EN EU and justice & home affairs

Will the Ukraine war change EU asylum policy?

Will the Ukraine war change EU asylum policy?

This Spring I discussed with students at the Masaryk University in Brno (CZ) about the impact of the war in Ukraine on EU’s migration policy. It was during a course on the home affairs and justice policies of the EU that I delivered as visiting professor at the European Studies and International Relations Department of the Faculty of Social Studies (FSS). The big question that then arose was to what extent change (if any) might be expected in EU’s asylum and migration debate, given the latest developments related to the war in Ukraine.

EU’s asylum debate has remained hopelessly deadlocked for decades due to strong divisions between the member states. There are member states that press for change in the asylum and migration system, to be based on solidarity and balanced burden-sharing. The member states on EU’s southern flank, in particular, press for such a change. And there are those that fiercely oppose such a change, especially the member states on EU’s eastern flank. This division not only resulted in a deadlock, particularly in the discussions on the basic ‘first-entry rule’ of the asylum system (which says that the EU member state where the refugee comes first, should take care of the refugee). It also complicated the actual hosting of refugees seeking entry on EU’s southern flank. This was apparent during the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 when millions of displaced persons, most of whom fled the war in Syria, were held in refugee camps often under deplorable conditions.

All this stands in stark contrast to the reception of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. It was done with remarkable speed and efficiency. A 90-day visa free access to the EU was immediately granted en masse. This was possible thanks to the ‘Temporary Protection Directive’, allowing for the recognition of collective protection status to all fleeing a war zone. Millions of Ukrainians were immediately welcomed and fully accommodated in various member states (especially on the eastern flank). It is remarkable that the current crisis has actually reversed roles in the EU. Migration-sceptic member states such as Poland now find themselves on the front line facing mass influxes of displaced people from the east.

These latest developments beg the question whether a new perspective on the migration issue is emerging in the EU. The conclusions my students and I came to were quite sobering. A sense of connection with refugees (whether linguistic, historical, cultural or otherwise) may go a long way in explaining why the reception of Ukrainian refugees went so expeditiously. After all, Poland or Slovakia form the biggest refugee centres for refugees who happen to have a cultural and linguistic background not unlike their own. We expect that this migration-friendly posture is not here to stay. We rather expect that whenever migratory pressure will mount again on EU’s southern flank, traditional migration-sceptic reflexes will again dominate.

We also considered other factors. For instance the ease, or difficulty, with which people understand root causes of migration. While complexities of social and economic turmoil or civil war in other countries are more difficult to understand, the root cause of the Ukrainian migration is one that many citizens in the EU can easily relate to. Ukrainian refugees are patently the innocent and unsuspecting victims of an unprovoked attack from another state. An attack, moreover, that is considered an unjustified and disproportionate reaction to the Ukrainian wish for closer ties to Europe. Conversely, the complexities of turmoil and conflict in African or Middle-East regions are more difficult for the average person in Europe to appreciate, which may well account for the lack of broad support for a structurally more welcoming European asylum policy. In sum, we came to the conclusion that not much will change in the field of EU asylum and migration, even in light of the war in Ukraine.