“I don’t know how many will come,” replied EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson at the special meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels when asked what influx of Ukrainian refugees she waited. “I think we will have to prepare for millions.”
On Sunday, four days after the start of the Russian attack, at least 200,000 people, mostly children, women and elderly men, had entered Poland, according to Polish border guards. Men deemed fit for military service are currently not allowed to leave Ukraine.
According to estimates by the United Nations and refugee organizations, the number of people fleeing the Russian invasion is between 4 and 7 million. The number of people who will actually want to cross the borders of Ukraine depends entirely on the development of the military situation in this war. Yet how long they want or need to stay depends on who wins or ends this war. If Russia halts its attacks and withdraws, families could also quickly return to their fathers, sons and brothers, EU officials say.
Ukrainian refugees cross the land borders of neighboring countries, such as Slovakia
Unlimited entry this time
What is clear is that the expected arrivals will far exceed the so-called “refugee summer” of 2015, when around 1 million refugees and asylum seekers arrived in central Europe, mainly in Germany, from the Syrian war zone.
To date, EU Member States have not been able to find a solidarity-based distribution mechanism for these refugee flows. Legally speaking, States of first entry are responsible for processing asylum applications. But countries like Poland, Hungary or Austria have sometimes refused to accept asylum seekers. Solidarity on the issue of migration has been the biggest bone of contention in the EU. But now the situation is completely different.
“It’s war again in Europe for the first time, and it also leads to a different way of thinking between member states,” German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told a meeting with her counterparts. Europeans in Brussels. She sees it as a “total paradigm shift”.
All refugees from Ukraine are welcome, promised European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “Anyone who has to flee Putin’s bombs will be welcomed with open arms.”
Initially, many European countries, including Germany, welcomed refugees in 2015, although the mood changed as the number grew.
Reception of refugees from third countries
Now the conditions are different because the immediate neighbors are fleeing the war; something that Europe no longer believed possible.
The vast majority of Ukrainians stay with relatives or friends in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Romania. Polish authorities say the special accommodations have barely been exploited – so far.
According to reports, Africans living in Ukraine wishing to enter Poland have been harassed or turned away at the border by Polish border guards. A South African Foreign Ministry official tweeted that South African students had been turned away at the Ukraine-Poland border, while African embassy staff worked to help compatriots enter the country from Ukraine at Polish border crossings.
In Brussels, Ylva Johansson clarified that the border was also open to third-country nationals who lived in Ukraine and wanted to go to their country of origin. “These people need to be helped. Additionally, those in need of protection in the EU can also apply for asylum.
No fence in Poland
So far, no official mechanism for distributing refugees from Ukraine has been necessary: Poland and other countries neighboring Ukraine have not yet submitted any resettlement applications, according to the German Interior Ministry .
“Poland welcomes refugees and does so in a great way,” Faeser said. “We are now trying to support Poland logistically.”
It all looked quite different a few weeks ago, when Poland began building fortifications on its border with Belarus to prevent refugees and asylum seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan, or other migrants, to enter. The Polish government has refused to grant asylum to these refugees, in part because Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko allegedly deliberately transported them to the border and then left many to stand in no-man’s-land for weeks in the cold.
Now things are different. The EU has no problem with those entering from Ukraine, as as a general rule Ukrainians can stay in the EU for 90 days without a visa. “But we have to be ready for Day 91,” Johansson warned.
That is why, for the first time, the EU will use a “temporary mass protection” law to extend the residence status of refugees without having to go through complex asylum procedures. This protection directive, introduced following the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, existed in 2015 but was not yet applied.
But for Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite, the European measures agreed on Sunday do not go far enough. She wants a fixed distribution mechanism for refugees from Ukraine, which she thinks the European Commission in Brussels should organize. “You also need a resettlement mechanism to get the wounded, women and children out of Ukraine.” She argued that preparations must be made now for the next few weeks. European interior ministers will meet again on Thursday.
This article was originally written in German.