian asylum seekers only need to show an ID card or passport.

This is in stark contrast to the EU’s response to migration from elsewhere, which is again on the rise. In the first seven months of 2023, more than 119,000 refugees arrived by sea to Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, and Malta. Around 38,750 of them departed from Tunisia, where the port of Sfax has become the main departure point for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. In an attempt to regulate their arrival, in June the EU announced a new, “historic” pact on migration and asylum. The draft agreement outlines stricter procedures at the EU’s external borders, where border officials would pre-screen migrants to determine whether they are eligible to enter the EU or whether they are to be relocated or returned. It also allows for migrants to spend a period of up to six months in detention. Member states failed to reach an agreement on the pact to submit to the European Parliament in July, clashing over how to deal with crisis situations that result in a spike in migration. The talks will resume in mid-September.  

The EU’s and member states’ response to the arrival of Ukrainian refugees holds important lessons for European policymakers and shows the benefits of a humane approach to asylum for refugees and host countries alike. As they rethink the EU’s approach to migration, they should keep these in mind.

The response by the EU and its member states has shown that European countries can quickly mobilise to accommodate large numbers of refugees when they see the need to

  1. Europe can cope with large numbers of refugees

In less than a year and a half, around 6 million Ukrainians have arrived in Europe. Many European countries were quick to welcome them. Poland, for example, had begun preparing for the arrival of a large number of Ukrainian refugees shortly before the invasion because of the tension on the Ukrainian-Russian border and Russia’s previous military manoeuvres. As of March 2023, it has granted temporary protection to over 1.5 million Ukrainians. After Poland, Germany, Italy, and Spain have welcomed the most Ukrainians. Germany has provided temporary protection to over 960,000, while Italy and Spain have offered it to around 186,500 and 186,000 respectively. In March 2022, the European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson stated that the European Commission would “give member states further capacity to manage this crisis in an orderly and effective way”, granting “residency rights, labour market access and housing to people in need” and ensuring that “those fleeing the war in Ukraine can get to the EU quickly, without going through lengthy formalities at the borders”. The response by the EU and its member states has shown that European countries can quickly mobilise to accommodate large numbers of refugees when they see the need to.  

  1. Allowing refugees to work has benefits for host countries  

Under the EU’s temporary protection scheme, Ukrainian refugees are allowed to work. Just a year after the invasion, around 40 per cent of the Ukrainian refugees in Europe were already employed or self-employed. This not only helps them to integrate into their new communities, it also has benefits for their host countries. The covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of migrant workers in key sectors across Europe. According to the European Commission, 13 per cent of key workers in the EU in 2020 were migrants. The EU has noted that migrants fill vital roles that kept European economies functioning during the pandemic. This was not a new phenomenon: migrants have accounted for 70 per cent of the increase in the European workforce over the last ten years and have contributed more in taxes and social contributions than they have received in benefits. Furthermore, Europe has jobs for them to fill. In October 2022, the European Commission launched a new online job search tool, the EU Talent Pool pilot initiative, to help those fleeing Russia’s war of aggression to secure employment in the EU, which initially listed over 3 million job vacancies.

  1. Cross-sectoral participation eases the pressure on host communities

In December 2020, the EU released a new action plan on integration and inclusion, which identified four elements as essential for integration: education, health, employment, and housing. However, the document lacks clear objectives and recommendations for member states, which bear the responsibility for integration. European countries’ efforts to integrate Ukrainian refugees have shown the effectiveness of cross-sectoral cooperation and participatory governance in providing these services. The EU has worked directly with national governments and humanitarian organisations to enable them to provide education and other integration services to Ukrainian refugees. For example, in June 2022, the European Investment Bank approved a loan of €2 billion under its solidarity package to Poland’s national Aid Fund, which has provided supplies for reception centres, medical care, social assistance benefits, and nursery and school education to Ukrainian refugees. International organisations have complemented these efforts. For instance, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has offered e-learning language courses and other online educational materials to  Ukrainian refugees.

The EU’s reaction to the arrival of Ukrainian refugees has been warm, right, and human. It has shown that a humane approach is not just possible, but can bring benefits to host communities, particularly when EU institutions, national governments, international organisations, and civil society work together. This should be the starting point for the EU to develop a more humane approach to migration.

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


Communications Officer

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