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The EU's Offer of 'Temporary Protection' to Ukrainian Refugees: A Game Changer for the EU's Broader Policy on External Migration?

Since 24 February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, more than three million people have fled Ukraine to seek refuge in neighboring Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia as well as non-EU country Moldova.[1] In response to this growing humanitarian tragedy, on 4 March 2022, EU member states unanimously invoked the EU’s “Temporary Protection Directive” for the first time in history.[2] As of 4 March over one million refugees had fled Ukraine.[3]

The Directive was established in 2001 following the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. It is an “exceptional measure” that allows refugees from non-EU countries to obtain temporary residency status – along with the right to work and gain access to social services - in EU member states without having to go through complex asylum procedures. It applies when there is a “mass influx” of displaced persons from non-EU countries “risking a negative impact on the processing of [asylum] claims” across the member states.[4]

Yet, in recent years, the mass influx of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war similarly triggered the arrival of one million persons at Europe’s doorsteps. The EU’s response back then was significantly different: It focused on fostering the security of the bloc’s external borders and ensuring cooperation with transit countries like Turkey to control and restrict Syrian refugee movements to Europe. Clearly, securitization and externalization of migration management overwhelmingly shaped the EU policy back then. And temporary protection was not even debated as a viable option for Syrian refugees in EU quarters. 

So, what is different now, and does the EU’s activation of the Directive signal a change in its overall approach to migration? 

While it may still be early to provide a full answer to all aspects of these questions, it is clear that “mass influx” or the size of refugee populations is not what defines the EU’s differential response to refugees. Other, politically – and culturally motivated – European considerations seem to be more relevant, and there are no signs for change in the EU’s broader policy of externalization of migration. 

Motivations behind the EU’s Welcoming of the Ukrainian Refugees 

When the Syrian refugee crisis hit in 2015, the most that the EU could offer to help was an attempted “European solution” with plans for the “relocation” and “resettlement” of a modest number of Syrian refugees in EU member states.[5] Yet, even this limited solution soon fell out of grace as it met the populist resistance of Central and Eastern EU countries which refused to accept any refugees. Now, however, the exact opposite is the case. Far from being divided as they were during the Syrian refugee crisis, EU member states quickly reached unity about showing solidarity with the Ukrainians. Unified European political opposition to the Russian aggression against Ukraine – even among Putin’s allies like Hungary’s Orban - and a desire to help alleviate the gross injustice endured by the Ukrainian people because of an unjustified invasion happening right in the heart of Europe seem to have played the upper hand. 

It is also the case that the Ukrainian refugee situation is not nearly as politicized or securitized as the Syrian migration crisis was. Ukrainians are white and Christian, and are not suspected of terrorist links or carrying a security threat for Europe. This makes it much easier for individual member states – even the ones that are known with their anti-immigrant attitudes such as Hungary - to welcome the Ukrainian people in large numbers.

Pro-European political and identity perceptions also seem to play in Ukrainians’ favor: On 11 March 2022 – only ten days after it was submitted – Ukraine’s EU membership application was warmly received by EU leaders who expressed support for Ukraine “in pursuing its European path” as “Ukraine belongs to [the] European family”.[6]

The Way Ahead 

However, the EU’s welcoming of Ukrainian refugees by no means suggests a shift in Brussels’ overall policy on migration and asylum. The previous (Syrian) “refugee crisis” is still being managed by the EU in cooperation with Turkey. The country has been home to the world’s biggest refugee population, - among whom 3.7 million Syrians - since the making of the 18 March 2016 “EU-Turkey refugee deal”. As part of the deal, the EU has provided 6 billion euros under the “Facility for Refugees in Turkey”, that has been contracted for projects addressing hosted refugees’ socio-economic needs in Turkey. Still, the conditions for refugees’ self-reliance and resilience in Turkey have not been fully achieved.[7] Nor has the situation improved in Syria so as to allow for Syrians’ safe and voluntary returns. Ankara has also often questioned the deal since promised EU incentives such as visa liberalization for Turkish citizens in the Schengen area and the modernization of the 1995 EU-Turkey Customs Union agreement have yet to materialize (subject to separate criteria to be met by Turkey). 

