Is Europe Prepared for a Possible Large-Scale Ukrainian Displacement Crisis?
Great uncertainty has been unleashed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Europeans woke up to the stunning reality of warfare on their continent, European Union and national-government policymakers immediately turned their attention to two key questions: how many Ukraine citizens may flee towards the bloc and will EU preparations of recent weeks suffice?
With armed conflict being waged in its backyard and the reverberations of the 2015 and subsequent Afghan and Belarussian refugee crises still clearly felt in Brussels and national capitals, the European Union is, more than ever, under pressure to show leadership in jointly responding to any massive displacement that could unfold on its eastern border. Depending on how brutal the invasion is and how deep the Russians reach into Ukraine, it is estimated that anywhere from 50,000 to 1 million or more Ukrainians could move into EU territory. Neighboring countries such as Poland, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, and Romania would be first affected, but others further afield, such as Estonia, Finland, and Germany, could expect to see arrivals as well.
Over the past weeks as the war drums beat louder, governments of those countries and EU leaders in Brussels have sought to reassure friend and foe alike that preparations were underway, including contingency plans to quickly upscale existing reception capacity. Except for the odd leak to reporters, officials left the content of these contingency plans purposively vague. The rationale? To avoid generating a self-fulfilling prophecy of seemingly “inviting” refugees to come, but also to keep information from Russia and its ally Belarus, which last year tried to destabilize the European Union by using migration as a weapon.
Amid the vagueness, the ghost of the 2015-16 refugee crisis has resurfaced. And members of the public and policymakers alike are pondering whether the European Union is better prepared than in 2015 and 2016, when more than 2 million migrants and refugees arrived, overtopping the asylum and migrations systems of so many EU countries. Publics will be alert to anything that resembles the chaos they witnessed back then or last autumn on the border with Belarus.
The 2015 crisis, and subsequent border skirmishes over migrants with Turkey and Belarus, prompted the creation of a vast set of emergency preparedness measures, ranging from investments in early-warning mechanisms and forecasting (e.g. how many will arrive and where?), to upgraded mandates for Frontex, the EU Asylum Agency (EUAA), and Europol to intervene in border or migration crises, and capacity building to address sudden upticks in arrivals. As occurred with last year’s Belarus crisis and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Europe’s Blueprint Mechanism recently was activated. This mechanism supports the EU emergency and crisis response in migration and brings together the key stakeholders—the European Commission, affected Member States, relevant EU agencies, and select other key players (e.g., the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration)—to closely monitor the situation and take coordinated action if a crisis is triggered or is imminent.
The first priority in the event of major arrivals of displaced Ukrainians would be to secure adequate reception: Finding accommodations and supporting new arrivals with material needs such as food, sanitation, and clothing. To quickly expand existing reception capacity, neighboring EU Member States could revert to tested—but at most temporary—strategies, such as using vacant lots, military barracks, or tents.
There is a key role for the EU Asylum Agency, which has developed its in-house expertise and ability to mobilize resources, and smooths the gap across Member States that have differing views of their protection role. By providing operational support to frontline Member States such as Greece, Cyprus, Malta, and Spain, and now also to countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium, the asylum agency has acquired expertise in quickly moving in and supporting the creation of emergency reception facilities. Beyond that, it also is testing new modalities to offer reception that is in line with EU standards.
Poland, which already is home to more than 1 million Ukrainians, announced Thursday that it would open reception centers near the border, offering food, medical help, and information. Even as there were reports of thousands of Ukrainians leaving the country, headed for Poland, Moldova, and beyond, buses and trains from Poland to Kyiv and Lyiv were sold out, as some sought to return to Ukraine to fight or reconnect with family members.
Refugees by Another Name?
Unlike Syrian, Afghan, and other arrivals to the European Union, Ukrainians already enjoy visa-free travel to the bloc for stays of up to 90 days, and there has been no indication that countries would limit the arrangement. Indeed, the Slovak interior minister said Ukrainians without valid passports would be admitted if they pass an individual assessment conducted by border officials.
In a scenario where the conflict becomes protracted and displaced Ukrainians seek to stay on a longer-term basis, they will have several options available. While asylum is an option, the large Ukrainian diaspora already present in Poland, Germany, Czechia, Italy, and Spain could sponsor others through family channels. And others yet may be eligible for labor channels such as that offered already to Ukrainians by Poland.
After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians headed to EU Member States, but just 34,375 applied for asylum. While governments would have to take steps to permit this type of lane switching without requiring a return trip to Ukraine, using these pathways could alleviate pressure on European asylum systems. And with such a large diaspora, many would rely on friends and family rather than drawing on formal reception systems.
Still, regardless of their status, if hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flee to neighboring countries amid prolonged conflict, the question of solidarity within the EU bloc will rise to the forefront. But how easy will it be for Member States to shape movements in a bid to share responsibility for dealing with the displaced when Ukrainian citizens have a visa-free regime with the European Union and large diaspora communities?
Next to dealing with the most urgent needs of displaced Ukrainians, a bigger issue is at stake here. With the European Union divided on how to jointly respond to migration pressures and frustrated by how its commitments to asylum rights have undermined its position in recent geopolitical conflicts (e.g. Belarus), it will be essential for EU policymakers to demonstrate to the public that the bloc is able to manage and control arrivals, has a plan for how to temporarily receive displaced Ukrainians, and can avoid chaotic border scenes.
For it is these scenes of chaos and poor management that have fueled an ever-growing list of reactive and restrictive stances on humanitarian protection and migration across the bloc in the past months.