The ongoing tragedy is driving millions and millions of people to flee for their lives. Countless men and women across Europe’s borders every day and with their desperation are bringing about historic changes in EU policies. What future these changes will have remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the door is open to a change of course on one of the most divisive issues for the 27 EU countries.
Five weeks, as of 31 March, of war in Ukraine. So far, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 10 million people have been forced to flee, including 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and more than 3.7 million who have left the country, and an estimated 13 million people are stranded in affected areas or unable to leave due to increased security risks, destruction of bridges and roads, and lack of resources or information on where to find safety and shelter. According to the UN, millions of Ukrainian citizens are living in fear, sheltering in bunkers for hours on end, day and night. And the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, further specified the figures after the EU Home Affairs Council on Monday. “We have taken in about 3.8 million refugees from Ukraine into the EU, half of them are children. Of these 3.8 million, one million have gone further, while the rest have remained in neighboring countries. The EU countries that are doing the most are Poland with more than 1.5 million refugees, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia not forgetting Austria, Estonia, Lithuania”, said the Commissioner.
Moreover, after almost five weeks of the war, the number of arrivals is falling. “While the peak saw a flow of arrivals of about 200,000 people a day, today we are at 40,000 a day. But contingency plans need to be put in place to be ready for millions more who might flee because we don’t know how long the war will last or what will happen,” she continued.
In this scenario of a return of war to Europe, as has been stressed many times, what is the European Union and its Member States doing?
On 4 March, the Council of the EU, the EU institution representing the member states, unanimously adopted a decision to implement temporary protection for people fleeing Ukraine because of the war. The temporary protection directive had existed for 20 years, but the EU had never implemented it. With good reason, therefore, we can speak of a historic day for the Union.
Temporary protection is an emergency mechanism applicable in cases of a mass influx of people and aims to provide immediate and collective protection, i.e. without the need to examine individual applications, to displaced persons who cannot return to their country of origin. The aim is to relieve pressure on national asylum systems and enable displaced persons to enjoy harmonized rights across the EU. These rights include residence, access to the labor market and housing, medical care, and access to education for children.
Once adopted, the decision will activate temporary protection for an initial period of one year, which may be extended automatically by six months for a maximum period of one year. The Commission may propose to the Council to extend the temporary protection up to a maximum of one more year. The Commission may also propose to terminate the temporary protection if the situation in Ukraine is such that a safe and stable return is possible.
Who is temporary protection for?
Ukrainian nationals, as well as third-country nationals or stateless persons already enjoying international protection in Ukraine and their family members, will benefit from temporary protection if they are found to have been resident in Ukraine on or before 24 February 2022.
Third-country nationals residing in Ukraine on or before 24 February, Member States will be able to apply for temporary protection or give appropriate protection under their national law.
As far as temporary workers and students from third countries in Ukraine are concerned, temporary protection does not apply, but the principle that these persons had a limited period of time to spend in Ukraine is followed. So, they will be brought to EU countries for emergency relief, but then they will be returned to their own countries.
Member States may also apply temporary protection to other persons, including third-country nationals who are legally residing in Ukraine and cannot safely return to their country of origin, as well as Ukrainian nationals who fled the country not long before 24 February 2022 or who were on EU territory close to that date, for example on holiday or for work purposes.
The decision also requires the Commission to coordinate cooperation and exchange of information between the Member States, in particular as regards the monitoring of reception capacities and the identification of possible needs for further support. EU agencies, including Frontex, the EU Asylum Agency, and Europol, can provide additional operational support at the request of Member States.
Where do we stand after 5 weeks?
At the extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council on 28 March, European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas and Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, in coordination with the French Presidency of the EU Council represented by Minister Gérald Darmanin, presented a 10-point plan to strengthen European coordination on the reception of people fleeing the war against Ukraine.
The 10-point plan
First, the creation of an EU platform for registration to exchange information on beneficiaries of temporary protection and national protection statuses, with the support of Eu-Lisa, the EU Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the area of freedom, security, and justice.
Second, a coordinated EU approach for transport and information centers, supported by the EU Asylum Agency.
Third, a mapping of reception and accommodation capacity to match the offers of those Member States that can provide help to those in need of support and help organize transfers from the Member States most under pressure, supported by the Commission’s Safe Houses initiative. The EU Asylum Agency will provide targeted support to the Member States on the basis of operational plans and coordinate the EU network of reception agencies and authorities.
Fourth, is the development of national contingency plans to address medium- and long-term needs. The Commission will support the Member States and develop a common European emergency and response plan. The Commission will develop a common EU index to which the Member States, European agencies and international organizations should contribute.
Fifth, the Commission, together with the EU Asylum Agency, will develop standard operating procedures and uniform guidelines for the reception and support of minors, and the Commission will develop specific procedures for the transfer of unaccompanied minors.
Sixth, a joint anti-trafficking plan to prevent trafficking and exploitation. Under the leadership of the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, an anti-trafficking plan will be developed to address the risks of trafficking and support potential victims. The plan will be based on the EU Anti-Trafficking Strategy (2021-2025).
Seventh, enhanced solidarity with Moldova through increased transfers and the rapid deployment of Frontex teams in Moldova. Transfers, in cooperation with UNHCR and IOM and supported by EU funding, are an immediate priority.
Eighth, a strengthened framework for international cooperation on safe destinations. The Solidarity Platform, in cooperation with relevant agencies and other relevant partners, will coordinate contacts with Canada, the US, the UK, and other international partners.
Ninth, addressing the internal security implications of the war in Ukraine. The network of the European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats (Empact) and Europol will support Member States to ensure maximum vigilance against organized crime and trafficking groups and to ensure the enforcement of EU sanctions against Russian and Belarusian individuals. Member States are encouraged to cooperate through the bilateral deployment of police officers in the framework of Prum and the Commission will support these efforts.
Tenth, adequate resources, and funding. In order to provide comprehensive guidance and tailored support to the EU Member States, a one-stop-shop has been set up to bring together all relevant Commission experts. To support Member States’ efforts, the European Commission has proposed to facilitate the flexible use of funding.
In conclusion (for now)
More than a month into the war, then, the European Union is tackling one of the biggest humanitarian crises on continental soil since the Second World War. It is doing so with exceptional instruments. But, as we know, from every crisis and every exceptional instrument comes the basis for actions that then become structural. Now we are talking about reception and responsibility, terms used by countries that were once reluctant to welcome those who arrived on European soil by sea. We will already see in a few months, when the first landings on the coasts of Southern Europe take place, what legacy the humanitarian tragedy of Ukraine will have left on the European policy on migration and asylum.
Giulia Torbidoni – TIA Formazione