EU home affairs ministers have put off a decision on whether to grant temporary protection to Ukrainian refugees amid what threatens to become the “largest humanitarian crisis” in Europe in recent times.
While a proposal to activate the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive for Ukrainians fleeing the country was “broadly welcomed” by the ministers during their extraordinary meeting on Sunday (27 February), a formal decision will only be made on Thursday, EU Home Affairs and Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said after the talks.
Once activated, the directive would stay in force for one year, unless it is prolonged, and would allow Ukrainians to take immediate, temporary refuge in the EU without going through a standard asylum process.
The exceptional measure, which has never been activated before, is meant to deal with situations where the standard asylum system risks being overburdened due to a mass influx of refugees.
Based on recent UN estimates, the EU is currently expecting that more than seven million Ukrainians will be displaced within the country, while 18 million will be affected in humanitarian terms, the EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, said after the meeting.
Four million, he said, are expected to flee the country as refugees.
While current rules allow any Ukrainian citizen with a biometric passport to enter the EU visa-free, they can only stay for up to 90 days.
“We need to be prepared for day 91,” Johansson stressed. “I think it is time to activate temporary protection.”
During the meeting, however, some countries raised doubts as to whether the time was ripe for activating the directive and instead preferred to wait a little longer, she said, while refusing to name the nay-sayers.
French minister Gérald Darmanin, who currently chairs the Home Affairs Council, said he would not only put a formal decision on the directive on the agenda when the ministers next meet on Thursday, but would also “pick up the phone” in the meantime to lobby for the consent of so-far hesitant member states.
Beyond the question of refugees’ entry into EU territory, it also remains unclear how they will be distributed among member states. While the temporary protection directive provides for a voluntary “relocation mechanism” to disburden the first-arrival countries, Johansson said several member states had wanted to go further.
“From my perspective, this could even be a good time to make progress on the Migration and Asylum Pact,” she added. Darmanin previously said that ministers had reached an agreement for “compulsory solidarity” to be enshrined in the pact, which is still being negotiated.
Even before the current crisis, he had put the question of what this would entail in practice on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting. According to Darmanin, the concept would not necessarily entail a distribution key for migrants, but could also involve financial aid to recipient countries.
Lenarčič warned that Ukraine’s neighbouring countries, both inside and outside the EU, risked being overburdened with the accommodation of refugees and were in need of support to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
He singled out Moldova, which he said did not have the capacities to deal with the situation and for which the EU would need to “step up support”.
“We are witnessing what could become the largest humanitarian crisis on our European continent in many, many years,” he said, saying that needs were growing continuously. “We have to prepare for this kind of emergency, which is of historical proportions.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]