Hope for the Future: Temporary Protection of Ukrainians As a Model for Broader Refugee Protection

December 20, 2022

By Patrick Higgins

Since the beginning of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, more than 4 million Ukrainians have registered for Temporary Protection or a similar type of international protection in Europe. A recent UNHCR survey reports that despite gains made by Ukrainian forces, the majority of Ukrainian refugees intend to stay in Europe (UNHCR, 2022). The ease with which EU countries have accepted these migrants is a testament to Europe’s readiness to support those fleeing conflict and persecution. 

However, this has led to a debate over whether the comparable resistance of some EU countries to affording non-Ukrainians international protection is hypocritical. Particularly striking has been the difference in reception between non-Ukrainian and Ukrainian refugees in Poland, a situation that has been labelled ‘racist’ elsewhere (Reidy, 2022).

This article investigates the following:

What are the protections granted by the Temporary Protection Directive and under what circumstances was it enacted?

How do these protections differ from those granted by the Common European Asylum System, and to what extent have Ukrainian refugees taken advantage of these protections?

What does the future hold for refugees arriving in the EU?

What is the EU Temporary Protection Directive?

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) was enacted by the EU Council on the 4th of March. The purpose of this was to avoid overwhelming national asylum systems and to authorise the “immediate and temporary protection” of all Ukrainian nationals or stateless persons who resided in Ukraine before 2022 (European Parliament, 2022). Those legally entitled to temporary protection enjoy full rights to access work, education, social welfare, and housing in whatever EU country they choose to settle in, and are free to travel with a Ukrainian biometric passport.

The generosity of this offer of immediate protection has been described as “Europe at its best” by Margaritis Schinas, Vice President of the European Commission. At the same time, Schinas lamented that “Europe still does not have a migration policy,” underlining that the TPD is a direct response to the war in Ukraine and does not translate into “an automatic right of admission for everyone who comes to the European Union” (Tharoor, 2022).

While the war in Ukraine has been touted as an exceptional circumstance, it should be noted that there are numerous other conflicts of similar scale causing similar levels of irregular migration. Figure 1 below illustrates the current number of “worsening or unchanging” armed conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East, one of the regions with the highest level of refugees and asylum seekers travelling to Europe during the 2015 crisis (Crawley, Duvell, Jones, McMahon, & Sigona, 2018). This remains the case as the countries with the greatest number of asylum applications in the EU in 2021 were Afghanistan and Syria (Statista, 2022). Despite this multitude of international crises, the Ukrainian conflict is the first and only crisis to be deemed an emergency causing a “mass influx of displaced persons from third countries who are unable to return to their country of origin” in Europe since the TPD was adopted in July 2001. This is despite increased migratory flows in 2011 and 2015 (European Parliament, 2022, p.3).

Figure 1 Number of Global Conflicts Worsening or Unchanging In State (Council on Foreign Relations, 2022)


How does the Common European Asylum System differ?

The reception facilities offered to non-Ukrainians fleeing conflict and applying for asylum is drastically different. The Dublin III regulation provides sole responsibility for processing asylum claims to the first EU country that applicants enter. They are given reporting obligations and discouraged from absconding by being given no rights to either education or labour market participation outside of this first country. This is regardless of the existence of familial or communal ties in the EU and of the level of reception a member state is willing to provide. The most recent report on the progress of the new EU Asylum pact suggests that “Dublin transfers” (transfering people back to their point of entry) remains the key policy response to “unauthorised” travel within the EU (European Commission, 2022, p.12).

While detention facilities are not necessarily part of the CEAS agenda, they are how many EU countries, in particular Greece, are enforcing reception conditions (Papastergiou, 2021).  One could argue that this allows for an effective delivery of vital services such as food, psychosocial support, and non-formal education to aid with integration into EU society. However, there is little evidence to support this, as previous research by ELNOR education has pointed out that the integration of refugees in formal education has been fraught with delays, as “in general, governments do not aim to establish a welcoming environment within refugee camps but a sufficient environment to meet basic needs. Even at this, they still struggle” (Mecacci). Worryingly, evidence from the Migration Integration Policy Index shows that, with the exception of Italy, the lowest scores for integration in formal education are in common countries of first arrival such as Greece, Poland, and Hungary (Migrant Integration Policy Index, 2019). Indeed, Poland and other Eastern European countries score the lowest overall in the integration of migrants. This goes directly against UNHCR’s goals of developing formal educational programmes which can support a growing number of long-term displaced people (UNHCR, 2019).

