On 24 February 2022 the Russian Federation launched a military offensive against Ukraine. In 5 weeks, a quarter of the population of Ukraine has been forced to flee their homes. As of today, more than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine, making this the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II. And, according to UN figures, Poland has been the largest single destination for refugees fleeing Ukraine, with about 2.3 million people thought to be hosted there.
For some Ukrainians, life in Poland has proven to be challenging, and their situation became desperate due to a lack of resources. For them the alternative of staying abroad became increasingly untenable. Many are returning because they couldn’t find accommodation, work or security in their places of refuge. Some are only on their way to get others so that they can take them to safety. Many refugees in Poland had to rely on the kindness of the ordinary people, as countries across Europe struggled with a unified, planned approach to everything, from documenting those seeking help to providing them with basic sustenance fees.
Still, according to the UNHCR spokesperson Rafał Kostrzyński, the Polish government is doing an extraordinary job. “The government is doing remarkably well, considering the high number of arrivals. Problems exist — there are gaps, there are risks, and so on — but given the whole context, and taking into account the very complex situation, the fate of the refugees here in Poland is not that bad,” Kostrzyński said in a recent interview. Indeed, Polish civil society is welcoming Ukrainian refugees with immense generosity. Krakow, a city of 800.000 people, has welcomed more than 150.000 refugees from Ukraine. In Warsaw cash assistance is provided to the most vulnerable among them, helping them to pay rent, buy food and cover transport costs. It is a very dignified way to support people in need. In addition, the UNHCR claimed to keep helping the city in every possible way and advocating more international support for Poland.
It seems that Poland has gone from being a quasi-rogue state to an outpost of civilization, almost as if it is not the same country that just a few months ago passed a law to make the deportation of migrants to the border with Belarus legal, and give the possibility to the border police not to consider their requests for asylum. In a matter of a few weeks, the country has become the linchpin of the Western effort to defend Ukraine and deter Russia, evidenced by the fact that the biggest share of military equipment, both lethal and non-lethal, towards Ukraine is going through Poland.
This prompts the question as to why Poland is at the forefront of anti-Russian support for Ukraine. According to Polish political sources, the support of the Polish Prime Minister to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is motivated by internal and geopolitical reasons. Among these the political consensus stands out since the vast majority of Poles are sympathetic towards refugees and support the strong support offered by Warsaw to Zelensky, even in its most difficult demands for the West, like that of a no-fly zone. This also explains Kaczynski’s reckless decision to go so far as to ask for a NATO mission in Ukraine, and then taking a step back, while the news wins the headlines of Polish newspapers. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that before the outbreak of Putin’s second war against Ukraine, relations between Kiev and Warsaw had cooled to such an extent that in the last five years the prime ministers of the respective countries had never met.
Among the many big developments over the last few days in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was an important potential asylum law measure – the decision to trigger the EU’s temporary protection Directive, a legal framework for mass influxes of people needing protection dating back to 2001. The Council Directive 2001/55/EC had never been activated before, even in the face of the emergency in Libya or the recent Afghan crisis. But, since the war broke out on Europe’s doorsteps and the Visegrad Group countries were directly affected by the influx of Ukrainian refugees, member countries needed to find a new approach to relocation.
Member States indicated broad support for the Directive at the EU Council meeting of February 27th. The Commission duly proposed a Decision to give effect to this on March 2nd, alongside guidance for applying EU external borders law. The Council agreed on the Decision on March 3rd, and formally adopted it on March 4th. The decision applied from the same day. What do these new rules mean for the millions of people now fleeing Ukraine? Directive 55 of the Council of the European Union of 20 July 2001 – also called “Kosovo Directive” since established following the crisis in the Balkans in the 1990s – allows refugees to obtain the so-called temporary protection, preventing the procedures or the traditional asylum application from disrupting the bureaucracy of reception in individual countries. These are rules "for granting temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons", says the title of the directive.
This exceptional procedure offers refugees from a given area the possibility to live in the EU for one year and it is renewable up to a maximum of two. This measure is designed to avoid "detrimental effects for the proper functioning of the asylum system" due precisely to the proportions of the inflow. However, it has never been necessary to further define what is meant by "massive influx" or "considerable number of displaced persons" since this has been a dead letter since 2001. The explanation is to find, perhaps, in the second part of the title of the directive, which concerns the "promotion of the balance of efforts between Member States". This is exactly the subject on which the European states have clashed over the last decade. With the first countries of arrival, including Italy, asking in vain for the fair distribution of migrants and others, starting with members of the Visegrad Group, such as Poland and Hungary, decidedly opposing forced reception of refugees. So, for the first time the flow affects precisely the countries that most strenuously opposed to rethinking the European reception system through the distribution of quotas. Positions that have never been reconciled, given that the ambitious European reform on asylum and migrants – the one that should have gone beyond the Dublin Regulation – still speaks of "voluntary quotas".
Essentially, there is already a regulation to overcome the 2001 directive with a "structural solidarity mechanism, which avoids ad hoc responses" on the wave of emergency. But, so far, it is only one ambitious proposal, among others, made by European Commission in 2020 and currently under consideration by the Parliament. The Commission has repeatedly called for the implementation of Directive 55, as in the case of people from Libya, Syrian refugees, and last year for the crisis in Afghanistan. However, until now, Europe has chosen to organize itself on the rejection, and the main objective of European policies seems to be "the externalization of borders". In fact, the only truly European policy on immigration remains the one that invests in the externalization of borders where the logic of rejection is worth more than the law. Surely, the implementation of the directive to facilitate the rescue of Ukrainian citizens is a positive and important decision but, at the same time, it underlines the inadequacy of a reception system that for all other refugees fleeing persecution and conflict remains such.
The activation of Directive 55/2001 has its strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, it gives Ukrainians a tool that remains inaccessible to other refugees. In fact, these days the complaints of residents in Ukraine of other nationalities are rejected at the Polish border and risk not having protection if the Directive will not be specifically activated in their favour as well. On the other hand, it represents an opportunity to review the Union’s overall approach to asylum and migration, including crisis procedures. Although it may seem paradoxical, and even as Europe shows solidarity and action like never before, the activation of the directive is an opportunity not to miss at the regulatory level. The hope is that the Council of the European Union will also take action to facilitate reunification and make the movement of protection holders across Member States’ borders possible, as provided for in Article 11 of the Directive as long as there is an agreement between the states. In other words, it is a new way of managing the presence of refugees in Europe, which makes us reflect on the approach to reforms approved in Strasbourg.
Overall, the temporary permit is good for the timing of the procedures, but a long-term vision should be adopted immediately. Furthermore, planned integration paths should be activated as soon as possible, such as teaching the local language, providing guidance and accompaniment to employment, among others. As the wartime exodus from Ukraine grows larger, it is increasingly clear that governments must immediately take responsibility for such measures. Now that the war is at our doorstep, the European Union must also comment on the distribution of the exodus. This is the only immediate solution, even though ending this war would be the only way to stop such huge forced displacement.
Operational Data Portal. Ukraine refugee situation. UNHCR.
Dempsey J. (2022, March 15). The War in Ukraine Could Change Poland. Carnegie Europe.
Majkowska-Tomkin M. and Moschopoulos M. (2021, November 12). Poland can and must follow EU migration norms. Euronews.
(07/08/2001) Council Directive 2001/55/EC of 20 July 2001 on minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and on measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences thereof. Official Journal L 212. EUR-Lex.