Since the start of Russia's war on Ukraine in February an unprecedented number of people have been forced to leave their home and become refugees. The United Nations estimates that three million people have already fled to neighboring countries like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova (BBC 2022). The European Union (EU) predicts that the number of refugees from Ukraine could reach 7 million, turning into Europe's largest refugee movement since World War II (Semotiuk 2022). Nonetheless, or particularly in light of that, it is important to remember that the 2015 refugee "crisis", as it is often referred to, was not so long ago, with a starkly different political and social response from Europe compared to today. This fact begs further analysis: how exactly does the European response towards refugees differ between the 2015 refugee crisis and the current Ukrainian crisis, and why?
The war in Ukraine led to an outpour of social and political support from Europe (Global Detention Project 2022, 1). In line with the international refugee protection regime, European countries have kept their borders to Ukrainian refugees open, have not penalized them for not having valid travel documents, allowed them to freely join family members in other countries, and welcomed them with solidarity by offering shelter, food, medicine, and clothing (idem: 2). The European Commission has also activated the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time, granting refugees fleeing from Russia’s war on Ukraine temporary protection in the EU. This protection entails giving refugees from Ukraine residence permits without having to apply for asylum and allowing them access to education and the labor market (European Commission 2022). This avoids overwhelming the national asylum systems of EU countries. Additionally, the Commission is establishing operational guidelines to help border-guards manage arrivals, loosen border checks for certain population groups, and maintain high security levels. These recommendations to the EU Member States also include establishing emergency support lanes to channel humanitarian aid to Ukraine (ibid.).
The European response to the refugee crisis of 2015 was starkly different. Around one million refugees, mostly from Syria but also from other countries like Sudan and Eritrea, fled either economic turmoil or war and sought asylum in Europe. Refugees had to take desperate measures to reach European shores in hopes of a safer future (Gibney 2020). Countries that welcome refugees fleeing Ukraine today, such as Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, are the same countries that implemented hostile policies like stringent detention measures and border push backs during the 2015 refugee “crisis” (Global Detention Project 2022, 2).
This shift can also be seen in political discourse, wherein politicians known for their anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments are now supportive of receiving refugees from Ukraine (Hadj Abdou and Pettrachin 2022). A prime example is the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is notorious for his usual anti-migrant, right-leaning stance, and yet recently advocated that refugees from Ukraine crossing into Hungary should be welcomed and protected (ibid.). In 2015, however, Hungary refused the entry of refugees from non-EU countries, with Orbán labeling them as "Muslim invaders" and claiming that it is imperative to preserve the "cultural and ethnic homogeneity" of Hungary by not accepting refugees from another religion or culture (Pearson 2018). The Hungarian government invested over 100 million euros "on razor-wire fencing and border controls to keep refugees and migrants out" and authorized the police and military forces to use violent measures like tear gas grenades and rubber bullets to "secure" the border (Amnesty International 2015). In Poland, refugees and migrants in 2015 were greeted similarly, with many sustaining injuries from the harsh treatment of border guards. Thousands of refugees were also stranded in forests under freezing conditions (Global Detention Project 2022, 2-3). At the European level, the European Council President in 2015, argued that refugees should be detained for up to 18 months while their asylum status was being processed and security screenings were made (Traynor 2015).
While the solidarity of Europe with Ukraine is formidable and deeply necessary, it is important to reflect upon the existent double standards surrounding refugees. Unfortunately, there have been several cases in which non-Ukrainians fleeing from Russia’s war on Ukraine have been treated poorly due to their ethnic and national background (Busari et al. 2022). Especially migrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa have faced violence and racist treatment while trying to flee to other European countries. For example, Ukrainian nationals are increasingly given priority on buses and trains, and Polish authorities have also refused entry to African students fleeing the war (ibid.).
These stark differences in the European response towards the influx of refugees highlight the urgency for Europe to fully implement the refugee protection regime, regardless of the background of refugees. Double standards, racism, and xenophobia still linger in Europe's treatment of refugees, as seen at the borders, but also with the benefits that are given to some, while being withheld from others, as well as in the political discourse. The comment by Petkov, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria with regards to people fleeing Ukraine, highlights the enduring double standards within Europe: "[...] these people are Europeans. These people are intelligent, they are educated people [...] this is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists" (Johannen 2022). There is still much to be done before claiming that Europe is fully implementing the international refugee protection regime.
Written by Tatjana Edle von Peter, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons
Source: News Hub
BBC. 2022. "How many refugees have fled Ukraine and where are they going?", March 17,
Gabriela Johannen. 2022. "Double Standard Laid Bare: Middle Eastern Refugees Watch as
European Countries Welcome Refugees From Ukraine With Open Arms", Global Human Rights Defence, March 22, 2022. https://ghrd.org/double-standard-laid-bare-middle-eastern-refugees-watch-as-european-countries-welcome-refugees-from-ukraine-with-open-arms%EF%BF%BC/.
Stephanie Busari, Nimi Princewill, Shama Nasinde, Mohammed Tawfeeq. 2022. "Foreign
students fleeing Ukraine say they face segregation, racism at border", CNN, March 4, 2022. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/02/28/europe/students-allege-racism-ukraine-cmd-intl/index.html
Andy J. Semotiuk. 2022. "Looming Ukranian Refugee Crisis Presents Challenge Not Seen
Since World War II", Forbes, February 28, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/andyjsemotiuk/2022/02/28/looming-ukrainian-refugee-crisis-presents-challenge-not-seen-since-world-war-ii/?sh=7e49eda6bd0e.
Global Detention Project. 2022. "The Ukraine Crisis. Double Standards: Has Europe's
Response to Refugees Changed?", March 2, 2022. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/GDP%20Ukraine%20Crisis%2002.03.2022.pdf.
European Commission. 2022. "Ukraine: Commission proposes temporary protection for
people fleeing war in Ukraine and guidelines for border checks", European Commission, March 2, 2022. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_22_1469.
Matthew J. Gibney. 2020. "Has the world learned the lessons of the 2015 refugee crisis?",
World Politics Review, March 31, 2020. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28644/has-the-world-learned-the-lessons-of-the-2015-refugee-crisis.
Leila Hadj Abdou and Andrea Pettrachin. 2022. "Explaining the remarkable shift in European
responses to refugees following Russia's invasion in Ukraine", London School of Economics, March 9, 2022. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2022/03/09/explaining-the-remarkable-shift-in-european-responses-to-refugees-following-russias-invasion-of-ukraine/.
Amnesty International. 2015. "Fenced out: Hungary's violations of the rights of refugees and
migrants", October 7, 2015. https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/hungary_briefing-final-embargo-081015.pdf.
Alexander Pearson. 2018. "Viktor Orban's most controversial migration comments",
Deutsche Welle, January 1, 2018. https://www.dw.com/en/viktor-orbans-most-controversial-migration-comments/g-42086054
Ian Traynor. 2015. "Detain refugees arriving in Europe for 18 months, says Tusk", The
Guardian, December 2, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/02/detain-refugees-arriving--europe-18-months-donald-tusk