Figure 2: Migration Policy Index’s map of migrant’s integration in formal education systems in Europe (Migrant Integration Policy Index, 2019)

Figure 3: Overall integration of refugees in national public services scores by European country in the Migration Policy Index (Migrant Integration Policy Index, 2019)

Detention and a lack of integration support are indicative of the common response of first countries to discourage asylum applications by creating an unwelcome environment no matter the cost to human rights. Safe and legal application for asylum is also actively prevented by border agencies. In the case of Poland, more than one million Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed since February, while potential asylum seekers have been deliberately pushed back from the Poland-Belarus border in spite of expressing a clear desire to apply for asylum (Human Rights Watch, 2017; Statista, 2022). Current evidence suggests that this is an EU-wide issue, as personnel from FRONTEX — the EU border agency — have been complicit in pushing back migrants from Greece’s EU-Turkey border and abrogating responsibilities to provide assistance to migrants in clear signs of distress in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas (Psaropoulos, 2022; L. Izuzquiza, 2022). This is little doubt a contributing factor to the rising number of deaths of people attempting to reach Europe by land or sea, as non-Ukrainian refugees seek more dangerous routes to the EU (G. Coi, 2022).

Having failed to reach agreement on a common response to the integration and safe reception of non-Ukrainian Asylum seekers, EU policy has funded reception facilities and border protections in non-EU ‘safe’ third countries such as Turkey. The 2016 EU-Turkey deal recognises Turkey as a safe third country to return Syrian migrants to, and a 2021 Joint Ministerial Decision by the Greek government recognises Turkey as safe to return asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia (Human Rights Watch, 2022). Significant EU funds have also been directed to Turkish border defences and reception facilities. However, Turkey still holds significant threats to many asylum seekers, on individual and larger bases. Human Rights Watch (2022) has long pointed to evidence of forced deportations to Syria and threats of physical violence meted out against Syrian asylum seekers in Turkey. Moreover, Afghan asylum seekers have reported being shot at by Turkish border guards and forcibly deported directly from EU funded reception centres (Amnesty International, 2022). As such, these organisations have repeatedly called for an end to EU complicity in preventing free and safe applications for asylum within the EU.

Figure 4: Number of deaths of migrants attempting to reach Europe up to 2021 (G. Coi, 2022)

What does the future hold?

The logic behind implementing the temporary protection directive is that asylum processing facilities do not become overwhelmed with applications. Outside of formal detention facilities, new indirect reception procedures have been developed. A report by Oxfam (2022) notes that the speed at which Ukrainian applications for temporary protection are being processed has opened up a “two-tier” system of processing claims. While efficient and quick procedures are being put in place to process Ukrainian requests for international protection in Greece, Oxfam has demonstrated the continuing inefficiency of Greece’s asylum processing facilities. These fast-tracked procedures for processing 7,000 Ukrainian claims are lacking for tens of thousands of asylum seekers based in Greece (Pawson 2022).

While temporary protection is only temporary, there have also been efforts to integrate Ukrainians into EU society. As mentioned above, asylum seekers have had particular difficulty accessing integration services in Europe, in particular placing their children in formal education. Although not mandated by the temporary protection directive, many countries have quite rapidly enrolled Ukrainian refugees’ children in formal education (OECD, 2022).

Poland in particular has seen a significant change in the level of support being offered. The most recent information available on the Asylum Seekers Information website indicates that prior to the Ukrainian conflict, the Polish Ministry of Education had taken little interest in providing support to the children of refugees. In 21 schools monitored by the Supreme Audit Office between 2017 and 2020, “no integration activities or only incidental ones” were organised (Asylum Information Database, 2022). By contrast, in response to an influx of Ukrainian refugees, the Polish government has passed new laws enabling Ukrainian teachers with knowledge of Polish to work as teaching assistants and has reduced registration paperwork for schools (Rosenzweig-Ziff, 2022). The reception of Ukrainians has been so positive that one Ukrainian refugee even stated that “It seems like the whole country is slightly bending the rules for Ukrainians” (Gettleman & Pronczuk, 2022).

