Politics and immigration

The welcome given to Ukrainian refugees: exception or sign of things to come?

Confronted with the influx of millions of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, the reaction of solidarity was unanimous in Europe, from Poland to France, in the media and within political parties.
On February 25th 2022, on Europe 1, parliamentary representative for the MoDem party Jean-Louis Bourlanges declared that Ukrainians in France would represent “high-quality immigration that we can draw benefit from”. On February 28th, the deputy Minister of Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari and the CEO of the SNCF group decreed that TGV and Intercité train fares would be free for Ukrainian refugees. Soon after, the question of according universal protection and right to asylum was raised. Hence on March 1st, the CGT-rail workers union demanded that the free fares be extended to all refugees, considering that there was no reason to select “good and bad refugees”. Reacting to Mr. Bourlanges’ statement, journalist Yaël Goosz asked: “so there are less useful refugees… Because they’re too different from us culturally? Not Christians or not Europeans? (...) As if we must call it ‘welcoming refugees’ when talking about Ukrainians, but ‘migrant crisis’ when referring to the fate of Iraqis, Syrians, or Afghans!” (France Inter, March 2nd).

Ukrainians aboard Corsica Linea's "Méditerranée" ferry, May 2022
On board Corsica Linea's "Méditerranée" ferry, May 2022 (photo report by Sandra Mehl). The ferry, which usually serves the Marseille-Alger route, has been transformed into a reception center for Ukrainian refugees. Docked in the port of Marseille, it welcomes around 930 people on board. Equipped with 500 cabins, it offers accommodation and meals, as well as social, medical and employment support.
© Sandra Mehl

Law of proximity

One rule seems to govern migration issues: displaced people and exiled people, especially for the poorest among them, rarely venture far from home and from their country. That applies to Ukrainians and also to the Sudanese, Syrians, Afghans or Venezuelans. Welcome, granted to different degrees, and solidarity, applied to different degrees, are primarily and mechanically local, meaning that the law of “proximity” is applied here too.
It is true that at the same time dozens of men and women were dying in the Mediterranean. It is also true that migrant workers and foreign students residing in Ukraine, who were also fleeing the war, did not enjoy the same solidarity. To their misfortune, these roughly 215,000 non-Ukrainians (source: IOM) came from Africa or India. They were sorted, subjected to humiliation, violence, repression and were locked up in detention centres after their mobile phones had been confiscated… by the customs authorities, especially Ukrainian and Polish. These many documented cases of racism prompted a wave of indignation.

“Welcoming refugees” or “migrant crisis”?

In edition no. 1337 of the publication Hommes & Migrations, researcher François Gemenne reminds us that in 2015 over 1.5 million Syrian refugees were fleeing civil war and, even then… Russian bombs. These Syrians did not enjoy the same surge of solidarity. Their arrival created tension between European Union member states, incapable of coming up with a common policy on welcoming refugees and granting them asylum. A de facto consensus was established: stop “the migration wave”, even if it meant dealing with Turkey, Libya or other so-called “transit” countries. In 2022, confronted with a higher number of refugees and in the space of just two months, “at no point was there mention of a shortage of capacity or fighting illegal immigration: on the contrary, welcoming refuges became a moral as well as legal imperative”, says F. Gemenne.
To explain this exceptional mobilisation in favour of the Ukrainians, several arguments have been put forward: aggression by a non-member state, the fact that women and children formed the majority of refugees and the importance of eventual returns home. Likewise, for many observers, this conflict could foreshadow more extensive geopolitical issues. Nevertheless, despite what seems like a variable geometry application of the right to asylum, 80 intellectuals from countries whose asylum seekers were not receiving the same consideration and whose populations tend to be favourable to Vladimir Putin, appealed to people in these words: “let’s not get into the wrong fight! We must support the Ukrainians without thinking twice or holding back” because “freedom must be defended everywhere”. (Le Monde, 18/04/22).

What we learned from the Ukrainian crisis

By relaxing foreign border checks, by allowing free choice of the country refugees move to, thus contravening the Dublin Agreement, by activating the temporary protection mechanism (enabling access to residence, employment, social rights), the European Union turned its own asylum rules upside-down. While we haven’t yet learned everything to be gleaned from the Ukrainian crisis, it is already prompting a lot of thinking and hypothesising about new “paradigms” in terms of asylum and immigration:

  • With the arrival of the Ukrainian refugees, the distinction between migrants and refugees has been weakened, indicating “that the distinction stems more from public political choices than from the actual nature of migration flows. (…) In fact, empathy for certain exiles and the dehumanisation of others says nothing about the Ukrainians or the Afghans, but more about the people who make such distinctions”, writes Matthieu Tardis, manager of the Centre Migrations et Citoyennetés at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales/IFRI (Le Monde, May 17th 2022).
  • While the welcome given to exiles and the right to asylum rely on the political will of individual states, especially when it comes to coordinating the relevant players, the Ukrainian crisis showed that mobilisation of non-profits, local authorities and the private sector works. Is this State-Region-Civil Society cooperation a foreshadowing or an exceptional mobilisation for an exceptional context?
  • Does the new European unanimity announce a harmonisation of European policies, at the very least the possibility of seeing a shift in positions on asylum and immigration? It would seem not, as shown by the European Council of February 2023 where unanimity seemed more focused on a toughening of external actions, border checks, returns and readmissions.
  • Will mobilisation in favour of Ukrainians help us better understand the realities of migration and sensitise more people to the conditions in which other exiled populations are welcomed, like the Afghans, Syrians, or Sudanese? Can we imagine that in the future “application of the 1951 Geneva Convention could become truly universal”, asks F. Gemenne (Hommes & Migrations)?


Mustapha Harzoune (January 2023)

Sources :

  • François Gemenne, Hélène Thiollet, “L’accueil des réfugiés ukrainiens et l’universalité du droit d’asile”, Hommes & Migrations 2022/2 (no. 1337), pages 180 to 184. Access the article online
  • Matthieu Tardis, “Accueil des réfugiés d’Ukraine : l’Europe vit ce que d’autres régions du monde connaissent depuis le début du XXIᵉ siècle”, Le Monde, May 17th 2022. Access the article online from the Ifri website
  • The appeal from 80 intellectuals: “Let’s not get into the wrong fight! We must support the Ukrainians without thinking twice or holding back”. Read the appeal
  • Conclusions of the European Council of February 2023. Access the text online