Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. In the weeks since, more than 3.5 million people have fled the country – this number continues to increase. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has described it as the ‘fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II’. What have the UK and EU refugee responses been so far?
This explainer looks at what is happening on the ground, how the EU and its member states have responded, how the UK has responded and whether Brexit has impacted the UK’s action.
What is happening in Ukraine?
Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. This follows the Russian annexation of the southern region of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region – made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘oblasts’ or provinces – has also seen fighting between Russian-backed separatist groups and Ukrainian government forces since 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued this full-scale invasion – referred to by the President as a ‘special military operation’ – is necessary for the ‘demilitarisation and de-Nazification’ of Ukraine and to ‘protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide’, in other words those whose first or only language is Russian.
However, there has been no genocide in Ukraine and the country is led by President Volodymyr Zelensky who is Jewish.
The 2014 annexation of Crimea has already seen an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people leave the region, part of an estimated 1.5 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who left eastern Ukraine.
Since 24 February 2022, Russia’s full-scale invasion has resulted in more than 3.5 million refugees crossing from Ukraine into neighbouring countries and a further 6.5 million Internally Displaced Persons. The UNHCR’s Operational Data Portal shows refugee numbers continue to increase on a daily basis. The UNHCR initially estimated that in the worst-case scenario approximately 4 million people would flee Ukraine, however, the UN has said the crisis has now exceeded ‘any worse-case scenario planning’.
According to the UN, the majority of refugees from Ukraine have fled to neighbouring Poland (2.1 million). Many others have crossed the border to enter Hungary (317,000), Slovakia (253,000), Moldova (367,900), Romania (543,300), Russia (252,300) and Belarus (4,300).
Not all those fleeing Ukraine are Ukrainian. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) estimates at least 186,000 Third Country Nationals have crossed the border into Moldova and Slovakia alone, with significantly more entering Poland. The European Commission defines Third Country Nationals as ‘any person who is not a citizen of the European Union… and who is not a person enjoying the European Union right to free movement’ – in this context, those who are not Ukrainians.
While Ukraine is not an EU member state, Ukrainians may travel within the Schengen Zone without a visa for up to 90 days within a 180-day period. By contrast, many Third Country Nationals – from North African and sub-Saharan African countries, India amongst others – fleeing Ukraine face complex exit procedures.
There have been multiple reports of foreign students and labour migrants from African and Asian states experiencing discrimination, racism and violence at the borders. The African Union and IOM amongst others have strongly condemned this treatment of Third Country Nationals, urging equal treatment for all.
What has the EU’s asylum response been?
In response to the exodus on Ukraine’s borders, the EU has invoked its Temporary Protection Directive for the first time.
The Temporary Protection Directive was created in 2001 following conflicts during the 1990s in the Balkans to manage a ‘mass influx of displaced persons’ and therein provide a tool to ensure a ‘balance of efforts’ between EU member states to alleviate pressure on national asylum systems.
The resulting ‘temporary protection’ emergency mechanism provides displaced persons with the same rights across the EU, including rights to reside for up to three years, employment, housing, medical assistance and access to education for children.
The European Commission proposed activating the Temporary Protection Directive on 27 February and on 4 March, the Council of Ministers voted unanimously to implement it.
This will be in place initially for one year with the possibility to automatically extend it for up to another year.
Those eligible for this ‘temporary protection’ include Ukrainian nationals and some third country nationals who resided in Ukraine before or on 24 February 2022.
The Council’s decision allows the European Commission to coordinate information exchange between member states. Member states can also request further support from EU agencies including Frontex, the EU asylum agency and Europol.
The Council decision also mentions that Ukrainian nationals ‘as visa-free travellers, have the right to move freely within the Union after being admitted into the territory for a 90-day period’ and as such ‘they are able to choose the Member State in which they want to enjoy the rights attached to temporary protection’ – this will help to facilitate ‘a balance of efforts’ between member states.
Individual member states have put in place various measures to welcome those seeking refuge from the conflict. The Czech Republic is allowing refugees to apply for a special visa allowing them to find work immediately. Germany has committed to accept refugees from Ukraine regardless of their nationality.
Reception centres have been set up and large crowds offering free accommodation in their homes have waited to assist at train stations in Poland, Germany and other countries. Poland has also been preparing a medical train to transport Ukrainians wounded in the Russian invasion. Meanwhile, Hungary and Romania are offering cash allowances for food and clothing.
The European Commission is assisting the coordination of emergency assistance provided by EU member states via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Slovakia and Poland activated the mechanism requesting support to deal with the influx of refugees. As a result, Greece and Germany are providing Slovakia with tents, blankets and masks, while France is sending medicine and medical equipment to Poland.
On 8 March, EU Commissioners adopted a proposal for Cohesion’s Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE) to increase funding for member states’ humanitarian responses. The proposal increases flexibility for the re-allocation of funds provided through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) to support those fleeing.
On 21 March, the European Commission launched a special call under the EU’s Technical Support Instrument (TSI) to support member states welcoming refugees. Member states can submit technical support requests to the Commission by 8 April 2022.
What has the UK’s asylum response to Ukraine been so far?
The UK Government’s initial reaction was to point Ukrainians to conventional migration routes, such as the Seasonal Worker Scheme and family visas for those with family members already in the UK.
