Written by Célia Le Noé


The Russian attacks on Ukraine, starting in the morning of the 24thof February 2022, triggered protests around the world in contestation of the violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity. In a demonstration in front of the Russian embassy to the Netherlands in The Hague, city of peace and justice, a Ukrainian woman confided that her mother should have flown to the Netherlands on the very same day the war started. Due to the attacks, her mother is now stuck in Kyiv, and she was extremely worried for her. So was the case of many other Ukrainians, who had come to the Netherlands for their studies and were incapable of protecting their families through emigration. Such personal stories raise questions about the issue of war migration in the Ukrainian context. Among them: how do European Union (EU) member states respond to war migration from Ukraine? To what extent are the 2022 migration policies towards Ukrainians an exception in the EU’s general migration stance? This article will contrast the EU’s 2022 migration policy to previous migration crises, including the 2014 migration wave following the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the 2015 Middle Eastern migration influx. It will argue that the response to the Ukrainian migration in 2022 differs significantly from its management of previous migration crises, and that allegations of racism at the Polish border as well as the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive, reveal a racist bias in EU’s migration policies.

The 2014 and 2022 migration influx and EU responses

The Ukraine-Russia 2022 war and subsequent refugee influx to the EU 

Already by the end of the first day of attacks, on the evening of the 24th of February 2022, pictures of massive traffic jams were circulating on social media. Kyiv citizens were trying to flee to the EU. It is estimated that in only two days, more than 50.000 people fled Ukraine, with the majority heading to Poland (Franceinfo, 2022). On the 8th of March, 2022, this number rocketed to two million, according to Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Klesty, 2022).

In response to this massive flow of Ukrainians to the West, several EU member-states, such as Poland and France, have declared that they were ready to welcome Ukrainian war refugees.  In that regard, French president Emmanuel Macron has announced in a speech on the morning of February 25, 2022, that France was ready to welcome refugees from Ukraine (Le Parisien, 2022). This was further enhanced by Gérard Doucet, the mayor of Lyon (third biggest French city), who announced on the radio of Franceinfo that he was prepared to use municipality buildings to welcome war refugees (Franceinfo, 2022).

Similarly, the Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the most read and influential newspapers in Poland, announced on the 24th of February that some welcoming facilities had been created in Dorohusk, Dołhobyczów, Zosin, Hrebenne, Korczowa, Medyka, Budomierz and Krościenko, with one being under construction in Przemyśl (Gazeta Wyborcza, 2022). In these reception points, refugees can gather information about the procedures to follow on their arrival in Poland (Government of Poland, 2022). Some of them are also being picked up by Polish nationals, who then bring them to bigger cities to facilitate their access to the job market (Gazeta Wyborcza, 2022). The government itself, on the webpage of the Ministry of the Interior and Administration, states that any person escaping the Ukrainian war is to be admitted to Poland, and lists the reception points where Ukrainians can find refuge (Government of Poland, 2022). As a response to the urgency of the situation, the Polish government also lifted the COVID restrictions for non-EU citizens in order to facilitate the crossing of the Polish-Ukrainian border (Charlish & Ilie, 2022).

Such migration policies were in line with the EU’s stance, inasmuch as Ursula Von Der Leyen, who declared on the 24th of February 2022 that the EU was prepared to welcome Ukraine migrants (France 24, 2022).

The 2014 EU Migration policy with regards to Crimeans: less hospitality, more bureaucracy

How does this echo the situation of 2014, when Crimea was annexed by Russia? Back then, already, conflict in the Crimean Peninsula had led Ukrainians living there to resettle in other regions of the country. They were therefore Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), and were estimated to be between 60.000 and 100.000 between 2014 and 2019 (Hyde, 2022). These internal migrants, however, did not seek international mobility, and when they did, they mostly went to Russia (Jaroszewicz, 2019).

With regards to asylum seekers in the European Union, one can only note the limited amount of refugee statuses granted by EU countries. Indeed, Germany for instance allowed 20 Ukrainians to stay on its territory, out of the 2,700 applications in 2014. Poland, despite a start with only 20 grants of refugee protection in 2014, ended up protecting 930 Ukrainians through the grant of humanitarian status, temporary protection and refugee status due to appeal procedures in courts (Jaroszewicz, 2019). Therefore, Poland was one of the states which welcomed the highest number of Ukrainians migrants in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Furthermore, as mentioned hereinabove, Poland is helping Ukrainian citizens who started crossing the border after Russia attacked Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022. Rumours on social media that Poland has closed its border with Ukraine are thus erroneous.

Possible explanations for these different stances

One can therefore note that EU member states seem far more open to the idea of welcoming war refugees in 2022 than in 2014. Such a policy reversal could be explained by the greater scale of the war: Russia went from claiming rights on Crimea to a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, Ukrainians cannot be internally displaced anymore, since the whole country is under attack. Thus, there is a more pressing need for international mobility than in 2014. Furthermore, Putin’s speech announcing war on the morning of the 24th of February 2022, in which he mentions a supposed common culture to former USSR countries (Janowski, Boyle & McCool, 2022), might raise fears about a potential imperialist stance towards Eastern Europe.

Recent developments of the conflict, with Russian forces entering the capital Kyiv on the 25th of February 2022 (Guardian News, 2022), put in danger civilians and therefore constitute a further humanitarian reason for the welcoming of refugees. The high level of danger and risk for civilians under Russian attacks constitutes a humanitarian crisis. Indeed, in spite of declarations by Vladimir Putin that the Russian army was carrying out specific military operations and therefore not targeting civilians (BBC News, 2022), bombings of cities and towns inevitably cause civil casualties (CIVIC Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2022). A case in point is the town of Borodyanka, situated near Kyiv, which was bombed and partially destroyed, as reported by The Guardian (Guardian News, 2022). BBC News also reported some civilian casualties in Kyiv, leading citizens to escape to Poland, Hungary and Romania (BBC News, 2022).

Furthermore, isolated acts such as the crushing of a civilian by a Russian tank, reported by The Telegraph (The Telegraph, 2022), as well as greater scale events, such as the violation of ceasefires in the cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha (Guardian News, 2022), demonstrate the need for the EU to open its arms to refugees.

The 2022 policies contextualised: evidence of a racist bias in the EU?

Selective hospitality

Besides, an important element to underline is the apparent selective hospitality of EU countries. Indeed, while Poland seems open to welcome anyone fleeing the war in Ukraine, allegations of racism start flourishing on social media. In that regard, the Twitter thread #AfricansinUkraine shows some testimonies and videos of people of colour being rejected at the border or pushed away from trains leaving to Poland (Twitter, 2022). Poland’s stance towards (white) Ukrainian refugees also differs from its 2021 policy regarding Middle Eastern and Afghan migrants, who were violently denied entry to the Polish territory. Indeed, Polish authorities even used water cannons to keep migrants at a distance from the border (Higgings & Santora, 2021).

In a similar vein, French political figures such as the president of the far-right party Rassemblement National, Jordan Bardella, expressed a difference of perception of Ukrainian migrants compared to Middle Eastern ones (Franceinfo, 2022). Invited by France Info radio on the morning of the 7th of March, 2022, he alluded to the terrorist threat that represented, in his view, migrants from Syria or Libya (Franceinfo, 2022). It appears important, however, not to make generalisations about the French stances regarding refugees from the remarks of an unelected far-right politician.

To the difference of Poland, however, the French authorities’ stance on welcoming refugees has not evolved since 2015. Indeed, even though at first, then-French president François Hollande opposed the scheme put forward by the EU in order to divide the number of refugees each member state would welcome, he adjusted his position after pictures of the Aylan Kurdi sparked public outrage (Piquet, 2016). Once France aligned with the EU, the then-Home Secretary Bernard Cazeneuve set up financial incentives for every municipality which would help welcoming refugees (Franceinfo, 2015). On the other hand, in 2015, Poland refused to take in any refugee: despite having agreed to the EU’s proposition, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Schetyna and former Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz declared that they would not accept the allocation plan put in place (Cienski, 2017).

A Polish turnaround regarding EU policies

One might be intrigued by Poland’s very open position on Ukrainian migration, when in the previous summer of 2021, it denied access to its territory to thirty-two Afghans, leaving them stuck between Poland and Hungary, without medical nor food support (Gall, 2021). Furthermore, the Polish authorities overlooked an order by the European Union Court of Human Rights to provide these migrants with basic necessities such as food, water, clothes, medical assistance and temporary shelter (Rojewski, 2021). In order to explain the non-compliance to this order, the Polish authorities alluded to its supposed role as the “defender of Christian Europe” (Majkowka-Tomkin & Moschopoulos, 2021).

Therefore, it would appear that Poland’s respect of EU norms and regulation regarding border controls and asylum seekers is rather variable depending on the ethnic background of the refugees it should protect. This raises further questions about the enforcement of EU norms and values in each member state (Majkowka-Tomkin & Moschopoulos, 2021), already questioned by democratic backsliding in countries such as Poland and Hungary.

The 2001 Temporary Protection Directive

The Polish sudden compliance with EU policies is accompanied by an arguably exceptional EU stance itself. Indeed, while the EU claims to work for the imperative protection of “those in need,” as made explicit in the 2015 Agenda on Migration (Communication, n.d.), it would seem that, in practice, the EU is more prone to act when European lives are at stake. This is what the activation unanimously voted by the Council, on the 4th of March 2022 (Long, 2022), of the Council Directive 2001/55/EC of 20 July 2001, or Temporary Protection Directive, suggests. This directive, created in 2001, aims at providing “immediate and temporary protection to displaced persons from non-EU countries and those unable to return to their country of origin” in the case that the number of asylum seekers is too great for applications to be processed via traditional procedures (Temporary Protection, n.d.).

The Temporary Protection Directive had never been activated previously, in spite of several calls to do so, such as the one by Human Rights Watch in the context of the 2012 Syrian refugees crisis (Human Rights Watch, 2012). Similarly, in 2015, the directive was not activated, in spite of the dramatic humanitarian conditions in which about 1.3 million Middle Eastern refugees found themselves (Clayton & Holland, 2015). In the summer of 2021, once again, the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive for Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban was unsuccessfully suggested by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrel (Euronews, 2021).

It thus seems that, in spite of making no difference according to nationality in the 2015 Agenda on Migration, the European Union is more prone to offer a helping hand to European migrants than to refugees from other regions. This translates into more measures to help Ukrainian refugees than their Middle Eastern counterparts, as exemplified by the activation of the Council Directive 2001/55/EC of 20 July 2001 in March 2022.

Concluding remarks

To conclude, EU member-states’ migration policies in 2022 differ from the 2014 crisis in the way that in 2022, Western and Central Europeans seem more likely to welcome a large number of war refugees from Ukraine. In that regard, the bureaucratic processes of 2014 seem to have made way for an unconditional welcoming of refugees. This difference may be explained by the scale of the attacks, potential fears of Russian expansionism, but most importantly by the appalling humanitarian situation which Ukrainians have to face. Nonetheless, a problem hindering the reception of Ukrainians or other populations fleeing wars appears to be structural racism: while white Ukrainians are welcome in Poland, Middle Eastern people and people of colour seem to be met with less friendliness. Not only does this situation contrast dramatically with the Polish government’s policies during previous refugee crises, but it also raises questions about the enforcement of EU norms and values in its member states.

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