Blog post by Jasmin Lilian Diab, Director of the Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University
The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict and Refugees of the Twenty-first Century
What could become Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis since 2015 is continuing to rapidly unfold. Following months of tensions, Russian forces launched what they referred to as a “special military operation” in Ukraine in late February 2022. More than 11 million people are believed to have fled their homes in Ukraine since the conflict began, according to the United Nations. Close to 5.2 million have left for neighbouring countries, and another 6.5 million people are thought to be displaced inside Ukraine itself. The majority of individuals fleeing are women, children and the elderly — as males aged between 18 to 60 years old have been barred from leaving Ukraine after its President called upon Ukrainians to take up arms and defend their country as fighting in Kyiv escalated.
Governments across Europe have since thrown their borders open to host hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country. Several of these governments, which have taken an uncompromisingly harsh stance towards refugees from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan in recent years, have undertaken a decidedly different tone. These same governments have pledged to both host and support their new refugee neighbours.
As the conflict persists, an increasing number of humanitarian agencies have made official statements about their commitment to supporting refugees from Ukraine, requesting that countries continue to open their borders to Ukrainians seeking safety. UNHCR is continuing to work with governments in neighbouring countries, calling on them to “keep borders open” to those seeking safety and protection. Neighbouring Moldova has since opened its borders to Ukrainian citizens, and continues to support people crossing the border with their “humanitarian needs”. Poland, which has taken a rigid stance against international migration flows in recent years, prepared eight reception points for refugees along its border with Ukraine. Hungary, which has also taken a similarly hostile stance to refugees from countries such as Syria as recently as last year, pledged to open “a humanitarian corridor” for those fleeing from Ukraine.
On Blame and Responsibility: Selectivity in the Management of Refugees
Europe has long been a primary destination for mixed-migration influxes. Since the early 2000s, the regulation of these influxes has constituted an essential pillar of EU policies towards neighbouring countries and neighbouring regions. In the post-2011 era, after the reconfiguration of the EU’s Southern neighbourhood following the Arab Spring and its subsequent migratory flows, this regulation framework was not only largely challenged, but eventually, destabilised. Specifically, violent conflicts that erupted in countries such as Syria and Libya resulted in increased pressure at international borders and increasing (internal and external) displacement numbers. By 2015 (at the refugee crisis’ peak), the EU had become a destination for migratory flows on an unprecedented scale, when more than one million migrants, asylum seekers and refugees reached its borders irregularly through the Mediterranean Sea and the Balkan Peninsula. Not only did the 2015 experience shift the EU’s overall response to large-scale refugee arrivals, it also shifted the political will of many of its member states to prioritise, as they saw it, the humanitarian needs of migrants and refugees above those of their own electrorate.
In recent years, European countries have aimed to halt (in many instances forcibly and violently) the flow of what has largely been perceived as non-White and non-Christian migrants and asylum seekers fleeing protracted conflicts and wars across the Middle East, Afghanistan and the African continent. In late 2021, in what the United Nations termed an “appalling” border crisis, Poland forcibly denied entry to asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa who became caught in legal and political limbo as they attempted to enter the EU through Belarus. Amid the 2015-2016 refugee crisis peak, the EU negotiated away its “problem” to some extent through a strategic deal with Turkey, under which it allocated six billion euros to the latter for Ankara to prevent Syrian refugees from crossing into Europe. In 2015, Hungary went as far as to build a border fence to close off a major migrant route through which more than five hundred people per day (predominantly from the Middle East and North Africa travelling through Turkey) were crossing. Hungary additionally enacted a law making it a crime to assist immigrants who entered Hungary irregularly to apply for asylum through legal channels. Greece has faced condemnation from international human rights groups in recent years for its heavily documented pushbacks of asylum seekers from both its land and sea borders.
The EU’s response to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 2021, not only came markedly later than that to recent developments in Ukraine, but was one of diversion and limited interference. While UNHCR warned that by the end of 2021 the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan could lead to the displacement of over half a million more Afghans, for EU member states this statement only brought back flashbacks of the 2015 refugee crisis, which delayed a unified response on Afghan asylum. With past experiences impacting their approach to Afghanistan, the European Commissioner revealed an EU plan to initiate a “regional political platform of cooperation with Afghanistan’s direct neighbours,” to manage the migration crisis. The EU’s asylum policy has typically been to externalise the management of refugees, and diminish its obligations under International Refugee Law and to the non-refoulement principle. The 22,000 individuals the EU managed to evacuate from Afghanistan to its twenty-four member states selectively included EU officials and their dependents, as well as Afghans who assisted the EU operations in the country.
In contrast to a number of conflicts around the globe, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has ignited a visible outpouring of support from countries across the EU (and the US) for those fleeing the violence. Although Ukraine is not part of the EU, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs expressed that the EU was “well prepared” to absorb Ukrainian refugees as a matter of “unity” and “solidarity.” This encompassed an unconditional (and largely uncommon) welcome from countries such as Poland and Hungary, which had outwardly resisted those fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. For its part, Poland declared its border open to fleeing Ukrainians (even those without official documents), and even went as far as to waive its requirement to present a negative COVID-19 test or vaccination status. Even Hungary, often dubbed one of Europe’s leading anti-migrant governments, declared it was accepting all citizens and legal residents of Ukraine. Greece, a major entry point for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict from Syria and Afghanistan in recent years, also expressed its willingness to take in refugees from Ukraine. Ireland announced it was immediately lifting visa requirements for Ukrainians. The United States announced it was providing emergency aid to refugees, and thousands of soldiers from the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division have been deployed in Poland to assist with preparations to admit more Ukrainian citizens.
The Politics of Refugees
There are certainly various motives and interests at the centre of the “change of heart” of some EU countries which have been notably hostile to the ideas of asylum seekers crossing their borders in the past. If the refugee crises in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria reveal anything, it is that International Refugee Law remains only as strong as the political will, interests and fears behind it. It would be the latest test to International Refugee Law, as well as the non-refoulement principle, to see just how many Ukrainians will be displaced, and what the EU’s response would be moving forward under its international obligations. While it remains increasingly difficult to assess how long the ongoing conflict will last, what can be certain is that the conflict will only continue to trigger refugee movements into Europe. The lowest predictions in terms of a full-scale invasion of Russia talks similar refugee numbers for the EU as in 2015-2016. A responsible EU migration policy that addresses its ethical responsibilities towards all people directly or indirectly affected by its foreign policy decisions, and one that reflects its core values, is largely overdue. While the Syrian and Afghan crises presented an important opportunity to start building an EU that upholds the rights of all human beings fleeing persecution; political interests and motives continue to take a front seat. If the world’s most recent refugee crisis has taught us anything, it is that upholding international refugee law, as well as caring for the livelihoods and rights of refugees, is possible. The only question remaining is whether or not there is the political will to do so.
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