The European response to Ukrainian refugees: why is this time different?

by Federica Roldi

As we all know, the worsening of the Ukrainian conflict after the Russian invasion is causing heavy migratory and humanitarian consequences. According to data from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees fled the war. The majority of them is distributed in the neighbouring countries such as Poland, Romania, and Hungary, but also in other European countries, Italy included.

The Ukrainian refugee crisis in comparison

To better understand the features of this ongoing crisis and the European response to it, it is useful to contrast it to the other important migration crisis that Europe had to face in 2015. At the peak of this emergency in 2016, 181.000 refugees had reached Italy through the Mediterranean, whereas now, the Ukrainian crisis has generated a higher number of people in difficulty in fewer days. Of course, it is hard to compare such different phenomena, as they are characterised by different features (geographical position, time and reasons of the forced migration). However, it is helpful to come back to the past crisis in order to understand how the European Union is confronting the current one and, also, to comprehend why the EU is moving on completely different lines of action from those experienced in recent years on other migration fronts.

European countries’ response

The general trend of the receiving European countries is to warmly welcome the people in need. This tendency can be detected both at the European Union’s level and at the national level.

Several countries across Europe have given shelter to refugees from the conflict in Ukraine. Even politicians known for their anti-migration views and campaigns have called for supporting those running away from the war. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian far-right party Lega, is one of these politicians: immediately after Russia’s invasion of the Ukrainian territory, he announced that he would help in facilitating the travel of Ukrainian people to Italy. Despite this welcoming step, Salvini is popular for his opposition to liberal refugee policies, and, recently, he also stood in court for blocking refugees from disembarking from a rescue ship.

Another such political leader is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, he has shown activism by stating the need to save people escaping from Ukraine, regardless of the fact that he is known as the leading man of the anti-migrant right in Europe.

The EU response

Since the early days of the conflict, the European Union has been quite active, and its reaction has included several rounds of sanctions against Russia (map of EU sanctions), as well as military assistance and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

“Millions of people have been uprooted and we need to put all expressions of solidarity rapidly into action. The new Solidarity Platform is up and running already, to ensure that, between Member States we can match needs to capacity. Those who flee the war need to have their rights quickly re-established. They must be able to work, to have access to healthcare, be sure of a roof over their heads and be able to put their children in school.” (Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson)

This statement by the European Commissioner for Home Affairs YIva Johansson represents a further and important step by the EU. Since the start of the fighting, in fact, she has pointed out that the orientation of the EU is to guarantee temporary protection for a year with the possibility of renewal to Ukrainian citizens who may request it in one of the member States. This is possible at the EU level thanks to one instrument adopted in 2001: the Temporary Protection Directive. It grants an exceptional measure of immediate and temporary protection to displaced persons from non-EU countries and those unable to return to their country of origin. As stated on the European Commission’s website, the proposal for the activation of this directive came from the Commission on February 27th. On March 4th, the Council adopted unanimously the implementing decision introducing temporary protection.

Two aspects of this European action need to be stressed. First is the fact that the EU has managed to take a step in this situation despite being in a status of deadlock for several years over common action in the field of asylum. Secondly, we can point out a first difference with the past 2015 refugee crisis because, at that time, this treatment was never conceived to refugees. This is in fact the first time ever that this directive has been implemented since its creation.

The differences between the two refugee crises

Giving that the topic of refugees has been quite problematic in the EU especially since the 2015 migration crisis and given the anti-migration attitudes and the political opposition to migration, we can ask, “Why are we experiencing this solidarity towards Ukrainian people? What has changed since the last migration crisis?”

First, a key factor that plays a role here is geographical proximity: now we are discussing about European people and European countries. Another aspect that is linked to the geographical issue is racism toward non-Europeans. The past refugee crisis regarded mainly non-European countries, such as Afghanistan and Syria, whereas this time the flows come from another European state. In fact, while European hospitality has been applauded, it has also highlighted stark differences in treatment given to migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Those migrants have noticed a radical change of attitude from the European countries in comparison with the 2015 refugee crisis, which led them to state that their behaviours in the past mixed racism and Islamophobia.

Yet, it is not only distance that plays a role. Italy is closer to Tunisia and Libya than it is to Ukraine, but migration flows from these areas were not so welcomed as the current ones from Ukraine. This leads us to a second factor that can help understand the EU attitude, which is the perception of Ukrainians as culturally and ethnically similar. Data and research have in fact shown that anti-migrant sentiment is driven by the perception of cultural and ethnic difference.

Third, Russia’s attack of Ukraine has been widely presented as a war against Europe, and both the war and refugees’ tragic stories and conditions have been strongly mediatised. From this, we can derive the importance and the role of media in influencing how policymakers and individuals understand events and form their opinions.

Fourth, the image that has been delineated of Ukrainians has also been crucial. They have been portrayed as heroes, combating and defending their country against one of the strongest military powers in the world.  This is connected of course with issues of national identity, security, and stability. These are conservative values that often impact on the attitudes of those individuals and political leaders that tend to be more sceptical towards migration.


This is certainly not the first time that Ukrainians have fled from their country to search for better life conditions elsewhere; Europe has already faced migratory fluxes from Ukraine. However, this time is different. The issue here is woven with several elements that also contribute to explaining the EU’s positive attitude towards Ukrainian refugees. The most important factors are geographical proximity and cultural affinity with Ukraine, which according to the author are key aspects for making Europeans feel closer to these refugees and therefore more available to help. Furthermore, the Ukrainian case clearly shows the role that communication and media play in shaping attitudes and migration policy responses. Future dynamics will depend on how refugee flows are managed by European countries and how visible the presence of Ukrainians becomes in European towns and cities. Research in fact has shown that the perception of disorder following the arrival of thousands of Syrians in 2015 had a negative impact on attitudes toward immigration in receiving countries.