European safety for Ukrainian refugees

Tuesday 29 Mar 2022

More than 10 million people have been displaced in Ukraine or beyond its borders since the war in the country began, placing growing pressures on the countries hosting refugees.

European safety for Ukrainian refugees
Refugees at the border crossing in Medyka, southeastern Poland (photo: AP)

US President Joe Biden met some of the refugees that have been pouring across the border with Ukraine on a visit to Poland last weekend, while at the same time giving a widely reported speech in Warsaw during which he described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “butcher” and appeared to call for a change of regime in the Russian Federation.

Biden’s comments were immediately contradicted by administration officials in Washington as well as by the country’s European allies, who warned against the escalation of the US-led sanctions against Russia to include not only attempts at isolating Russia economically and politically as a result of the war in Ukraine but also at bringing down the Russian president.

French President Emmanuel Macron told the French TV channel France 3 on Sunday that “everything must be done to stop the situation from escalating” if there is to be any hope of stopping the war in Ukraine, distancing France from Biden’s comments.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that the US “has no strategy for Russian regime change,” despite Biden’s earlier comment that Putin “cannot remain in power” as Russian president. “I think the president, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else,” Blinken said.

“As you know, and as you have heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else, for that matter,” he added.

With the war in Ukraine entering its second month, however, and with a diplomatic solution to the conflict seemingly as far off as ever, many in Europe are asking what the next steps might be in efforts to end the war.

As the conflict drags on without a solution in sight, more and more refugees have been pouring across Ukraine’s western borders into the European Union countries of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, together with Moldova, not a member of the EU, creating what is being described as the most important refugee crisis on the European continent since the end of World War II.

According to UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) figures, some 3,821,000 people had fled Ukraine for neighbouring countries by 26 March, including 2,267,100 going to Poland and 586,942 going to Romania. Some 381,395 Ukrainian refugees had entered Moldova by the same date, along with 349,107 entering Hungary and 272,012 Slovakia.

Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are all members of the Schengen Zone, meaning that Ukrainian refugees entering these countries can travel on freely to other EU countries without encountering border controls.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN organisation based in Geneva, almost 6.48 million people have been internally displaced in Ukraine as a result of the war, meaning that more than 10 million people have been forcibly displaced both in Ukraine and beyond the country’s borders since the beginning of the conflict.

“The scale of human suffering and forced displacement due to the war far exceeds any worst-case scenario planning,” IOM Director-General António Vitorino said, pointing to the urgent need for accommodation, healthcare, and other facilities in the mostly western areas of Ukraine that have been hosting internally displaced people and for similar needs to be met in neighbouring European countries hosting refugees.

Meanwhile, the world’s media has been showing images of the terrible destruction being meted out in Ukraine, with pictures from the eastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol and from Kharkiv and other cities across the country showing huge areas devastated by aerial bombing and the ongoing fighting between the invading Russian military and Ukrainian forces.

According to media reports this week, the direct costs of the war in Ukraine have reached some $63 billion, with the indirect costs, calculated in terms of Ukraine’s overall economic losses due to the war, being up to $600 billion, according to estimates from the Ukrainian Ministry of the Economy.

Some 1,150 Ukrainian civilians had been killed in the war by 27 March, according to the UN High Commission for Human Rights, with Ukrainian and US figures being considerably higher. According to the Russian government, some 1,350 Russian military personnel had been killed in the fighting in Ukraine by the end of March, with this figure reaching 15,000 according to NATO sources.

Under the EU’s temporary protection directive, activated for the first time on 4 March, people fleeing Ukraine will be eligible for temporary protection in the EU countries for up to three years, giving them residence permits and access to education, healthcare, social security, and the labour market without the need to claim asylum or register as refugees.

Some €500 million from the EU budget has been set aside to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the war, both inside Ukraine and beyond, with individual EU countries also delivering over €100 million worth of supplies through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

According to EU statements on assistance to Ukraine, the aid includes first aid kits, protective clothing, tents, firefighting equipment, power generators and water pumps.

Humanitarian aid including hygiene kits and power generators has been sent by EU member states to assist in the reception of Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. The EU Civil Protection Mechanism has provided assistance for Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic in hosting Ukrainian refugees, with Poland receiving aid from France, Denmark, Germany, Austria, and Belgium in the form of shelter equipment and medical supplies.

Medical assistance has been sent to Ukraine from medical stockpiles based in Germany, Hungary, and the Netherlands, including ventilators, infusion pumps, patient monitors, masks and gowns, ultrasound devices and oxygen concentrators.

EU civil protection logistical hubs have been set up in Poland and Romania, with others being set up in Slovakia, to distribute aid to Ukraine. EU Home Affairs funds for 2021-2027 are being set aside to provide resources to ensure reception facilities and asylum procedures for people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

According to EU statements, the implementation period for earlier Home Affairs funds could be extended, releasing €420 million in additional support. EU Cohesion Funds could also be used to assist member states in hosting Ukrainian refugees, with money also being found from other programmes including the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund, and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived.

While such funding for particularly the frontline EU countries in meeting the needs of the Ukrainian refugees on their territory will assist them in dealing with the millions of people who have already fled Ukraine, the longer the conflict lasts without the prospect of a diplomatic solution, the greater the numbers of people fleeing to the EU countries are likely to be.

Already there are indications that the humanitarian and other aid provided to the EU countries bordering Ukraine is unlikely to be sufficient even to provide for the existing refugees, let alone for the further waves that are expected should the conflict continue.

At a summit meeting of EU leaders held in Brussels last weekend, joined on the first day by Biden, Polish officials reportedly said that Poland alone will need to spend €11 billion on costs including accommodation and social services for Ukrainian refugees and more than double that amount should the up to three million Ukrainian refugees on its territory stay for the rest of the year.

Biden later attended a meeting of the heads of state and government of the NATO countries in Brussels before heading to Poland to make a speech in Warsaw and meet some of the Ukrainian refugees.

Poland along with other frontline European countries has reportedly been putting pressure on the EU Commission to increase support for hosting Ukrainian refugees in addition to the money that has thus far been made available, often from reprioritising existing funding streams.

Poland is in a particularly difficult situation since its application for €36 billion in EU Covid-19 pandemic recovery funds has already been blocked by the European Commission in an argument over Poland’s judicial system, described as not being in line with European standards on the rule of law. Other EU funding to Poland has also been delayed, and the country is paying fines of one million euros a day.

Similar legal action has also been taken by the Commission against Hungary as a result of what it says is the country’s failure to uphold human rights standards and the rule of law, also freezing its application for EU Covid-19 pandemic recovery funds.

With both countries now on the frontlines of European efforts to host the Ukrainian refugees, observers are watching how the EU will respond both to pressure to make additional funding available to them and their continuing failure to implement EU law.

Poland in particular has emerged as a centre for the reception of Ukrainian refugees, as signalled by Biden’s decision to make the country his only European stopping off point after his attendance at the EU and NATO summit meetings in Brussels last weekend.

During his visit, Biden praised Poland for taking “significant responsibility” in welcoming the Ukrainian refugees and visited a US military base at Rzeszow near the border with Ukraine after pledging in his Warsaw speech that “every inch of NATO territory [must be defended] with the full force of our collective power” in what he said would be “the long fight ahead.”

The longer the fight, the more pressing the needs of the refugees are likely to be. Many have already commented on the contrast between the EU welcome for the Ukrainian refugees and the way it has treated refugees from other conflicts in Asia and Africa, generally requiring them to apply for asylum or keeping them in holding camps until their claims are processed.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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