Ukrainians in Europe – Security of stay must be extended says report

The lack of long-term security is preventing integration, language learning and best use of human resources among Ukrainian refugees in Europe, warns the report Integration of people fleeing Ukraine in the EU by Lodewijk Asscher, Special Adviser for Ukraine and former Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

Asscher praises the rapid response of local authorities, civic groups and the ordinary people who helped welcome an influx of more than four million people fleeing the war in Ukraine in 2022. It was “the largest number of refugees from Europe since the Second World War”, he notes.

But although the EU’s response – the activation of a Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) by the European Council in March 2022 – has, he says, been a success, a longer-term solution is needed to give displaced people from Ukraine the confidence to make decisions that will both help them and contribute to their host countries. 

Initially guaranteed until March 2024, the TPD provided legal status and immediate protection, granting access to work, social welfare, medical care, education and accommodation to the millions of refugees.

On 19 September 2023, the European Commission proposed a one-year extension – until March 2025 – for those fleeing Russian aggression in Ukraine. Asscher’s report argues that that does not go far enough and proposes a framework that would give Ukrainian refugees the right to remain within the EU for up to 10 years – a timeframe he anticipates will cover post-war recovery and reconstruction in the country.

“We should reassure displaced persons from Ukraine living in the EU about their status after the Temporary Protection Directive expires,” he writes.

“I would call for a joint commitment with the Ukrainian government to extend the TPD for the expected duration of the reconstruction of Ukraine, possibly [for] 10 years. A joint statement between the Ukrainian government and the European Commission could announce a Reconstruction Permit, to be launched after the second extension of the TPD.”

Talking to the European Training Foundation (ETF), Asscher notes:

“The TPD has been – and continues to be – a success. It is very important to stress this fact as migrants, displaced persons and refugees are so often painted as a problem. But the TPD is a success story, both in the ways Ukrainians have adapted, but also due to the European Commission, EU Member States and city authorities [who have engaged with Ukrainians fleeing the war in Russia].”

His comments underlie a key point made in the report, namely that:

“By alleviating the burden of the waiting process that has marked the lives of so many people fleeing, and thereby presenting a very different picture to host societies, [the TPD] has helped to convince Europeans that refugees were not the problem – Putin’s war was.”

But with the TPD set to last until March 2025 at the latest, a longer-term perspective on integration is needed. 

The report – for which Asscher has travelled and consulted widely – praises the EU’s funds and mechanisms that swung into action to help Ukrainian refugees. Over €1 billion was made available (as of May 2023) under policy programmes to address migration challenges, and other sums that more than match that from the European Social Fund, the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived, and the European Regional Development Fund freed up.

But in a conversation with ETF Ukraine Information Hub* consultant, Iryna Yuryeva – herself a Ukrainian refugee living in Germany – Asscher agreed that more needed to be done to ensure those on the frontlines of helping refugees – EU Member States, local authorities, NGOs and voluntary organisations – had the information needed to access funds and build peer-learning and support networks.

“Good information is extremely important,” Asscher emphasised. “If you place yourself in the shoes of a refugee or displaced person, there is a lot of uncertainty and stress that is bothering you; you need to build a future again even though that has become uncertain. Something that can help is a clear perspective and reliable information – about your status and the opportunities that are available in the job market, for training or language learning.” 

“There is no flip side to sharing this information. The more people know about how they can improve their own lives the better it is for Europe as a whole also.” 

Asscher’s report praises the work of “frontline Member States [that] have exceeded expectations in many ways, building infrastructure and providing access to their social security systems, almost overnight”. The challenge will be to make the transition to long-term sustainable solutions, he adds, noting that Germany (1.04 million), Poland (974,000), Czechia, Italy and Spain took the largest number of refugees, with highest numbers as a share of a country’s population seen in Estonia, Czechia, Poland, Lithuania and Bulgaria. 

“Solidarity is alive and kicking in the EU [where] people have opened their homes and hearts en masse,” Asscher observes.

Such support cannot be taken for granted, and Russian disinformation campaigns to feed discontent and populism are a very real threat.

To counter “solidarity fatigue” that is beginning to set in in some parts of Europe, stronger local networks need to be built. 

“When travelling to frontier Member States I have always talked to city governments, NGOs and refugees, and part of my advice is to build a network of the organisations that play a positive role in the lives of Ukrainian displaced persons. You can help each other in acquiring the necessary political clout.”

The European Commission could enhance such networks by helping to organise platforms to help people come together to build networks.

“There is a difference between those NGOs that work at a multi-national scale and those that are strictly local or national. Peer-learning must be organised,” Asscher adds.

The more those involved worked together, the greater the security that could be offered to Ukrainians, giving them the confidence to take jobs that meet their skills levels, or to embark on longer-term projects such as education and training. 

The longer-term framework Asscher proposes could also address the “dilemma of companies (especially SMEs) that are discouraged from investing in training and upskilling because they do not know how long people will stay”. 

Asscher’s report also has a raft of recommendations on specific measures to give Ukrainian refugees a stronger foundation, including ensuring they can move on from temporary housing solutions to “something more permanent” and better cooperation between employment services, local authorities, social services, migration authorities and NGOs, to help improve the match between Ukrainians and the labour market. 

A better understanding of the refugees’ skills and qualifications is also needed to ensure human capital and talents are not going to waste.

A greater involvement of refugees in finding solutions to the integration challenges they face is also called for, Asscher notes.

“An active role for refugees has been key in many initiatives.”

One example identified in the report is the establishment in Estonia of the Freedom School for Ukrainian children, staffed by 73 people, 29 of whom are teachers and support specialists from Ukraine. 

Apart from highlighting the need to give Ukrainian refugees a longer-term perspective in the EU, Asscher says in his recommendations that the TPD model should be the basis for future integration policy for all protected refugees and third-country nationals. Providing a clear status, access to the labour market and connection to the host society, will speed integration and avoid “applying double standards” that risk widening the gap between Ukrainian refugees and others. 

“At this moment, in some Member States, double standards are noticeable in the treatment of groups of refugees. Even though this can be explained based on different legal statuses, [they] should pay attention to unfair differences.”

By opening up jobs, housing and education to refugees, the “waiting dilemma” is addressed and the economic value of displaced people can be used better. 

By making the most of existing EU funding programmes for 2021–27, particularly under the European Social Fund Plus (€99.3 billion), and the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (€10.2 billion), EU Member States can better support the integration of Ukrainian refugees, and directing funding towards NGOs and local authorities could accelerate this process.

Extending the TPD and introducing a longer-term framework is “a political question; it is up to Member States if they want to invest political capital in this solution. I am not naïve – that depends on many events.”

“My main goal [in the report] was to present a different frame in that debate and show a possible road as to where you could make this a constructive discussion,” Asscher concludes.

* Launched in March 2022 at the European Commission’s request, the ETF’s Ukraine Information Hub provides information (in Ukrainian and English) on a multitude of questions of interest for Ukrainian refugees. It is also a resource for organisations and authorities in EU Member States who are working with Ukrainian refugees. 

Since its launch, the hub has received more than 27,000 unique visitors. 

“Last year we focused on populating the hub with links, documents, recommendations and guidance. This year we’ve also focused on promoting the hub to ensure that as many people as possible know about it and use it as a starting point to find the resources they need,” Yuryeva said.

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