Expert Voice

Europe’s Ukrainian refugee crisis: What we know so far

28 February 2022


The EU is witnessing an influx of refugees from Ukraine on a far greater scale than in 2015-2016. What will be the status of the new arrivals; what can be done for non-Ukrainians trying to escape the conflict; and what does it mean for EU asylum policy in the medium term?

By Hugo Brady


1. One million refugees set to enter the EU in a week

By Sunday 27 February, 370,000 Ukrainian, EU and third country nationals had crossed into neighbouring EU countries, often in weather of minus 10 degrees or lower:

Poland    (213,000)         

Hungary (78,000)

Slovakia  (26,000)

Romania (97,000) (34,000 directly from Ukraine, 63,000 via Moldova)*

By Monday, overall departures from Ukraine were at 500,000 and rising, with UNHCR predicting up to 4-5 million people could end up fleeing the conflict.

Key crossing points include Medyka in Poland, Beregsurany in Hungary, Vyšné Nemecké in Slovakia and Siret in Romania (Ukrainians are also crossing the lower Danube near the Black Sea).

The first cohort are mostly women, children and foreign nationals, with Ukrainian adult males subject to the military draft. One early characteristic of this crisis is the obstacle posed by exit controls and traffic jams on poor roads on the Ukrainian side of the border. On the EU side, waiting times are longest in Poland (up to 80 hours) and shortest in Hungary (1 hour). Over the weekend Ukraine’s local authorities began to relax exit restrictions somewhat, and in some cases traffic is two-way as Ukrainian emigres return to fight or help in the conflict with Russian forces.

Many arrivals in the immediate outflow are non-Ukrainians from a diverse array of countries: Moroccans, Chinese, Indians, Latin Americans amongst others, some of whom had been attending Ukrainian universities. Most seek immediate safety followed by transit home rather than long-term protection. This too poses a significant logistical challenge for countries in the region, because the scale is similar to the great repatriation witnessed after the outbreak of the COVID pandemic. Clear guidelines exist for how countries should cooperate to protect and repatriate migrants displaced by such situations who may lack means, contacts and personal networks to help them.

2. Central and eastern EU countries are welcoming them

Prior to war breaking out, Poland and Romania prepared basic reception facilities for 1 million people each, Hungary some 600,000 and Slovakia around 50,000. That capacity is likely to be reached very soon. The crisis represents perhaps the greatest logistical challenge ever faced by the eastern states in modern times, one to which they seem to be rising impressively. National militaries are mobilised to help with arrivals and a network of temporary reception centres is established along the EU-Ukrainian frontier. So far one country – Slovakia – has said it request help from Frontex, the EU’s border guard agency, to man the border.  

Each country has announced or indicated an open border policy with Polish interior minister Mariusz Kaminski stating the country will take “as many as will be at our borders.” Quarantine requirements and proof of Covid-19 vaccination are suspended for refugee arrivals.

Vít Rakušan, Czechia’s interior minister, announced last week his country expects to receive an initial 5,000 with expectations for this number to significantly increase with the country actively inviting in the refugees. The Czech authorities have sent trains full of humanitarian aid to the Polish-Ukrainian border and offered to transport refugees free of charge (as have Germany and Austria).

Registration is happening in all four countries but border controls are relaxed in line with the humanitarian exception clause in the EU’s Schengen Borders Code (Article 6(5c)). Many arrivals are passing right by the reception centres, moving on into the Schengen area. In Poland, non-Ukrainian nationals from places such as Bangladesh and India are being issued short-term visas before repatriation under special agreements with their home countries.

3. Most will not be ‘asylum seekers’ in refugee camps

Ukrainians do not currently require a visa to enter Schengen countries and can remain for up to 90 days. Visa liberalisation to the EU was granted in 2017 and this is first time ever a country bordering the EU with visa-free status is also at war.

Hungary and Slovakia already announced last week Ukrainians will receive national ‘temporary protection’ status. However, a lot of arrivals are likely to eschew refugee status altogether. So far less than 50 have applied for asylum in Slovakia, for example.

For several years now, Ukrainians have constituted Europe’s chief economic migrants: half a million per year since 2016 with around 1.5 million now legally resident in Poland. (By contrast, only around 6,000 applied for asylum in the entire EU in 2021.) According to Eurostat, the next largest Ukrainian diasporas are in Germany, Czechia, Hungary, Spain and Italy. So the influx will not be limited to eastern Europe alone. 

Ukrainians with pre-existing networks of family and friends will find their way quickly into the open and labour-thirsty economies of central and eastern Europe, and rely on personal connections at least initially for social services. Poland is already considering various labour market integration initiatives and in some cases the private sector is moving faster, offering accommodation as well as work to arrivals.

