The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a major exodus of people fleeing conflict. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of September 2022, 12.6 million border crossings from Ukraine have been recorded since February. Moreover, data from the European Commission shows that 7.7 million Ukrainian nationals have entered the European Union.
The Ukrainian flow of persons has already exceeded the number of refugees recorded during the refugee crisis of 2015 in the EU which was considered, at that time, the highest influx of asylum seekers experienced by the EU since World War II (Niemann & Zaun, 2018). In 2015, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX), reported that 1.8 million asylum seekers crossed the European borders by land and sea.
The public discourse on these two humanitarian exoduses has been contrasting, and the response of certain Member States, particularly that of Poland, brought about a broad discussion regarding the differences between the exodus of Ukrainians and that of 2015, made up mainly of Syrians.
The refugee crisis of 2015 was characterised by contrasting positions around the EU. For instance, on the one hand, countries such as Germany and Sweden, decided to open their borders and offer humanitarian protection to refugees while, on the other hand, countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia remained reluctant to receive asylum seekers, opposing the European and German welcoming initiatives, and promoting a xenophobic and anti-immigrant discourse, both nationally and at the European level (Bulmer & Joseph, 2018).
Moreover, since the beginning of this crisis, it became common for European politicians to argue that Europe was not able to ‘take in all the refugees of the world’, leading the EU to face a major collective action problem towards asylum seekers, one in which refugees in some countries such as Italy faced a humanitarian crisis, being unable to relocate to different Member States. Arguments of this nature not only left aside the main values of the EU, particularly the respect for human dignity and human rights, but also its commitment to offer humanitarian protection to vulnerable persons, agreed by all the member states through the Refugee Convention of 1951.
In Poland, the influx of refugees was highly politicised and public opinion remained reluctant to offer protection to asylum seekers, particularly Muslims. It was even perceived as a ‘refugee invasion’. As such, the asylum applications in Poland represented just around 0.92 percent of the total applications received in the EU and only 0.03 percent of the total Polish population.
According to Eurobarometer, by November 2015, only 3 percent of Polish respondents said that immigration of people from outside the EU provoked in them a very positive feeling, while 23 per cent responded fairly positive, 38 percent fairly negative, 24 per cent very negative, and 11 per cent did not know.
The perception of society on refugees played a major role in shaping the Polish position towards asylum seekers and, as a result, Poland only granted protection to 695 persons in 2015, compared to Germany that offered protection to 148,215 persons in the same year, which represented ‘almost half of the positive decisions’ of the EU.
Contrastingly, this time both the European and Polish responses have been completely different. As suggested by Saif Khalid ‘Europeans have stepped up, welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms, in stark contrast to their response to Syrian refugees a few years ago’.
The Ukrainian exodus led the EU to implement, for the first time in history, the ‘Temporary Protection Directive’, that was adopted just after the conflict in former Yugoslavia. This directive offers Ukrainians one year of protection, which might be extended depending on the situation inside Ukraine, as well as ‘a residence permit, access to the labour market and housing, medical assistance, and access to education for children’. As of 20 September, more than 4 million persons have registered for temporary protection in the EU under this scheme or similar national protection schemes.
Interestingly, the Polish anti-refugee sentiment position has vanished in the face of the Ukrainian influx, a shift that has been mainly criticised internationally in the media, arguing that it has been driven by racial aspects.
On the one hand, during the 2015 refugee crisis, the fear of increasing Islamisation was considered a threat to the national and European identity and, after the terrorist attacks of Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016 respectively, refugees were targeted as terrorists, and thus as a threat to national security. In contrast, Ukrainians are perceived as non-violent white eastern Europeans and some scholars argue that their religion has played a major role in shaping the response of the European, and mainly Christian, Member States. Sentiments such as ‘most Poles see Ukraine as a brother nation with a similar language and culture’ are evident now, but were missing in 2015.
According to Pew Research Institute, as of June 2022, 80% of Polish citizens support ‘taking in refugees from countries where people are fleeing violence and war’. This represents a major change in public opinion towards refugees, as in April 2016, 71% opposed relocating refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
Poland has received more than 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees and has recorded more than 5.9 million border crossings from Ukraine from people fleeing war. This country has positioned itself as a leader at the European level, receiving more Ukrainians than any other, representing an official shift of position, as well as a social one.
The Polish position amidst these two major influx of refugees, one composed mainly of Syrians, and the other of Ukrainians, represents a great example of the role that the incomers’ identity can play in the formulation of initiatives to respond to an exodus of people caused by international conflicts.
Therefore, it is important to consider the impact of identity in the implementation of refugee policy. While the incomers’ identity can play a positive role as it has during the Ukrainian exodus, it can also be a determiner for countries to close the doors to refugees and adopt conservative policies against migration, as happened in 2015. In sum, identity has the potential to shape public opinion and policies towards refugees.
Nonetheless, the Ukrainian exodus has demonstrated the ability of Member States to respond to a crisis, by opening their doors and implementing welcoming policies. The world has seen a European response through which Member States have avoided a humanitarian crisis as the one experienced in 2015.
Therefore, the flow of Ukrainian refugees should be studied as a good example of what could be achieved if Member States reacted the same way as they have with Ukrainians regardless of the origin and identity of refugees.
Other Sources Used
Bulmer, S., Joseph, J. (2018) Explaining the leadership crisis in the EU: agency, structure and the struggle between hegemonic projects.
Niemann, A., Zaun, N. (2018) EU Refugee Policies and Politics in Times of Crisis: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 56(1), pp. 3–22.
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Rueda Vergara, K. (2022) A Tale of Two Conflicts: European responses to mass-migration, IDRN, 22 September. Available at: https://idrn.eu/a-tale-of-two-conflicts-european-responses-to-mass-migration/ [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].