Despite these shortcomings, the deal has been deemed a “success” by the EU as it drastically cut the refugee flows to Europe. And it even inspired similar migration partnerships with other countries in the EU’s neighborhood, namely, Jordan and Lebanon, in 2016. These externalization of migration initiatives culminated in the European Commission’s “New Pact on Migration and Asylum”[8] in September 2020. The Pact further stressed a securitized approach to migration while giving member states greater flexibility in their efforts of “solidarity” with each other in times of refugee flows (i.e., either by accepting refugees from each other or helping each other with refugee returns via engaging in “return sponsorships”, and/or providing financial or capacity assistance). 

Thus, outside of the Ukrainian refugee situation, it is “business as usual” in the EU’s existing policy of securitization and externalization of migration. 

Furthermore, the growing wave of Ukrainian refugees across Europe could even intensify these existing EU practices when it comes to Syrian, Afghan, and Middle Eastern refugees at large. Along the way, this could trigger rising EU pressures on refugee-recipient countries in the EU’s neighborhood (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon) to host greater numbers of Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees as European countries would have their hands full in trying to accommodate the Ukrainians. 

From a humanitarian standpoint, while it is commendable for Europe to welcome war-fleeing Ukrainians, this “open-arms policy” should not be allowed to further intensify the EU’s externalization of migration from the Middle East and North Africa. EU member states should take greater responsibility in addressing mass influxes of displaced persons and the asylum requests of people in need of international protection. Such an approach would inevitably entail refraining from applying different policies to different refugee populations. Ultimately, it would boost the Union’s much-needed normative actorness in an era of functional pragmatism governing migration partnerships with key countries like Turkey.[9] It would also signal the world that the EU is capable of delivering a unified policy on migration and asylum, as a longstanding aim of European integration.


[1] United Nations Operational Data Portal - Ukraine Refugee Situation, "Refugees Fleeing Ukraine (since 24 February 2022),"(2022).

[2] Council of the European Union, Interinstitutional File No. 2022/0069, (4 March 2022).

[3] Kristy Siegfried, "The Refugee Brief - 4 March 2022," UNHCR The Refugee Brief, (4 March 2022).

[4] European Commission, "Migration and Home Affairs - Temporary Protection," (2022).

[5] Beken Saatcioglu, “The EU’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Battleground among Many Europes,” European Politics and Society, Vol. 22, No. 5 (2021): p. 808-823, DOI: 10.1080/23745118.2020.1842693

[6] David. M. Herszenhorn and Jacopo Barigazzi, “EU leaders back Ukraine but balk at fast-track membership,” Politico, 11 March 2022,

[7] Kemal Kirişçi, “How the EU and Turkey can promote self-reliance for Syrian refugees through agricultural trade,” Brookings, (February 2020),

[8] European Commission, “New Pact on Migration and Asylum,” (23 September 2020).

[9] Beken Saatcioglu, “The European Union’s refugee crisis and rising functionalism in EU-Turkey relations,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2 (2020): p. 169-187, DOI: 10.1080/14683849.2019.1586542

Beken Saatçioğlu
Beken Saatçioğlu

Beken Saatçioğlu is a Professor of International Relations at MEF University, Istanbul. She is also the recipient of a Jean Monnet Chair with her project “EU-Turkey Relations in an Era of Differentiated Integration” (EUTURDI, 2020-2023).

Foreword There have been numerous significant developments for TPQ since 2022. Our recent rebranding as Transatlantic Policy Quarterly not only reflects our expanded focus on international issues with broad implications for European and American politics, but also incorporates a new vision for the future. Our most recent issues focused on various aspects of the broader challenges and...