¿Está la UE preparada para una crisis de refugiados ucranianos?

Is the EU prepared for a Ukrainian refugee crisis?


26 | 02 | 2022


How the European Union deals with the massive influx of people displaced by this conflict may have important effects for the future.

In the picture

Refugees from Ukraine arrive at the border with Moldova [Twitter].

The influx of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine is massive; there has been talk of an estimated five million people, but the figure could be even higher as the fighting itself unfolds. EU countries have shown initial signs of unity in the policy of receiving those arriving at their borders, but it is too early to assess the response. For now, we can see what happened when in 2014 the destabilisation of Ukraine began with the Russian takeover of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored conflict in the Donbas region.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Crimea and part of the Donbas region in 2014, armed violence in eastern Ukraine has been constant, although a number of ceasefire agreements have been reached but have been short-lived result . As a result of the conflict, the Ukrainian government recorded 1.8 million internally displaced persons in 2016.

The majority of Ukrainians who have left the country fleeing the conflict since 2014 have fled to Russia, given the significant proportion of ethnic Russians in the affected areas. However, the issue number of people who have been internally displaced is significantly higher.

In forced movements due to conflict, it is important to distinguish between people who leave the country in search of international protection and those who move within the country, i.e. between UNHCR-mandated refugees and internally displaced persons. Excluded from this classification are those who migrate for economic reasons during or after the conflict.

According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the end of 2021 was 1.4 million, although according to UNHCR'sdata this figure was around 700,000 people.

Factors in a refugee crisis

Before the Russian offensive, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleskii Reznikov estimated that a Russian invasion would result in a migration flow of between 3 and 5 million Ukrainians. Any attempt to predict the issue number of people who will leave the country is imprecise given the different variables that influence the number of people fleeing conflict and the form and destination of their displacement.

The first of these variables is the Degree violence of the conflict, for example, whether it takes place in unpopulated areas and instructions military areas far from the main cities or in urban areas, in which case both the devastation and the risk to the civilian population are much higher. Secondly, there is the attention influence of the different combatant groups on the civilian population during and after the conflict, especially the attitude of Russia or the territorial authorities it establishes towards the territories it comes to control. The third major variable is the scale and direction of the invasion, not just the attacks. Although Russia is carrying out attacks throughout the territory, it may aim to have effective control over only some parts, such as the two rebel republics or even as far as the Dnieper River including Kiev and seeking a partition of the country between the eastern and western sides. In addition, this will influence which routes are considered safe to leave the country. Finally, a variable core topic is how long the conflict lasts, as the longer it lasts the greater the devastation, the greater the risk to the population and the lower the citizens' perception of future opportunities. The duration will not only depend on a possible capitulation of the Ukrainian government, as even in such a scenario there could still be fighting in other Ukrainian cities or guerrilla movements.

In addition to the number of displaced persons, it is necessary to take into account the different possibilities regarding displacement itself. In the absence of a total invasion of the country, it is likely that much of the displacement will be internal, especially from areas not controlled by the government (NGCAs) to those under its control (GCAs). These movements are particularly constrained by crossing areas that are open to the civilian population.

As for the people who would leave the country, the precedent of the Crimean invasion may be misleading given the different circumstances. When the invasion of the Crimean peninsula took place, as well as the conflicts in the Donbas, most people who left the country did so to Russia. However, it is important to note that the cultural, national and familial ties of part of the population of Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to Russia made them more prone to such movement than Ukrainian citizens in other areas would be, especially as we move further into the central and western part of the country, where these ties, while persisting in some parts of the population, are less numerous. With open conflict, movement towards Russia is largely controlled by the Russian military and separatist governments, as seen in the civilian evacuations organised by the latter just before the invasion began.

In the case of the population in the interior and west of the country, the most likely movements are towards other countries in the direction of the European Union: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. A large part of the convoy that fled Kiev at the beginning of the invasion did so in the direction of Slovakia, but as time goes on, movements will probably be more distributed among neighbouring countries. Poland has already announced that its border is open to Ukrainian citizens, without the need for documentation, and expects to receive between one and four million people in the coming days.

EU Tools

Since 2001 the European Union has had the Temporary Protection Directive; a specific tool to deal with situations in which the usual asylum and subsidiary protection system is overwhelmed by issue applicants, and which in addition to streamlining the process seeks to distribute the migratory burden equitably among the different countries of the Union. status This directive grants protection in the form of temporary residency program permits and other rights to people fleeing endemic violence or armed conflict for a minimum duration of one year, which can be extended for a further year or up to three years in exceptional situations.

However, the implementation of the mechanisms of the Temporary Protection Directive requires a qualified majority at committee, which is so complicated that it has never been used so far. The most notorious case is that of the Syrian refugee crisis that started in 2011, as at that time the option used by EU countries was ad-hoc summits that established specific temporary protection regimes for migrants. This option could be reinstated in the event of a refugee crisis from Ukraine, with ad-hoc cooperative systems between different countries combined with temporary protection regimes in each country. In that case, the difficulty of coordination and the more than likely unequal distribution of refugees could lead to new frictions within the EU, similar to those experienced in 2015 with the difficulty of reaching agreements on Syrian refugees.

Possible ad-hoc response

How the EU will deal with the massive influx of refugees that is likely to occur in the coming days or weeks may have important effects for the future.

Despite the unity shown by the EU-27 in imposing the first sanctions packages, the current status does not rule out an ad-hoc response independent of each country and without applying the Temporary Protection Directive. The announcements of availability to take in refugees, such as that of the Polish government and those of Denmark and Finland, reinforce this possibility.

The consequences of an uncoordinated ad-hoc response or, in an even worse scenario, of leaving the countries bordering Ukraine alone in the refugee management can only be damaging for the EU, as they could, among other things, boost anti-European sentiment and withdrawal on the part of Brussels in the face of a status that could overwhelm them.

If the temporary protection directive is activated, it is questionable whether the unity demonstrated will be prolonged over time in terms of migration policy or whether it will last only until the end of the current crisis. On the other hand, activation would contrast with the response to the 2015 crisis, which could be seen either as a different approach depending on the origin of the refugees or as a symptom of learning from past mistakes.