500,000 Ukrainian Refugees Flee the Country but Little-Known Law May Exempt Them From the Asylum Process, African Students in Ukraine Treated Differently

According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi this morning, more than half a million people have fled Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion of the country and sustained fighting that has taken place over the last several days.

The European response to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict has been mostly generous and swift. The AP reports that:

Hungary has opened its borders to all refugees fleeing Ukraine, including third-country nationals that can prove Ukrainian residency. The government has set up a “humanitarian corridor” to escort non-Ukrainian nationals from the border to airports in the city of Debrecen and the capital, Budapest.

According to the UNHCR, the most recent breakdown of current numbers of Ukrainians by country is as follows:

Belarus, the country directly north of Ukraine is not on the list of places Ukrainians are fleeing to. Russia used Belarus’s territory to enter Ukraine and reporting in the past 24 hours suggests that Belarus may actually join Russia’s military incursion into the country.

Ukrainians have been described as refugees in the media, and rightly so. Just to refresh our memories, a refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

However, Ukrainians may not have to go through the refugee process any time soon due to a law that has never been used before called the Temporary Protection Directive.

In the 1990s, sustained conflicts on European soil (apparently forgotten by the media in the past week) created large numbers of displaced people throughout the region. This led to the recognition that Europe needed a way to respond quickly to such crises.

In 2001, the Temporary Protection Directive was created as a way to bypass the usual process of screening for asylum (which is resource-intensive) and simply grant people legal permission to temporarily remain in EU countries. TPD is effectively a policy that says, “let people in and we’ll sort it out later.”

Paragraph two of the directive (available here) puts it this way:

Cases of mass influx of displaced persons who cannot return to their country of origin have become more substantial in Europe in recent years. In these cases it may be necessary to set up exceptional schemes to offer them immediate temporary protection.

Indeed, just as I am writing this up, Reuters reports that the EU is indeed on the cusp of implementing the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time since the law was passed in 2001. Note that anyone who qualifies for TPD appears to be allowed to stay and work for up to three years.

The European Union is preparing to grant Ukrainians who flee the war the right to stay and work in the 27-nation bloc for up to three years, senior European officials said on Monday, adding that EU border states would get help to cope with the arrivals.

I am just learning about this law now so do not take my observations to be particularly well-developed. But my reaction so far is that this is a very smart policy that addresses major flaws with the international asylum and refugee system, which is typically very slow and provides much-needed support to Ukrainians who need and deserve protection.

(Of course, the slowness of the asylum process is intentional when it applies to non-European refugees. The slowness of the asylum process is a way to discourage migrants and regulate access to countries. For an example of a more elaborate academic analysis of this, see Border as Method.)

African Students in Ukraine Treated Differently

It seems to me that the EU has responded admirably to Ukrainians fleeing violence in their home country. Yet many people have already begun commenting on two significant factors that complicate this picture.

First, Europe’s response to Ukrainian refugees contrasts sharply with its response to African and Middle Eastern refugees in recent years. The same AP article cited above makes this observation:

The welcome that Hungary is now showing Ukrainians is very different from the unwelcoming stance they have had toward refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa in recent years. Hungary built a wall to keep them out when 1 million people, many Syrians fleeing war, arrived in Europe in 2015.

It’s true: the EU has spent perhaps billions of dollars over the past decade to prevent refugees from reaching European soil by using buffer countries like Turkey and Libya to prevent their arrival, externalizing the asylum process so that screenings take place outside the EU itself, and by criminally prosecuting humanitarian aid workers who have provided life-saving care to migrants found drowning in the Mediterranean.

The point here is not to pit refugee groups against each other, but rather to take stock of the ways in which the social and racial identities of refugee groups shape the response of receiving countries.

Just to drive the point home, we are already seeing plenty of prejudicial narrative framings in the news, which represent Ukrainians as being “people like us”, with the “us” implicitly signifying a white European identity — a narrative framing which African refugees have not been afforded over the past decade.

Second, Black and African people inside Ukraine appear to be experiencing the crisis much differently than their white Ukrainian counterparts. Many African students choose to study in Ukraine because the cost of education is more affordable while still being quite good. I also found many reports that Caribbean students also have a recent history of studying in Ukraine.

Now that people in Ukraine are forced to leave, however, many Africans living in the country report being prevented from getting on trains and busses going west out of the country, or report being not allowed off once they arrive in other European countries. Videos are currently circulating on social media that seem to verify these reports.

I have a feeling we’re going to hear a lot more about these first-hand experiences in the days and weeks to come. Race and racism do not cease to be significant social factors even in times of war.

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I study America’s immigration enforcement system. Assistant Professor at TRAC. Graduate of OSU Geography. Online at austinkocher.com.

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Austin Kocher, PhD

I study America’s immigration enforcement system. Assistant Professor at TRAC. Graduate of OSU Geography. Online at austinkocher.com.