EU countries agree to trigger never-before-used law to welcome Ukrainian refugees
Faced with the largest human exodus since the end of the Second World War, the European Union has agreed to trigger an unprecedented directive to grant temporary protection to Ukrainians fleeing military aggression by Russian forces.
More than a million Ukrainians have fled the country since the start of the Russian invasion a week ago, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The vast majority of these exiles arrived in EU countries, with Poland registering over half a million Ukrainian refugees and Hungary with over 130,000 arrivals.
To deal with the large and brutal number of migrants, the 27 member states dusted off a 2001 European directive which had never been used before and which aims to provide immediate assistance and protection to war refugees.
The Temporary Protection Directive bypasses the traditionally overburdened asylum procedure and offers a fast and simplified route to access protection across the EU.
Ukrainian refugees will receive residence permits to stay inside the bloc for at least one year, a period that will be automatically extended for another year. Member States can then decide to extend the exceptional measure for another year if the war continues to ravage the country.
Although Ukraine is not part of the passport-free Schengen area, its nationals have the right to travel without a visa for up to 90 days. The EU scheme aims to provide a durable solution once the 90-day limit has been exhausted.
Following a meeting in Brussels on Thursday, national ministers reached a political agreement to move forward with the temporary protection directive. The law will come into force once the European Commission’s proposal has been formally adopted by member states, a step that is expected to take place in the coming days.
Special protection will be granted immediately after the adoption.
“Historic decision: the EU will grant temporary protection to those fleeing the war in Ukraine. The EU is united to save lives! Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, tweeted after the ministerial meeting.
His remarks were echoed by the French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin. France currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU and was one of the main advocates for the activation of the directive.
How does the Temporary Protection Directive work?
Approved in 2001 in the aftermath of the wars in Yugoslavia and Kosovo, the Temporary Protection Directive is an extraordinary regime that grants immediate and temporary protection to people displaced from non-EU countries.
In addition to the legal right to reside in an EU Member State, the directive allows access to the education system, the labor market, healthcare, housing, professional assistance and social protection.
The protection will apply to anyone fleeing Ukraine, regardless of nationality, origin, race and religion, a senior EU official said earlier this week.
Assurances come after media reports revealed that some non-white refugees from Ukraine were being turned back by neighboring states.
The Commission was unable to verify these reports, the official noted.
Those who were residing in Ukraine at the time of the invasion and can safely return to their home country, such as exchange students, will not benefit from temporary protection but will nevertheless be allowed to enter EU territory to plan their return trip.
In particular, the directive is based on a “balance of efforts” between EU countries: the allocation of refugees is made according to the capacities of each government.
This marks a significant reversal from the note struck during the 2015 migration crisis when some capitals vehemently opposed a burden-sharing policy and Mediterranean states were overwhelmed with arrivals.
Protection can be granted by any EU country, not just the first country reached by the refugee. For the past few days, the national railway companies of Germany, Austria, France and Belgium have been offering free tickets to Ukrainian refugees wishing to cross the continent and reach their country.
For those who have fled their homes without their passports or other means of personal identification, the Commission says member states can ease border controls and allow them to enter their territory so they can reach a place of safety , where identity checks will be carried out.
Displaced Ukrainians can bring their personal belongings without being subject to traditional customs duties.
Temporary protection does not automatically mean that the person is granted asylum. But people benefiting from the special regime can apply for asylum at any time during their stay.