The European response to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the recent Russia-Ukraine war was a real eye-opener to anyone who is interested in refugee law. Post Cold War refugees were largely considered to be the results of armed conflicts or political exigencies in the Global South. In contrast, a few refugee crisis situations, most notably the current Ukrainian one, took exception to this notion. Thus, the response of the international community towards Ukraine's emergency acknowledges that refugees are no longer a Global South affair. A quick look into the Ukrainian refugee crisis may help us to further develop the current response into a standard form of practice in Europe and later adopt this as an international standard practice.
Crises often contribute to twists and turns in international law and practice by either bringing in new principles/practice or by adapting a better version of the already existing principles/practice. In this light, the Ukrainian refugee crisis is testing the existing principles, rules, and practices applicable to global refugees. In fact Jeff Crisp linked this to proof of the otherness, the influence of race and religion and the increase in xenophobic tendencies in refugee response over the years (Associated Press, 2022). Ukrainians fled, told stories, cried, felt hungry, walked, prayed, laughed and did everything any other refugee would have done. Despite the responsibility and need remaining the same, Ukrainians were treated like human asylum seekers in host countries, unlike fellow refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Even the nationalist governments in Europe came forward to open their doors to Ukrainian refugees, which marked a clear contrast with their attitudes toward Middle Eastern and African refugees. Crisp also pointed out that countries that were negative on the refugee issue and opposed coherent EU refugee policy for over a decade came forward with a positive response (Middle East Online, 2022).
The difference in approach was made obvious by the marked difference in response both by the media and state. Moreover, these differences were justified through comments like that of the Bulgarian President Rumen Radev when he stated "These are not the refugees we are used to...these people are Europeans". He furthered his welcoming position by adding sentences as "these people are intelligent; they are educated people". Al Jazeera’s English television presenter Peter Dobbie asserted that “these are prosperous, middle-class people… these are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middles East or in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to” (Mohan, 2022). Similarly, the difference in approach is starkest when considering how the Sunday paper writes about Ukrainian refugee people - ‘give until it hurts’ - and how the Daily Mail paper writes about the rest of the refugees as ‘vermin is entering the country’ (Younge, 2022).
Firstly, the Ukraine refugee crisis has changed the minimalist approach whereby International Refugee Law (IRL) was interpreted differently. During the 2015 European refugee crisis, and even during the pandemic, countries took stringent regulatory mechanisms to prevent entry to the host territory. Border control mechanisms like interdictions, and safe third country agreements, were regularly in practice despite criticisms from the regional courts and refugee law academics. In the wake of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, there were neither refoulement cases nor border closure cases reported. More than sympathy, these European countries and people had empathy towards the Ukrainian refugees as they felt more connected to them. This is how IRL may need to be interpreted in crisis times: considering the plight of every refugee equally and ensuring protection.
Secondly, this positive and responsible refugee management mechanism should be the new way forward so that political selectivity of refugees cannot continue despite being unsustainable legally, logically and ethically (Younge, 2022). Otherwise, the colonial mindset, the white supremacy, and the racial discrimination will continue in the minds of people. Non-discrimination, which is one of the fundamental principles provided in Art.3 of the Convention relating to Status of Refugees, 1951 (the Refugee Convention) should be followed in practice. The European response towards Ukrainian refugees was prompt and dignified. European countries expressly recognised the commonalities and activated the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time (Vasanthakumar, 2022). Accordingly, Ukrainian refugees who arrived in Europe during the mass influx would be allowed to remain in the territory for three years (Betts, 2022).
Finally, it offers a new model of understanding of IRL to be truly international in nature, scope and approach. A point of caution in the current response towards the Ukrainian crisis is the development of a parochial argument that regional response mechanisms should be given recognition and precedence. If encouraged, this approach would be more dangerous as it would dismantle fundamental thrust of international refugee law, which was not meant to be regional but international. Thus, looking towards a progressive utilisation of the response towards Ukrainians, this could be made a best practice and standardised, so as to reinforce international solidarity to refugees. As for now, this remains as an open question for the next crisis to answer.
** Thanks to Irene Gutierrez Torres, Manu Thomas, Aakriti Mathur and Marina Lazëri for their edits and suggestions.
Betts, A. (2022). The Ukrainian Exodus, The Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 28 March 2022 from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2022-03-28/ukrainian-exodus
Vasanthakumar, A. (2022). How refugees Strengthen democracy and Solidarity, New Statesman Retrieved 18 March 2022 from https://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/agora/2022/03/how-refugees-strengthen-democracy-and-solidarity
Associated Press. (2022). For Ukranian Refugees, Europe opens doors that were shut for others, News9. Retrieved 28 February 2022 from https://www.news9live.com/world/for-ukrainian-refugees-europe-opens-doors-that-were-shut-for-others-156277?infinitescroll=1
Younge, G. (2022). The war in Ukraine has exposed the West’s Refugee Hypocrisy, Prospect. Retrieved 7 April 2022 from https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/the-war-in-ukraine-has-exposed-the-wests-refugee-hypocrisy
Middle East Online. (2022, February 28). In Europe Race and Religion influence treatment of refugees. Retrieved from https://middle-east-online.com/en/europe-race-and-religion-influence-treatment-refugees
Mohan, S. (2022). Western Media’s Coverage of Russia-Ukraine war Betrays racist notions, Gets Flak, The Quint. Retrieved 2 March 2022 from https://www.thequint.com/news/world/as-ukraine-battles-russia-media-coverage-of-the-war-reeks-of-racism#read-more
Aneesha Johny is a Senior Research Fellow, pursuing a PhD in comparative refugee law at NLSIU, Bangalore since November 2016. Her research primarily focuses on the application of the principle of non-refoulement in the Rohingya and Syrian refugee scenarios. She compares the responses of South Asia and Europe towards these refugee situations.