Figure 5: Share of total population in EU countries with non-EU citizenships as of January 1, 2021, by EU country (G. Coi, 2022)

This response of countries to providing integration opportunities could demonstrate a growing willingness of EU countries to provide for refugees (Rosenzweig-Ziff, 2022). Poland in particular has been historically opposed to taking on any responsibility for the integration of refugees, and has blocked previous proposals for a common EU approach. As of 2021, Poland had one of the lowest populations of non-EU citizens compared to other EU countries (see Figure 5). However, Poland’s willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees and the experience of hosting a successfully integrated refugee population could lend to a softening in negative attitudes towards refugees overall. The mayor of Warsaw for example, has recently called for an EU-wide platform for relocating refugees (G. Coi, 2022). This changing attitude could make future efforts to create EU-wide policy on refugees and asylum seekers more palatable.

What can we learn?

A key goal of EU migration policy, reiterated in the response of the European Council to the Afghanistan crisis, is that “incentives to illegal migration should be avoided” (Council of the EU, 2021). This approach is not only glaringly hypocritical but also counterproductive (G. Coi, 2022). As this article has hopefully demonstrated, first-country reception and a less restrictive approach to refugee protection and integration have been successful in only one aspect: removing access to safe and secure asylum applications. Increased funding for border protection and third-country reception is not likely to improve this situation as non-Ukrainian migrants are not solely being pulled by opportunities, but are also being pushed by lack of security, economic poverty, and armed conflict (Crawley, Duvell, Jones, McMahon, & Sigona, 2018). Thus, increased funding for border protection does not make borders more secure, but less secure, as the only route open to refugees is ‘illegal migration.’

The response of Turkey to Afghan asylum seekers also underlines the need to re-evaluate the third-country approach to migration. At the end of April, Turkish migration authorities boasted they had returned 6,805 Afghan citizens (Amnesty International, 2022). Bearing in mind the evidence noted in this article that Turkey has struggled to earn or maintain its ‘safe’ country designation, the chances that all or any of these returnees were truly voluntary is low. If the EU is going to continue financing reception facilities in third countries, there is a high likelihood that EU governments will continue to be complicit in serious human rights violations. 

What we can learn from the response to Ukrainian migrants is that EU governments have the tools and resources available to process asylum applications and provide essential integration services like education. Any future common EU policy on migration should learn from these successes of Ukrainian integration, and perhaps expand into the area of public funding for host country language classes — a service lacking in many EU countries for even Ukrainian refugees (OECD, 2022). Europe should also re-examine the Dublin regulations and third country approach if EU border countries and third countries continue to fail to protect the basic human rights of asylum seekers.

Works Cited:

Amnesty International. (2022, August 31). Iran/Turkey: Fleeing Afghans unlawfully returned after coming under fire at borders . Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/08/iran-turkey-fleeing-afghans-unlawfully-returned-after-coming-under-fire-at-borders/

Asylum Information Database. (2022, May). Country Report: Access to Education, Poland. Retrieved from asylumineurope.org: https://asylumineurope.org/reports/country/poland/reception-conditions/employment-and-education/access-education/#_ftn18

Council of the EU. (2021, August). Statement on the situation in Afghanistan. Retrieved from http://www.consilium.eu: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/08/31/statement-on-the-situation-in-afghanistan/

Council on Foreign Relations. (2022, October 31). Global Conflict Tracker. Retrieved from Global Conflict Tracker: https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/ 

Crawley, H., Duvell, F., Jones, K., McMahon, S., & Sigona, N. (2018). Unravelling Europe’s ‘Migration Crisis’: Journeys Over Land and Sea. Bristol: Policy Press Short Insights.

European Commission. (2022, October 6). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions on the Report on Migration and Asylum. Retrieved from ec.europa.eu: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/com_2022_740_1_en_act_part1_v4.pdf

European Parliament. (2022, March 22). Temporary Protection Directive Briefing. Retrieved from European Parliament Think Tank: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document/EPRS_BRI(2022)729331

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Rosenzweig-Ziff, D. (2022, March). Polish schools expect as many Ukrainian refugees as there are students in Los Angeles. Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/20/poland-schools-ukraine-refugees/

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Statista. (2022, October 10). Refugees from Ukraine registered for Temporary Protection or similar national protection schemes in Europe from February 24 to October 4, 2022, by selected country. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1312361/europe-temporary-protection-for-persons-fleeing-ukraine/

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UNHCR. (2022, October). Regional Protection Profiling and Monitoring Factsheet: Profiles, Needs, and Intentions of Refugees from Ukraine. Retrieved from UNHCR Operational Data Portal: https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine

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