The Ukrainian refugee crisis in Europe

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continued this week following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to send military forces into the country last Thursday, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians attempted to flee to neighboring countries of the EU such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, all of which have borders with Ukraine.

According to statements by European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson at a press conference in Romania on Monday, at least 400,000 Ukrainian refugees have entered EU countries so far, and an unknown number of others have been internally displaced.

Most Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine, which means the refugees are largely made up of women and children.

Media in European countries and around the world presented heartbreaking scenes of thousands of Ukrainians, many carrying what few belongings they were able to take with them, desperately trying to board trains to take them west. to EU countries or stuck in traffic jams. miles long as they attempt to cross land borders or escape from towns and villages in Ukraine.

In remarks reported by Reuters, Johansson said the EU was preparing to grant Ukrainians fleeing the war the right to stay and work in the bloc for up to three years, adding that states bordering the EU would receive assistance in dealing with arrivals.

“We have to prepare for millions [to arrive in the EU]“, she added after a visit to a border crossing between Romania and Ukraine.

Johansson’s remarks followed UN reports on Sunday that more than 200,000 people have already arrived in Poland from Ukraine, including 71,000 in Hungary, 27,000 in Romania, 41,000 in Moldova and 18,000 in Slovakia. . Several thousand more are expected in the coming days.

According to reports circulating over the weekend, in order to welcome the refugees, the EU is preparing proposals to trigger its temporary protection directive, drawn up after the 1990s war in the Balkans but never used before.

This is designed to deal with the large arrivals of displaced people in the EU and provides the same level of protection, for one to three years, in all EU states, including a residence permit and access to employment and social benefits.

This means that refugees from Ukraine could live and work in EU countries for up to three years without first registering for asylum or applying for work or other visas.

Since 2017, Ukrainians with a biometric passport can enter the European Schengen area without a visa and stay there for up to 90 days within a 190-day period. However, they have not been able to work or settle in EU countries or receive social benefits.

News of the potential triggering of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive was followed, also on Sunday, by an announcement by EU President Ursula von der Leyen that Ukraine’s EU membership could be accelerated following the Russian invasion.

Speaking to TV channel Euronews, Von der Leyen said that “over time they [Ukraine] its our. They are one of us and we want them to participate.

His remarks were followed by statements by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday calling for Ukraine’s immediate EU membership under a simplified procedure, although it was unclear how this would work in practice.

An EU-Ukraine Association Agreement has been in force since September 2017 and commits Ukraine to converge its economic policy, legislation and regulations in a wide range of areas with those of the EU in return for political support and financial, access to research and knowledge. , and preferential access to EU markets.

Although such an agreement could be an important step towards EU membership, Ukraine is not currently an official candidate for EU accession negotiations.

The EU’s welcome to Ukrainian refugees and the prospect of accelerated Ukraine membership in the bloc by Von der Leyen have been accompanied by strong support for the Ukrainian government in the conflict with Russia, including the provision of extensive military and non-military aid.

An additional €120 million in EU grants has been announced for Ukraine this year, on top of the €160 million initially planned, with planned investments of up to €6.5 billion over the next few years.

More importantly, EU countries announced that they would send “deadly” military aid to Ukraine to help it resist invading Russian forces. Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Von der Leyen said the EU would provide some 500 million euros worth of weapons and other aid to Ukraine’s military in a move described as a “decisive moment ” in the history of the block.

‘For the first time ever, the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of arms and other equipment to a country under attack,’ she said in an appearance alongside the foreign policy chief of the EU, Josep Borrell, in Brussels.

EU military aid comes on top of arms already pledged to Ukraine by EU member states, with Germany saying it will send 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles and Sweden saying it will will send 5,000 anti-tank weapons, 5,000 helmets, 5,000 body shields and 135,000 field rations, as well as $50 million in funding to the Ukrainian military.

Denmark reportedly sent 2,700 anti-tank weapons and allowed volunteers to join a foreign brigade to fight in Ukraine. Belgium sends 3,000 machine guns and 200 anti-tank grenade launchers.

According to a NATO statement on Sunday, “Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal , Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States have already sent or approved major deliveries of military equipment to Ukraine… including Javelin missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as millions of euros in financial aid.

In addition to supporting Ukraine, the EU is also sanctioning Russia in association with similar sanctions introduced by the US and UK. All transactions with the Russian central bank must be prohibited in order to “cripple its assets” and the shares of Russian public entities can no longer be listed on EU stock exchanges.

Some Russian banks are locked out of the Swift international payment system in a bid to cripple Russian trade or have been hit with asset freezes and other restrictions. The foreign assets of Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu have been frozen in the EU, which has also imposed sanctions on the 351 members of Russia’s parliament.

Bank accounts held by Russian nationals in the EU are limited to €100,000. Russian airlines and private jets are banned from EU airspace, and a ban has been introduced on exports of aircraft and aviation parts to Russia, as well as products high technology, including semiconductors, computers, telecommunications and information security equipment and sensors.

The EU policy of potentially rolling out the Temporary Protection Directive and extending rights of establishment, work and social assistance to all Ukrainian refugees for up to three years contrasts with its treatment of other refugees rendered homeless by wars or conflicts outside Europe.

Refugees from the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have been forced to apply for asylum on a case-by-case basis before receiving extended settlement or other benefits.

According to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, there were just under 18,000 refugees living in camps in Greece, an EU member state, as of December last year, 60% of them they have no access to food or money and half of them are children. .

If granted asylum, refugees receive benefits for 30 days.

During the European refugee crisis of 2015, when some 1.3 million people came to the continent seeking asylum due to war or societal breakdown in their home countries outside from Europe, most of them were Syrians, but also Afghans, Libyans, Iraqis and others, some EU countries closed their borders and refused to take in refugees.

The situation was resolved when Germany agreed to admit around one million refugees as asylum seekers and the EU reached an agreement with Turkey, a major transit country for refugees, under which it would strengthen border security and take back future refugees entering Greece in exchange for a six billion euros.

A version of this article appeared in the March 3, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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Mary I. Bruner