The Contrasting Treatment of Ukrainian and Syrian Refugees: A Tale of Two Migrations in the Eyes of the EU

, by Ana Filipa

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

The Contrasting Treatment of Ukrainian and Syrian Refugees: A Tale of Two Migrations in the Eyes of the EU
Source: Pixabay

A year ago, as the first deadly birds started to fall from the Ukrainian sky, the European Union was seized by a sudden and abundant influx of people running away from their endangered homes. Thousands of Ukrainians fled from their country, seeking refuge in the much safer European community, whose immediate action from all spheres responded to their urgent needs and ensured a warm, supportive reception. The European Institutions and domestic governments facilitated the administrative entry processes, funded essential aid and openly supported Ukraine and its people, whilst citizens themselves organised donations, shared information and offered shelter and community service to help their European neighbours. In line with its basilar principles, the European reaction to the crisis united the community in a clearly sided position that has been steady throughout the year. It has successfully integrated Ukrainian people in European societies and supported Kiev in a myriad of ways, excluding direct intervention in the conflict. On the other hand, Europe vehemently condemned Russia’s actions, denouncing its crimes and terrorist stance, while introducing economic sanctions.

To this day, more than 8 million Ukrainians have been sheltered in Europe, being that roughly half of them enjoy the benefits of the Temporary Protection Directive activated by the EU. They are also able to enter Poland and Slovakia without papers and can access free transportation and communication services across the Schengen area. However, although this effective absorption of the biggest asylum seekers income since World War II reveals solidarity, strength, firmness from the Community, and an indubitable compromise and competence to respond and adjust to relevant events in the international stage, it implies that the European Union was not nearly close to reaching its full welcoming capacity when dealing with similar situations in the past.

Indeed, during the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, the most evident parallel between the current context, the European approach was not so hospitable or urgent. Many member states tightened border control and opposed the incoming masses of Middle Eastern asylum seekers. Moreover, the European Union, dismembered in various opinions and concerns, presented a neglecting assistance to the administrative asylum-related processes, first contact member states, and particularly to the fragile refugees themselves. Thousands of people lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea, were denied entry in safer states, agglomerated in refugee camps, and underwent miserable conditions when seeking safety. The European response was then justified by the insufficient capacity to absorb such great amounts of people in domestic societies, as well as social and security concerns.

Nonetheless, as of today, when the current analogous crisis enables data comparison, the discrepancy of willingness and support between both moments is flagrant. Since 2011, Europe

has sheltered over 1 million Syrian refugees. Germany hosted over half of these in a total of over 560.000 people, followed by Sweden as the second largest hosting country in the European Union. Although in a much smaller scale than the latest incoming flow of Eastern European countries, the victims fleeing from the civil war were met with much more apprehension, struggle and obstacles by the European member states, who considered the numbers too exorbitant for their integrative capacity.

There may be various reasons to explain the different approaches. One must not forget that the Syrian refugee crisis was the first time the European Union was confronted with a problem of such scale and many solutions could not yet be foreseen. Today, it can recur to the experience and mechanisms that worked and were learnt in the past. Nevertheless, it is also true that, in these 7 years, Europe did not manage to define a unanimous response to migration and asylum-related issues, and therefore this does not fully explain the improvement of the integrative systems.

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict, the West has instantaneously identified the enemy. There was a clear front attacking and damaging the other party, and the balance of powers and military capacity of both was very tilted, clearly identifying Russia with the aggressor. The European continent was shaken by a war like it had not in a very long time, and it reverberated in every society. Generating shock and outrage, it brought to the spotlight the solidarity and sense of togetherness of the suburban community. This certainness, allied to the geographical and social proximity with the Ukrainian people, awakened in the European peoples the instinct to help, contribute and work towards peace. There was an unspoken, unanimous mission that needed to be fought for on the part of the European Union. Nonetheless, to help the Ukrainian asylum-seekers was also clearly opposing Russia, still strongly viewed as an historical antagonist of the West.

Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict is rather more complex and a “good”, just side is not objectively identifiable. Finding its roots in 2011, it followed the insurgence against the repressive regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The tensions between the government, rebel groups and the Islamic State, which viewed an opportunity to proliferate in this context, escalated horrendously and trapped the civilians in an unbearable scenario. They were thus forced to seek safety in neighbouring countries, and many continued their journey to Europe, a distant, rather utopic land with potentially better quality of life. Europe was then confronted with too many people to shelter and the necessity to find a quick and efficient solution. However, there were little to no relevant advantages in receiving the influx for the Community, which did not have a defined stance on the Syrian conflict, and thus neither governments or public opinion had a strong welcoming conviction.

In fact, the proximity with the vulnerable peoples attempting to enter the Community, and mainly with the hostility that originated the exodus, plays a determining role in the host's approach. It may motivate charity initiatives or instigate doubts and fears that directly affect the asylum applicants and the provision of urgent, decisive aid. In the Ukrainian case, there are plenty of similarities between incomer and host. The geographical closeness brings out the feeling of belonging to the same community, and not seldomly did Brussels affirm that “Ukraine is Europe”, as well as openness to help its integration in the European Union. The ethnic and cultural resemblances also constitute an enormous advantage to the Eastern applicants. These people share cultural roots with the member states’ societies, which easily view them as equal. It naturally ignites the willingness to take political responsibility, and both public opinion and governmental spheres push each other to adopt a supportive approach. In

result, Ukrainian refugees have currently more ease to pass borders, receive aid and get social benefits than other refugees that arrive to the same frontiers, with the same needs and for similar reasons, as is the case of the Middle Eastern, African and others.

On the other hand, Syrian applicants present starker contrasts with the Western side. The ethnic differences distance the peoples and provide ground for discrimination. Moreover, these refugees are mostly Muslim, which further diverges from the European norm and ignites the not absent Islamophobia of these societies. The latter view the Middle Eastern culture as a rigid, inflexible and close-minded group, assuming that their integration would be more difficult, and there would be some pressure to adopt their traditions. Furthermore, the peak of the Syrian crisis coincided with several terrorist attacks claimed by Islamic criminal organisations, which have frightened Europe and raised serious security concerns, often linked to the entry of Muslims in the Union. All this, allied to the novelty of such a crisis, fostered distrust among societies and politicians, increasing xenophobic tendencies, thus blocking solutions and closing borders.

Although these circumstances have played a relevant role in the decision-making procedures and in the reality of the problem, most concerns were rather fallacious and superficial. The integration of the Syrian asylum-seekers in the European Union could have even counterbalanced the consequences of an ageing society and developed the national economies and industries. Still, proximity to the exiling group has proven to have a striking influence in the member states’ approach. The contrast between both inflows has translated into completely opposite responses, which, in the end, meant survival or tragedy to the concerned individuals.

It is necessary to define a unanimous approach and administrative processes that safeguard the asylum applicants’ needs and ensure a healthy integration in the societies. Refugee treatment must also be impartial and discrimination constantly supervised and removed from the entry procedures. Until then, thousands of lives that, once eager to find new opportunities and be an asset in the European project, will hopelessly perish at its borders.

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