The supportive attitude of EU member states towards the millions of incoming refugees from Ukraine has created a conducive shift for the re-opening of negotiations over the reformation and restructuring of the EU asylum rules, aiming at a more efficient and just system. Indeed, it is high time that the states of first entry urge the reform of the EU asylum system with the introduction of a permanent and binding relocation scheme, a practice that is now applied for the first time consistently and contradicts the EU member states’ stance in 2015.
The lamentable displacement of more than 3 million people from Ukraine creates an opportunity for Greece and the Mediterranean countries to push for the resumption of negotiations on the revision of the Dublin system and its enrichment with a specific and established relocation system based on the Commission’s proposals delivered in the framework of the New Pact on Migration, which has been tabled since September 2020. Indeed, the obvious and practical difference in the treatment of refugees from Ukraine in 2022 and countries of the Middle East or Africa in 2015, marks a climate change that favors first entry state members that are disproportionately lifting the burden of managing migration towards the EU.
The EU unanimity and the immediate aid response to Ukrainian refugees have been unprecedented, both in terms of content and the speed with which it has been implemented, in a policy area that almost traditionally suffers from the fragmentation of views and interests among the Member States. Following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the European Council activated, for the first time, the Directive 2001/55/EC on the temporary protection mechanism in case of a mass influx of refugees, a directive adopted after the Kosovo crisis. In this context, Member States offer temporary protection to Ukrainian refugees which include permit of residence, health care, education, and work for a period of up to 12 months, which can be renewed for 6 months twice.
While the EU response to the Ukrainian displaced has been expected, it differs from the EU reaction towards the Syrian flows a few years ago when the EU implemented a strategy of deterrence, or even a few months ago when Poland constructed a new fence on its border with Belarus to repel the influx of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2015, the EU did not activate the 2001/55/EC Directive and was unable to manage migratory inflows from the Middle East and North Africa in an organized manner, with the many Member States resisting accepting even a small number of refugees. After all, according to the European Commission, ⅘ of those displaced from Ukraine are Ukrainian citizens while the rest come from countries such as India, Nigeria, and Turkey. The EU protection offer includes all Ukrainian citizens, those who have been recognized as asylum seekers by the Ukrainian state, and those who cannot return to their home country safely. For those who do not fall within these categories, the EU ensures their immediate return to their country of origin.
Currently, refugees arriving in Poland and Romania are being relocated to the other Member States on a voluntary basis under the coordination of the European Commission and the European Asylum Agency. Through a new Solidarity Platform, Member States inform their reception availability and current capacity as well as the number of refugees that each country already hosts. A few years ago, however, Greece and Italy, under great pressure on their borders, requested urgent relocations of refugees but the Visegrad countries, among which was also Poland, strongly opposed the Council decision 2015/1601 on 22 September 2015 on mandatory relocations, resulting in their referral to the European Court of Justice by the Commission.
Nevertheless, there are clear differences between the two cases which make their disparity almost expected. In principle, Ukraine has a visa agreement with the EU. This means that Ukrainian citizens have the right to enter and stay in EU states for a period of 90 days. Therefore, Ukrainians have not been considered illegal even for a moment, nor was there a need (at least for the time being) to go through the complex procedures of the European asylum system, which of course does not apply to citizens of Syria or Afghanistan. On the other hand, many refugees and migrants from Middle Eastern countries lacked the necessary documents to identify themselves, leaving EU countries with no knowledge of where these people came from and who they actually were. Another qualitative difference has been that in 2015 a sharp increase in the securitization of migration was observed. Indeed, mixed flows of refugees and migrants were being considered as potential threats of terrorism while, at the same time, misinformation was cutting through the veil of Islamophobia, resulting in the increase of insecurity towards the uncontrolled flows. Unfortunately, every issue related to immigration is directly or indirectly related to the national identity which includes the elements of culture and religion. It is therefore expected (but not fair) the Ukrainian refugees, coming from a neighboring country, with a related culture and religion, to be treated differently.
Although not fair, the current change of attitude opens a window of opportunity for the traditional first entry states to renegotiate the cornerstone of the revision of the European asylum system, the Dublin Regulation, and more specifically, the introduction of a formal relocation system. The successful management of migration flows from Ukraine so far and the fact that the states that in 2015 strongly opposed the official introduction of relocations in the Dublin system are currently at the forefront of fire have transformed the negative climate that prevailed after the crisis of 2015. As an external shock, the crisis of 2015 highlighted almost all the shortcomings and inadequacies of the European migration system. However, the lessons learned from that crisis proved to be very useful for the current one. The European Commission has been working since 2016 to promote the revision of the basic principles of the system, but no substantial progress has been made. On the table of negotiations, Member States have been segregated into first entry states (such as Greece and Italy), which push for the introduction of a relocation system, in transit countries (such as the Visegrad countries), which oppose forced relocations, and in destination countries (such as the countries of Northern Europe). At a time when transit countries have become first entry states, there is a huge bargaining opportunity for the Mediterranean countries to push for the aspirations of an EU permanent relocation system, with a higher chance for a successful outcome.