Activating the Temporary Protection Directive: three reasons why the EU should welcome refugees

Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission
Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP

by Emelie Olofsson, edited by Stefano Filipuzzi

Since Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, almost 4 million people have been forced to flee the country, and the influx of refugees is estimated to rise to 5 million people in the near future, the UN Refugee Agency say. Buses and trains are crammed daily with people who desperately want to cross the Ukrainian border and find security beyond their bombed-out homeland. It is estimated that more than half of them are children, many of whom do not even have their parents on their side during this journey.

To alleviate the refugee crisis, the European Union (EU) has decided to activate its Temporary Protection Directive (2001/55/​​EC), thus giving Ukrainian citizens the right to apply for residence and work permits in all EU Member States. Although EU Member States have together decided to enforce this directive, some of them are now refusing to follow up on their decision. In February, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson stated in Brussels that Sweden supported Ukraine but that it would not be at the forefront of welcoming refugees. This statement reflects the prevailing attitude towards migrants that emerged during the 2015 refugee crisis when EU countries did not want to share the burden of migration. The main argument then was that the states did not have sufficient resources to meet the refugees’ needs. Now, Swedish Prime Minister Andersson adds that Sweden already did its part by receiving many refugees in 2015, arguing that it is now up to the rest of the union to step up its efforts. In order to rebut this argument, I will present three reasons why EU Member States should instead receive refugees.

First reason: The EU economy is sufficiently strong

Several EU Member States claimed in 2015 that they could not afford to receive refugees on economic grounds. On the one hand, they argued there were not enough houses and jobs for everyone. On the other, they believed schools and healthcare could not cope with the burden of a sudden increase in the general population. Of course, there are challenges in welcoming people from other parts of the world, especially from an organizational point of view. But when it comes to the economy, however, we can state that the GDP per capita has increased significantly in the European Union since 1999. Therefore, EU Member States should be able to afford to help refugees.

In Sweden, for instance, GDP has grown by 50 percent since the early 1990s. This is partly because the country welcomed refugees after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Balkan conflict in 1991. People were integrated and have become a valuable part of Swedish society and the Swedish labour market. Another example is Germany, which has long fought to create economic stability and which, in the 2010s, was seen as a financial role model among EU countries. In 2019, the country accounted for 25% of the EU’s total GDP, and in 2020 it was the world’s fifteenth most prosperous country in terms of GDP per capita. This gives a somewhat fairer picture of the country’s resources. Figures show that Germany would be able to receive refugees from Ukraine. The same applies to Luxembourg, Ireland, and Denmark, which in 2020 were some of the countries in the world with the highest GDP per capita.

Of the world’s 195 independent states (by UN definition), all EU Member States were among the top 61 in terms of GDP per capita 2020. This means that, together, the countries constitute almost a quarter of the world’s wealthiest countries in terms of GDP per capita. Therefore, the EU can absolutely receive more refugees because it has the capacity to do so. Even though some EU Member States are in a worse position than others, the Union could work out a redistribution system. We can then conclude that there are no economic arguments that can stop EU Member States from taking the responsibility of helping people fleeing war in Ukraine.

Second reason: It is illegal not to receive refugees

In the context of the 2015 refugee crisis, EU Member States agreed to redistribute approximately 150,000 refugees who had arrived in Italy and Greece. Most favoured this decision, but three countries refused : Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. They did not receive (almost) any of their allotted quota of refugees because – they argued – migrants would pose a threat to their countries’ public order and internal security. The refusal was faced with consequences when the European Commission in 2017 decided to bring the three countries to the European Court of Justice for having violated the new EU law. The law states that the EU has an obligation to ensure that all people who cross the Union’s borders can apply for asylum. This indicates that not receiving refugees is not only inhumane but also illegal.

Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary opposed the prosecution, arguing that the redistribution decision would be contrary to EU law. However, in September 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that the decision did not contravene EU law, and the countries were punished. In connection with the ruling, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the following:

“[…] this ruling is important. It refers to the past but will give us guidance in the future. The Court is very clear about the responsibilities of the Member States”.

Perhaps, Von der Leyen was right in saying this, as this verdict against Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary may serve as a lesson for the Member states unwilling to open their arms to Ukrainian refugees. Under EU law, in fact, it is illegal not to receive refugees at their request.

Third reason: Protect the Human Rights 

To become a member of the EU, a country must sign the EU Charter of Human Rights and the EU treaties, thus agreeing to follow the EU’s many recommendations, laws, and regulations. Article 2 of the Charter states that the Union and its member states should respect and protect all human beings and their human rights. One word that stands out in this article is “solidarity”. EU Member States should act in solidarity and not selfishly, which means that caring exclusively about one’s own finances and safety should not be an excuse for not helping others. According to the theory of solidarity, the need to respect human rights has had a significant bearing on politics and has affected international relations in recent times. Helping people who are not citizens of the individual state is seen by solidarity theorists as possibly the only way to deal with a situation where a conflict has led to the violation of human rights, as it has in Ukraine. The international community has the responsibility to help if a regime or other groups violate human rights. Every signing party of the EU Charter should stand up when the situation requires it. Therefore, countries cannot selfishly think about their own best interests and not take sides when Russia invades Ukraine.