In less than a year, three new scenarios of crisis emerged within the EU and at its external borders. The takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021 further destabilized an already fragile country, urging thousands of people to flee. At the same time, Belarus has forced around 20,000 migrants to move to neighboring EU countries. Finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has so far compelled more than 6.8 million people to flee, in addition to more than 4 million internally displaced persons. Building on the contributions presented during the conference “The Current and Forgotten Migration Plights: Ukraine, Belarus and Afghanistan”, which was organized by Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies on 26th April 2022, this blog post aims to briefly illustrate the widely divergent response that the EU gave to these three migration plights.

Already in March 2022, when “only” 650,000 people from Ukraine had entered the EU, the EU Council was persuaded that the massive conflict-driven inflows from Ukraine perfectly fell within the scope of Directive 2001/55/EC on Temporary Protection. Therefore, the Council unanimously decided to implement it for the very first time since its adoption in 2001. The EU determined that temporary protection was the best instrument to manage the Ukrainian emergency, as it could be applied in cases of mass influx due to, inter alia, conflicts and systemic violence or violations of human rights. The Directive offers immediate and collective protection, that is, it bypasses the examination of individual protection claims that in a situation of emergency might not be feasible. By early June, temporary protection had been issued to more than 3.2 million people who are granted rights, protection, and access to services within the EU. Indeed, pursuant to the EU Directive, temporary protection holders are entitled to be issued with a residence permit and, if necessary, a visa in the shortest possible time and at the lowest possible cost; to be informed in an understandable language on temporary protection; to work as an employed or self-employed person and access to adult education, including vocational training; to housing or, if necessary, the means to obtain housing; the right to social and health care as well as contributions for medical treatment and for subsistence, if they do not have sufficient resources; to the right to family reunification; and, for minors, the right of access to the education system.

The response of the EU to people fleeing Ukraine has no precedent in the history of EU migration management. Emblematically, the EU reacted in a strongly divergent way to the other two parallel migration plights in Afghanistan and at the Polish-Belarusian border, which nevertheless share similar dynamics.

In August 2021, the Taliban took control over Kabul and established their power in Afghanistan after 20 years of conflict. An Extraordinary Council of the Ministers of Home Affairs was organized to manage the foreseen migration inflows into Europe. However, the outcome statement gave priority to the evacuation of EU citizens and “Afghan nationals who have cooperated with the EU and its Member States”. The EU ministers called on the Member States to provide financial support to third countries neighboring Afghanistan in managing the arrival of international protection-seekers. Apart from funding projects to support people who remained in Afghanistan, no emergency mechanism or action was envisaged at the EU level for those who fled. Fragmented and discretionary responses have been provided by a few Member States that evacuated only 22,000 Afghans out of 24 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Many Member States, like the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Austria and Poland, declared they would not accept refugees from Afghanistan. A few months later, those same countries opened the gateway to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine (even to more than one million in the case of Poland). It is worth noting that given the proximity to Ukraine, EU countries have limited control over the number of people arriving in their territory to seek protection. In the case of distant Afghanistan, EU Member States were asked to decide how many Afghans to evacuate and under which criteria. Akin to previous intra-EU relocation experiences, the evacuation of Afghans would have likely turned into a cherry-picking process, where individuals’ sociocultural profiles would have most probably determined their chance to escape. In this case, the closure of the EU and its Member States to Afghans has been absolute. Their denial of any relief for Afghans, in opposition to completely opening their borders to Ukrainians, cannot stem therefore from national reception capabilities or from the entity of the inflows.

If in the case of Afghanistan the EU failed to coordinate adequate migration responses and left greater room for maneuver to (few willing) Member States, in the case of Belarus not only concerted measures to assist migrants in need were totally lacking, but this gap was not even partially filled by Member States’ initiatives, thereby leaving thousands of people behind. As of November 2021, 7.831 migrants irregularly entered Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland from Belarus, while another 10,000 people mainly from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were stranded at the EU external border with Belarus. In December 2021, the EU Commission issued its proposal for a Council Decision to implement emergency, temporary (6 months, renewable) and exceptional measures for Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland to support them in managing the instrumentalization of migrants, seen as part of the problem and not as victims of hybrid attacks, on the one hand, and of restrictive EU migration policies, on the other hand. Pursuant to this proposal, the three Member States could extend the registration of international protection claims to four weeks instead of 10 days. Moreover, they could apply the border procedure to all international protection-seekers in order to assess the admissibility of their claim. This implies the obligation for all individuals, including minors, fleeing Belarus not to leave the border check-points for up to one month, radically limiting their freedom of movement and their access to basic services, including healthcare. The only exception to this extraordinary rule is for people with a serious illness that could not be treated at the border or in transit zones. The Proposal extended up to 16 weeks the limit within which to make a decision on an international protection claim. Last but not least, these Member States were granted the possibility to provide different material reception conditions, provided that the basic needs of protection are met. Neither the modalities nor the nature of these “different” material conditions were specified. Together with the proposed Council’s decision, the Commission also launched a proposal for a Regulation for addressing situations of “instrumentalization” in the field of migration and asylum and a proposal to amend the Schengen Border Code. Such proposals explicitly aimed to support the Member States facing a situation of instrumentalization of migrants by creating a specific emergency migration and asylum management procedure. This enables the Member States to limit the number of border crossing points, and intensifying border surveillance. It was clear that the focus of the Commission was completely state-centric, with no attention to the protection and assistance of migrants stranded at the EU external border to which food, water, shelter, adequate clothing and first aid assistance were denied. None of these three still pending proposals ever mentioned migrants’ rights, and no provisions were envisaged to assist them.

Although most migrants come from conflict-torn countries and are equally in need of immediate protection, the EU emergency response to manage the ongoing migration plights in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Belarus widely diverge. This leaves room for a high degree of legal uncertainty concerning inconsistent and potentially discriminatory EU and national approaches to migration emergencies. As discussed elsewhere, such contested discrepancy can be linked to the radical shift of the EU and its Member States from protecting the rights of international asylum-seekers to protecting the stability and integrity of national sovereignty at the expense of migrants. The lack of coordinated emergency responses to people fleeing Afghanistan and Belarus illustrates the severe implications of this State-centric approach to migrants’ life, where the respect for their rights is overcome by national interests.

Cover image: Irregular migrants continue to wait at the Polish-Belarusian border on November 10, 2021 in Belarus (Source, CC,  Stringer - Anadolu agency)