On 26 February, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Immigration Kevin Foster MP was widely criticised when he suggested in a tweet that there were a ‘number of routes’ for Ukrainian refugees ‘not least our seasonal worker scheme’.
Criticism highlighted the eligibility and cost requirements for a seasonal worker visa make it challenging to obtain for those seeking refuge from war: the individual applying must have a valid ‘Certificate of Sponsorship’ from an approved seasonal worker scheme employer, funds of at least £1,270 or their employer must agree to cover the same amount, must pay the £244 visa fee and Immigration Health Charge, and be aged over 18.
Since then more arrangements have been put in place.
To date, two routes have been created for Ukrainians to receive refugee status in the UK.
First, a new Ukraine Family Scheme visa for the family members of British nationals, those with UK settled or pre-settled status, indefinite leave to remain or proof of permanent residence, , or those with refugee status or humanitarian protection.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said an estimated 200,000 Ukrainian refugees will be allowed to come to the UK under the scheme. To be eligible for the scheme, individuals must have been residing in Ukraine prior to 1 January 2022.
Initially, the Home Office was criticised due to the limited scope of the definition of ‘immediate family members’ under the scheme, leading to an expansion of the scheme to include all parents, all children, grandparents and siblings.
As of 21 March, 32,500 applications have been made to the Ukraine Family Scheme. Of these, 23,100 applications have been confirmed and 12,400 visas have been issued under the scheme so far. Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko has urged the government to admit the ‘maximum’ number of people.
The Home Office claimed it had created the first special visa scheme. However, others have pointed out the scheme is less generous than the EU’s ‘temporary protection’ response which does not require a visa.
On 14 March, the government launched a second scheme – Homes for Ukraine. Under the scheme, individuals, charities, businesses, churches, local authorities and community organisations will be able to sponsor a named Ukrainian or a named Ukrainian family to come to the UK.
Those arriving under the Homes for Ukraine scheme do not need to have family ties in the UK or to know those sponsoring them prior to sponsorship. Individual sponsors are asked to provide homes or a spare room rent-free for a minimum stay of six months. In return, they will receive £350 per month.
More than 150,000 people have registered their interest in sponsoring a refugee. Since 18 March, the scheme’s visa application form has been live for paired sponsors and sponsored Ukrainians to complete together.
Concerns have been raised about the Homes for Ukraine scheme’s ‘unworkable’ bureaucracy. The scheme’s visa application form – which went live on 18 March – requires completion by Ukrainians and their sponsor.
However, there is no central mechanism for matching Ukrainians and sponsors prior to applying to the scheme. The charity Reset has stepped in to facilitate this, setting up a matching form where Ukrainians and hosts can express an interest in being paired.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has recommended those wishing to sponsor a Ukrainian refugee avoid linking via informal channels such as social media and instead turn to local councils and community groups. However, the government has been criticised over its lack of good consultation of local councils about the scheme.
Questions were also raised around weak security and safeguarding checks and concerns about child protection. Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove had initially said ‘very light touch’ criminal records checks would occur, however, it was then confirmed Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks would be needed for all hosts.
At the start of March, France accused the UK of a ‘lack of humanity’ after 150 Ukrainian refugees were turned back at Calais as they did not have a visa. Initially the UK Government required Ukrainians to apply for a visa in person at a Visa Application Centre (VAC). Concerns were raised about the lack of VACs, low staffing and long queues.
Home Secretary Priti Patel then announced on 10 March that from 15 March Ukrainians could apply for visas online and submit their biometric information once in the UK.
Has Brexit impacted the UK’s response?
Following its departure from the EU, the UK is no longer a part of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) within which the Temporary Protection Directive applies.
The 2001 adoption of the Temporary Protection Directive came together with five other legislative instruments adopted from 1999 to 2005 establishing the minimum standards for asylum – those five other instruments being the Eurodac Regulation, the Reception of Asylum Seekers Directive, the Dublin Regulation, the Qualification Directive and the Asylum Procedures Directive.
As the UK and EU reached no agreement on asylum policy in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the UK has no formal way of participating in the EU’s ‘temporary protection’ mechanism or other CEAS instruments.
However, it is not likely the UK Government would want to participate in the ‘temporary protection’ scheme. The Prime Minister has stated that ‘we have a different system’ in the UK; whereas the EU has a ‘border-free zone, in Schengen’, ‘we want to be able to have checks’.
A Joint Political Declaration on Asylum and Returns, published on 31 December, noted the ‘importance of good management of migratory flows’ and the UK’s intention to have ‘bilateral discussions’. However, to date, the UK has not agreed any cooperation with EU27 member states to assist refugees fleeing Ukraine, or on any other asylum matter.
For more on the UK’s post-Brexit asylum system, click here.
Has Brexit impacted the EU’s response?
The Temporary Protection Directive requires a qualified majority in the Council in order for temporary protection to be invoked. Therefore, were the UK still an EU member state it would not technically be able to block it on its own.
The directive compels all member states to participate – except Denmark which has an opt-out. The UK opted in to participate in 2000.
No one knows how the EU’s response would have looked with no Brexit. It is possible that the UK might have fallen in line with the EU or may have succeeded in gathering enough member states to scale back the EU’s offer.
By Sarah Overton, researcher at UK in a Changing Europe. This explainer was updated on 24 March 2022.