Social policy, law and civil society: Examining the European Union response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis

European Union and Ukraine flags

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

This latest blog post in WISERD’S series on the Ukraine crisis examines the response of the European Union. Specifically, it explores the legal and social policy response and the role of civil society.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on 24th February has created one of the most serious humanitarian crises in Europe’s post-war history. The United Nations calculates that there are 6.48 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine and ‘12 million people are estimated to be stranded in affected areas or unable to leave due to heightened security risks, destruction of bridges and roads, as well as lack of resources or information on where to find safety and accommodation’. In addition, the UN estimates that (circa April 6th) 4,319,494 refugees have fled the war-stricken country, with 2,514,504 fleeing to Poland, 662,751 Romania, 404,021 Hungary and 401,704 to Moldova.

  1. The legal and social policy response

The EU has a series of political agreements with Ukraine, including the 2014 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which includes comprehensive mutual free market access. In addition, over the past decade the EU has given in excess of €17bn in grants and loans, with a further €1.2bn loan agreed on 16 February 2022.

In the wake of the current conflict, and for the first time since its introduction in 2001, on 1 March 2022, the European Parliament approved the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive. This extends immediate temporary protection in the EU to people escaping the conflict in Ukraine. It covers Ukrainian citizens, people from outside the EU, and stateless people (although it should be noted, there are more complex issues for Third Country Nationals eg, people from Africa, India and elsewhere).

Crucially, this measure waives the need for the examination of individual applications and allows refugees ‘to enjoy harmonised rights across the EU includ[ing] access to residence permits, education, medical care, housing, the labour market, and social welfare assistance’. It also gives them the possibility to work and does not prevent refugees from applying for asylum in EU states.

In terms of finance, on the 21 March the European Commission launched a special call under the EU’s Technical Support Instrument (TSI) to support member states welcoming refugees and three days later, MEPs agreed to redirect EU regional and asylum funding to EU countries sheltering Ukrainian refugees. On 7 April they released €3.4bn with an additional €10bn likely to follow from EU-REACT funds.

  1. The role of civil society

Civil Society Europe – a coordinating body of civil society organisations (CSOs) in the EU was quick to express “solidarity with the Ukrainian people and with all of those suffering as a direct or indirect result of this conflict”. It added, “We call on the EU institutions and EU Member States to take bold actions to ensure a long-term peaceful and democratic solution… Civil society is a necessary precondition for the development of a peaceful and democratic society, an invaluable asset to the fighting disinformation, the defence of human rights and the provision of vital support and services during and after the war”.

Space constraints prevent a full survey of all EU members states, yet as the following examples indicate, there has been a strong pan-European civil society response to aiding Ukrainian refugees.

In the Czech Republic, civil society has launched a broad range of initiatives to provide refugees with healthcare, education, employment and legal aid. Martin Rozumek, Director of the Organization for Aid to Refugees, said: “The solidarity of the Czech people with the refugees from Ukraine is overwhelming – they offer housing; escorts; financial and material assistance”.

In Bulgaria, the Active Citizens Fund is financing a broad range of civil society initiatives, including those designed to overcome the negative effects of the war, counteract misinformation, support human rights and empower vulnerable groups. Whilst CSOs in Croatia are providing free legal advice to Ukrainian refugees.

Danish civil society organisations are organising special relief transport from Poland to Denmark, with empty buses filled with food and other necessities driven to Poland, and then used bring Ukrainian refugees back to Denmark to register for protection.

In Slovakia civil society organisations are providing refugees with legal advice, accommodation, transport and psychological support.

Germany has also been quick to respond. Within the first fortnight of the invasion more than 180,000 beds were offered to refugees by following a civil society campaign #AccomodationUkraine.

Finally, as part of Ireland’s overall €20 million response to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and neighbouring countries, the government has launched a dedicated civil society fund of €2 million to support Irish-based international NGOs responding to the crisis to deliver critical, life-saving assistance, either directly or through partnerships with civil society organisations on the ground.

Ukraine itself has, for many years, had considerable problems in terms of state clientism and corruption but considerable progress has been made by civil society organisations at a local level and these may be well placed to form provide a platform for support in the present conflict and during post-war recovery.

A number of significant points emerge from this examination of the emergency response in the European Union. Earlier close cooperation between the EU and Ukraine typified by the 2014 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, allowed swift action on the part of the European Commission and Parliament. This has seen extensive financial aid but also the extension of qualified citizen rights and welfare provision to refugees through the first ever activation of the Temporary Protection Directive. The clear advantage of this is it allows refugees to seek sanctuary across the EU without having to negotiate individual countries’ bureaucratic rules, as typified by the UK government’s botched response and initial aim of setting up of visa centres in northern France (developments that led French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin to complain to Tory minister Priti Patel MP that the UK’s response was “completely unsuitable” and showed a “lack of humanity” towards refugees).

Also notable from these developments is the strong humanitarian response of civil society organisations across the EU – as well as state support for CSOs in delivering aid to refugees, often working alongside public agencies.