Putin’s War and its disastrous consequences

Putin’s war against Ukraine has caused unbearable pain and suffering. Thousands have died, many more have been wounded. Ukrainian cities have been devastated by relentless bombardment by the Russian military. This has resulted in the most dramatic refugee situation Europe has seen since World War II. In the brief time frame of four weeks, more than three and a half million people have fled Ukraine.

For comparison, there were roughly 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in the EU in all of 2015, as evidenced by Eurostat data. Given the shocking brutality of Putin’s war, it can be expected that many more will have to flee Ukraine.

Most people escaping the war have found shelter in Ukraine’s neighbouring states. According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), more than two million people have arrived in Poland since the war broke out (data from March 22nd). 556,000 have fled to Romania and 37,000 to the Republic of Moldova.

Hungary has received 325,000 people while Slovakia has welcomed 257,000. UNHCR estimates that roughly 271,000 people fled to the Russian Federation; however, it is unclear how Ukrainian refugees are being treated there.

Germany has received around 232,000 refugees fleeing from Ukraine and expects many more to come (data from March 22nd). There are estimates that at least a million refugees could come to Germany. Inside Germany, Berlin has been at the centre of arrivals from Ukraine since there is a direct train connection.

After initial challenges with the reception of refugees from Ukraine, Berlin has now set up a central registration facility at the former Tegel airport. The new facility is supposed to be able to register up to 10,000 people per day. After registration, the refugees will be relocated to other German cities to allow a more even distribution among cities and municipalities.

The European Union’s answer and its newfound unity

Putin’s war has shocked the world and has practically destroyed the foundation of Europe’s peace order. To counter this aggression, the United States, the European Union, and allied countries have imposed economic sanctions on Russia and started to assist Ukraine with (some) defensive weapons and financial support. It must be stressed, however, that there are reasonable doubts that the economic sanctions and the military aid – in their current form – will be effective enough to stop Putin’s warfare.

At the same time, European Member States have been exceptionally united in their effort to help refugees from Ukraine. There is an unprecedented wave of support for refugees – both political and from citizens and civil society organisations. On 4 March 2022, EU Member States voted unanimously to enact the “temporary protection directive” for the first time in the Union’s history. Originally designed in 2001 based on the learnings from the war in the former Yugoslavia, the directive had never been used – until now.

The implementation of the temporary protection directive is incredibly effective. It offers immediate protection for people in need who are fleeing the war. The directive foresees harmonised rights that include a residence permit for up to three years, access to health services, employment and social welfare systems, as well as education for minors.

The directive allows European Member States to focus on swiftly registering and helping refugees from Ukraine. Nonetheless, this is a challenging process because of the sheer number of people seeking protection in such a short amount of time. Hence, there can be delays in the registration processes – even though much has been learned and improved since 2015 by EU Member States.

Access to housing and education will be particularly challenging – especially if the war continues for a longer time. Given the overwhelming political will and public support across Europe, these challenges can be overcome. And the EU can play a paramount role in coordinating support for the most affected European countries.

New political realities: A long term shift for EU refugee policy?

The EU’s newfound unity in helping refugees is much needed and, at the same time, very remarkable. A comprehensive reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) was not possible in previous years given stark differences in the EU, especially vis-a-vis the Visegrád countries Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. In 2015, the deficiencies of the CEAS became evident, but an agreement on a substantial reform seemed impossible, especially regarding a solidarity relocation mechanism for refugees within the EU.

Putin’s war against Ukraine and the principles of democracy, freedom, and self-determination have very much changed political realities. Visegrád countries are among the top refugee-hosting states and have been very open and supportive. Especially Poland has been absolutely stunning in its coordinated effort to help save refugees. More than 2.2 million people have already found shelter in Poland, and the level of political and civil society support is magnificent. According to recent reports, registration processes also seem to be running smoothly and efficiently.

Certainly, it is an incredible challenge to find housing, access to social services, as well as schooling for minors in such a short amount of time. This will need much attention and solidarity from European Union institutions, as well as Member States, to offer dedicated (financial) support for refugees and any further assistance necessary to Poland and other major receiving countries.

Supporting Poland and the other receiving countries could also include the voluntary relocation of Ukrainian refugees to other EU Member States if capacity becomes limited. Assisted with EU funds, this could be a pathway for enhanced cooperation between EU Member States.

The war against Ukraine and the loss of life the world has been witnessing is unbearable. It is uncertain how long the war will continue and how many more people will be forced to flee. One thing is clear, however: the European Union’s support is needed – maybe more than ever before. And the EU is more powerful and capable than often believed. Helping to save refugees from Ukraine is essential, and the EU’s unity can be a hopeful light in these dark times.

Meanwhile, Poland and the Baltic countries have long warned that there is a realistic threat and possible aggression posed by Vladimir Putin. While they were not heard before, there is a growing realisation among policy-makers in Europe, and beyond, that the invasion of a free and independent Ukraine is a war on the essence of democracy, the rule of law, freedom, and human dignity itself. The EU’s new unity offers much potential and should be built upon to help Ukraine and its brave people.

About the author

Mehrdad Mehregani is Project Manager at Bertelsmann Stiftung working on migration and refugee policy in Germany and the EU. He led the initiative “Making Asylum Systems Work in Europe”, a cooperation of six European think tanks and foundations, contributing to the capacity building of national asylum systems to function more effectively.

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