Just six weeks ago, Poland began building a wall along its border with neighboring Belarus. It was intended to ward off refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan trying to reach Europe via Minsk.
The fate of thousands of individuals had been unresolved for many days, stranded along the border in freezing temperatures, unable to advance into Poland or return to Belarus.
And now? Just over a week ago, Poland, like all other EU Member States, opened its borders to welcome war refugees from Ukraine. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised that everyone would be welcome.
Many Ukrainians traveled to Germany, like this group waiting to move into their new home in Cologne
“A very different response”
” What a difference ! said Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) in Brussels. She, along with a coalition of dozens of aid organizations, has been dealing with migration policy for years.
More than a million people have already fled Ukraine in just over a week since Russia invaded on February 24. The EU expects up to 4 million people to enter the bloc, in what would be the largest group of refugees in Europe. since World War II.
“Europe is able to cope now and it was able to cope in 2015, but of course we see a very different response,” Woollard said.
As of 2015, around 1 million Syrians fleeing the civil war have arrived in Central Europe via Greece and the Balkan countries. The contentious debate over the distribution of these refugees plunged the EU into an entrenched political battle, which remains unresolved to this day.
Woollard is pleased that the EU has so far reacted very differently to people fleeing Ukraine. “We appreciate that. We hope it sticks,” she said. “Obviously a collective response to those kinds of numbers makes the situation manageable.”
Rare consensus among member states
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson was also pleasantly surprised at how quickly EU interior ministers were able to reach consensus on how to help people arriving from Ukraine, after years of discord over EU migration policy.
Johansson welcomed the decision to quickly accept all refugees arriving from Ukraine
“I am proud to be European, I am proud of the solidarity shown by individuals, local and regional authorities, border guards, NGOs, governments,” she said earlier this week, after the 27 EU interior ministers agreed to quickly accept all refugees arriving from Ukraine.
Ministers promised to guarantee refugees at least 12 months of residence in any EU country, and to provide them with housing and health care, a school for their children and the right to work. They will be spared the tedious asylum procedures generally imposed on migrants arriving by boat in Italy, Greece or Spain in recent years.
Without wanting to criticize the current drive to help, Woollard said there was clearly a double standard when it came to migration policy in the EU. This was particularly evident in countries like Poland and Hungary – which has also sealed its southern border with a wall since the migrant crisis in 2015.
“Unfortunately, it is well established that migration and asylum policies are shaped by factors such as race, religion and country of origin. There are biases in the system. These are issues to be addressed long term,” she told DW. “We should see this kind of response wherever people in need arrive in Europe.”
The EU is using additional money from an emergency fund to provide assistance to Ukraine’s neighbours, especially countries like Romania and Moldova, which desperately need help. Laws stipulating that the country of initial entry into the EU is responsible for the treatment of a refugee are also lifted.
Ukrainians are now free to travel to other EU states, even if they do not have the legally required biometric passports. These rules, however, will not apply to holders of third-country passports holding a residence visa for Ukraine, such as African students.
“They are helped to get out of Ukraine. We work closely with the Ukrainian side. All are welcomed to Europe, [provided] with food, clothing and housing,” Johansson said, describing the bloc’s approach to these students. “Then we reach out to the third countries where they come from… and they will send planes to pick them up and bring them home. “
2022 is not 2015
Johansson said this newfound solidarity and the “paradigm shift” in refugee policy could potentially affect the EU’s controversial “toxic” migration policies on a larger scale. But why can we do things in 2022 that could not be done in 2015?
Germany’s Social Democratic Interior Minister Nancy Faeser doesn’t have the answer, but she does have a hunch. “The only explanation I have is that the war is very close. It is in the heart of Europe. The level of concern is different when you see what is happening there,” he said. she declared.
Now, proposals for legislative reform of EU migration and asylum laws – on the table long before the war in Ukraine – should be rushed.
“All ministers around the table agree that we need to move much faster than we have done so far. Often times a crisis can resolve a blockade. We need to reach consensus. We need to move forward “, said the French Minister of the Interior. Gerald Darmanin this week. Darmanin currently holds the rotating presidency of EU interior ministers during France’s six-month tenure as bloc president.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser says EU acceptance of Ukrainian refugees is ‘historic’
‘The way it’s supposed to be’
Rapid acceptance of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion is also in the EU’s interest, Woollard said. “This must continue. The risk of panic and paralysis in the EU will only serve [Russian President] Vladimir Poutine. We must at all costs avoid a political crisis as we saw in 2015 and 2016,” she said.
At the time, the bloc was split between EU countries that rejected migrants outright and those willing to accept them, with contentious debates over so-called “refugee ceilings” or “upper limits”. Over time, the general policy of deterrence largely prevailed and the borders were sealed off. Asylum procedures, which were to be handled directly at the bloc’s external borders, have yet to be fully implemented.
But the EU’s handling of the influx of refugees so far in 2022 has been “adequate and collective, as it should be”, said Woollard.
This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton