The European Union (EU) has been largely absent from Russian-US talks on the future security of Ukraine. However the bloc would be heavily impacted by a Russian invasion, and the likely substantial number of Ukrainians fleeing to the EU for protection.
While it remains unclear if and how Russia will proceed, an unpublished estimate by German and Ukrainian migration researchers suggests that, depending on the extent of a Russian invasion, between 1.7 and 8 million Ukrainians could be displaced from their homes. Only a minority would likely migrate to Russia; the majority would move to other parts of Ukraine. Some would likely continue westwards, into EU countries that they are currently free to enter.
Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe and already has 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of the 2014 Russian occupation of Crimea, including the city of Sevastopol, and its invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Estimating the number of people who would head to EU countries is very hard, but it would be likely that many hundreds of thousands of people would do so. This could cause serious humanitarian and logistical challenges, especially — but not only — in those EU countries bordering Ukraine (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.) It could further intensify established divisions among EU members regarding the management of asylum. Given the year-long stalemate in reforming the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and the operational differences among EU members, it is doubtful whether the bloc could respond uniformly and effectively to another acute influx of asylum seekers (as in 2015-16.) Nonetheless, there are steps the EU can take on now, to prepare for such a scenario.
First, EU security officials should engage with the interior ministries of the Visegrád Group countries (the V4 of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) and assess their readiness as first reception and transit countries. Poland is of particular importance. In a scenario in which Russia invades large parts of Ukraine, Poland will be a key path to Europe for Ukrainian refugees. Its border with Ukraine is more than 300 miles and includes more than 10 crossing stations. Due to Poland’s geographic proximity, comparatively higher salaries, and other factors, it is estimated that in 2020, there were already well over one million Ukrainians already living and working in the country.
The existence of cross-border networks will likely pull Ukrainian asylum-seekers in the event of a large-scale Russian invasion. This is especially the case given that, currently, the Schengen Area can be accessed without a visa by Ukrainians in possession of a valid passport. At least until the end of 2022, before the new European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) becomes operational, Ukrainians can cross into EU territory legally, meaning they are very different when compared to 2015 asylum seekers, most of whom entered the EU illegally when under duress.
Recent history indicates, however, that Poland – like other EU countries – will not likely welcome Ukrainian asylum seekers with open arms. While Poland’s prime minister has expressed solidarity with Ukraine, it is unclear if this extends to loosening the country’s tough policies on asylum. Following the Russian occupation of Crimea, Poland rejected 1,770 or 99% of all Ukrainian asylum claims decided in 2015. Furthermore, Poland and other V4 members successfully vetoed the implementation of a relocation scheme for asylum-seekers within the EU, and Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice party has refused to accept asylum seekers under this program.
Instead, very recently, European asylum guidelines were violated — in broad daylight — at the Polish-Belarusian border. In this instance, the EU supported Poland’s hardline policies and the argument that the Belarusian dictatorship was weaponizing migration, which it termed “state-sponsored smuggling”. The EU must nonetheless urgently confront this lack of uniformity in the application of its asylum rules, unless, that is, the EU no longer objects to the V4’s stance on border security. Bringing in the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) for support is likely to be ineffective; Poland and others regard it as a tool of western European influence.
Secondly, it follows that the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) must continue to support the groundwork necessary to quickly scale up refugee capacity in EU states close to or at the Ukrainian border. Certain measures – e.g. physically preparing additional reception facilities — cannot be put into practice assuming there will be conflict followed by large-scale movements. However, reception agencies could be engaged to, for example, ensure they fully understand the bureaucratic process of accessing EU funding for additional asylum support and that their operating procedures are in line with EUAA’s guidelines for high-influx events. Additionally, first-response measures, such as pre-registration or the ad-hoc scale-up of reception, administration, and processing capacity, should be reviewed on the basis of the operational improvements that the many EU Member States have made after the asylum seeker crises of 2015 and 2016.
Third, in the event of unprecedented refugee flows from Ukraine, the EU Member States and other stakeholders could call on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to activate a Support Platform for Ukraine. A flexible tool that channels support from the international community, the platform is already applied in other regions experiencing high numbers of refugees. Added to this, IDPs must be at the center of any supportive strategy for Ukraine. Before 2014, the Ukrainian government had little to no experience managing IDPs. While it has since made improvements, such as giving elderly IDP’s access to pensions, surveys suggest that access to most basic needs such as housing, employment, and incomes remain problematic, almost eight years after Russia invaded Crimea. Even leaving the human rights dimension aside, and focusing only on the EU’s strategic objective of controlling the movements of Ukrainian refugees, it becomes indispensable to offer humanitarian support to Ukrainian IDPs as well as the most vulnerable populations living on the current – and in the future potentially much greater – Russian-Ukrainian contact line.
This long-lingering conflict should remind the EU of the limits of its recently growing attempts to push asylum processes to faraway places, like, for example, Turkey or select African countries. Rather than solely looking afar, it must look within its own borders by continuing to push for CEAS reforms. Improved operations and cooperation among some EU members are important. But as late as 2020, the European Commission itself pointed out that in the current system there is no effective solidarity and no efficient rules on responsibility. It remains debatable if the 2020 New Pact on Migration and Asylum will suffice to deliver the needed change. Even if the EU miraculously agrees on a way to reform the CEAS, the challenge of applying and monitoring its regulations in practice will likely continue to loom over many EU members, including some of those that might soon find themselves dealing with large flows of people from Ukraine.
Dr. Timo Tonassi is an Affiliated Scholar at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. Previously, he worked as a Researcher at The Expert Council on Integration and Migration in Berlin and was a Migration Research Fellow at The German Marshall Fund.