However, the number arriving without personal contacts is also growing rapidly. East European governments face the task of housing and integrating hundreds of thousands, as well providing health services and post-trauma counselling, especially given the vulnerable profile of many. Children will need schooling. Older people will need medical care.

One useful model to draw lessons from could be Turkey’s assistance to huge numbers of Syrians in 2014 and 2015 where the Turkish authorities rapidly created entire new community infrastructures (houses, hospitals and schools) to house and integrate the arrivals.

4. EU countries are likely to grant temporary EU protection status, including labour market access, on Thursday

EU interior ministers will meet Thursday to decide on a package of crisis response measures, including reprogramming around 200 million euros immediately available for border management support. (A lot more money will be mobilised in the coming weeks.) Crisis management coordination has been established through the EU’s Integrated Political Crisis Response format, used in both the 2015-2016 migration- and Covid crises (IPCR). IPCR brings together national officials with EU institutions to share information on arrival numbers and ongoing problems with a view to identifying gaps and immediate needs. For the moment, one clear need seems to be the provision of warm clothes and heating equipment, rather than first aid kits, for example.

Most importantly, EU countries will probably agree on the European Commission’s plan to trigger the Union’s Temporary Protection Directive (TPD). This never-before-used legislation was agreed in 2001 after five wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. It allows for specific, clearly defined group fleeing conflict en masse to receive collective protection status within the Union. This gets around the need to go through lengthy asylum procedures for each person and, critically, gives the new arrivals access to the labour market. Unlike national temporary status, the TPD would also allow Ukrainians to move around the EU to link up with personal networks

However, the TPD is no panacea (prior to last week, the Commission was actually in the process of overhauling the unloved directive). Its chief value is likely as a symbol of political unity and openness to the arriving cohort. Even if the directive is triggered, a cumbersome second stage, where refugees are to be shared out around the Union by volunteering host countries, may never come to pass. One question will be whether the Commission proposes triggering the directive for Ukrainian refugees only or rather refugees from Ukraine (i.e. including the relatively small amount of foreign-born nationals resident there.) Ministers are likely to approve an initial period of one year only, subject to renewal for a further two years.

By coincidence, EU countries were already due to address major reform of the EU’s asylum policy at Thursday’s meeting. Progress has been blocked for several years over what to do about roughly 100,000 irregular boat arrivals in the Mediterranean per annum. However, this debate is now on the backburner, as all attention goes to addressing the crisis. When negotiators come back to the table, the Ukrainian experience will have completely reframed the discussion.

5. Fears of an irregular migration crisis will remain below the surface

In contrast to 2015, welcoming war refugees from neighbouring Ukraine is popular with Europeans and much will be done to accommodate the new arrivals. Ukrainians have strong linguistic, historical links with their likely hosting countries, and are patently the innocent and unsuspecting victims of an unprovoked conflict where many have paid a heavy price for wanting closer ties to Europe.

However, every refugee crisis follows an arc from the initial positive emotions of welcome to frustration over initial challenges and then fear over rising numbers and the sense that open borders and host communities are vulnerable to abuse. There will inevitably be some tensions with local communities during a period of high inflation and heightened security tensions. These are likely to be manageable, however.

The Union will need to tailor support to front-line countries, especially for later phases of the crisis where help with integration is needed after initial efforts are exhausted, and when further cohorts may be arriving. This could happen sooner than seems likely now, especially if some twist in the security situation leads to migrants being manipulated as an instrument of geopolitical pressure by Russia or Belarus, as happened in 2021.

The duration of the refugee crisis is a key question. If rapid return to Ukraine is possible, this has implications for the allocation of major EU resources to help rebuild the country, rather than support front-line EU states in integrating long-term refugees. In any case, the economic damage caused by the war will take at least a decade to undo, keeping outward migration high as in recent years. Ukrainian men currently fighting may choose to rejoin exiled family in the EU after the conflict, rather than the other way around. Even before the conflict remittances from abroad represented about 8 per cent of Ukrainian GDP and this is now set to rise sharply in importance alongside international aid packages.

Ukraine has own small migrant population, with migrants from the post-Soviet space but also India, Bangladesh, Syria, Afghanistan and other places. By no means all will choose to come to the EU in the current flow. But some are likely to end up in the normal asylum processes of neighbouring countries.

Furthermore, people smugglers in other regions will pressure the new open border policy by attempting to channel their customers from the territory of Ukraine to the EU’s open Eastern border. At some point, it will become obvious some crossing the border are not Ukrainian or have never lived in Ukraine. Avoiding such ‘pull factors’ from regions not touched by the conflict is likely to be a factor in minister’s discussions this week especially as regards clearly communicating Europe’s policy on welcoming arrivals from Ukraine.

Hugo Brady is a senior strategic adviser at ICMPD.

  • Source: Frontex