Since the start of Russia's war against Ukraine on 24 February 2022, three and a half million people have fled the country. A conversation with Tineke Strik MEP on the triggering of the EU Temporary Protection Directive and what chances and challenges come with it.
Anna Schwarz: On 3 March 2022, the EU justice and home affairs ministers decided to trigger the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time since it entered into force in 2001. Do the instruments and measures laid out in this directive enable EU Member States to welcome the many people fleeing from the war in Ukraine at the moment?
Tineke Strik MEP: Yes, certainly, they do. The Temporary Protection Directive is, on the one hand, a good instrument for the EU Member States to make sure that their asylum systems are not overburdened, but, on the other hand, it gives immediate access to strong rights for the refugees themselves. They can immediately have access to the labour market, to the education system, to the health system and to housing. In that sense, it really enables EU Member States to act swiftly and give them all the help that they need. A vulnerable element of the directive is that it’s very much based on the voluntariness of EU Member States, so they can also decide to take in only a small number of the refugees. But if refugees enter into an EU Member State, they can invoke the rights of this directive. That is very important.
The “freedom of choice” regarding which EU Member State the refugees want to go to is one big difference between the “standard” EU asylum procedure and the Temporary Protection Directive. What are the challenges and potentials of this free choice? You already touched upon it a bit, but maybe you can elaborate a little further.
I think it’s important that, on the one hand, people can choose, can look for their relatives and can see where they have a community or they speak the language. The current system doesn’t take into account the preferences of refugees at all. It simply applies the first entry criteria, which means they have to remain in the EU Member State of first entrance, which also has the consequence that those EU Member States, located at the external borders, are very much overburdened. On the other hand, if we want to make sure that all EU Member States are genuinely both capable and willing to host refugees in the right way, it is important that the responsibility is divided more among them. Actually, what is really missing with the current activation of the Temporary Protection Directive is a common distribution of responsibilities. It’s now as if every EU Member State is simply waiting for people to come to their country. There are already now more than two million people stuck in Poland without having sufficient access to all of their needs and required services.
It would make much more sense if EU countries would really act together with a sense of common responsibility. They have to coordinate the pledges every EU Member State makes, as well as what is necessary in order to distribute the responsibility; furthermore, they have to make a logistical effort, in order to organise safe travel. Not only should the people be registered, but there also has to be an identification of their vulnerabilities and preferences. The state authorities also have to make sure that they are transported to the places of destination where they can stay, and start building a new future for as long as it takes. The way that it is done now raises a lot of concerns regarding trafficking. Therefore, I think the first step was a good step, namely activating the Temporary Protective Directive, but then you also have to take the next step, which is to make sure that people get the right protection.
It’s the first time that the Temporary Protection Directive has been triggered, but it’s not the first time that civil society has asked EU Member States to trigger it. Many civil society organisations unsuccessfully urged EU Member States to trigger the Temporary Protection Directive in 2015. What made them decide differently in 2022 than in 2015?
We, as the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, also called for the activation in 2015 for the protection of Syrian refugees entering the EU, and again last year with the takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the response was very disappointing, and also very clear. The Justice and Home Affairs ministers even adopted a declaration saying that everyone should stay in the region of Afghanistan, although we knew that countries like Pakistan and Iran were extremely far from being prepared to host those refugees. That’s the cynical thing now: since they decided to adopt the principle of reception and responsibility of the region of conflict, now they have to be consistent, as Europe is the region of conflict this time. They have had to act upon this principle now that it relates to themselves. This is not the vision that we as Greens have. We think there is a global responsibility for refugees because most of the refugees, 86%, to be precise, stay in fragile, poor countries, and we as a wealthy continent of countries have an extra responsibility for making sure that everyone really is safe; not only in a physical sense, but also by having the sufficient possibilities to live a decent life and build a future. Therefore, we have the global compact on refugees adopted four years ago, but now we need to act upon it. Of course, I am happy for the refugees coming from Ukraine, but it should not lead to cementing this principle of the region as the only responsible actor. Because it's not feasible and it’s not fair. Every refugee has the same needs and rights, wherever they are located.
What was a little surprising to me was that the decision to trigger the Temporary Protection Directive was taken unanimously. Do you think the current unity can also be translated into the negotiations about reforms of EU asylum and migration policies that have been in a deadlocked situation for years now?
We need to do everything we can to make that happen, of course, and use this momentum. But to be honest, I’m a bit sceptical about it, especially when you hear the rhetoric and the language, especially of the politicians and governments from the Central and Eastern EU countries, who were always, until now, blocking any agreement on relocation. Time after time, they emphasise that “these are the real refugees, and they belong to us”. Therefore, it’s also a way to distance themselves from all other refugees or the fact that every refugee has the same fears, the same needs and so on. However, they clearly do not adopt that approach, and it may even be that the kind of statement they want to make by hosting everyone now is: “We are human, and we take our responsibility seriously; but only these people are our responsibility, and the others are not.” I’m afraid it will not help. Especially if the war lingers on and people have to stay for a longer period, at which point you will also get discussions on whether “we already host too many refugees, and we cannot take in any more”; so it may even be a threat for refugees coming from other parts of the world. Still, we need to seize this opportunity; but in which way we can be successful in doing so, this is really a huge challenge.
Actors that are really living up to their responsibility at the moment are cities, local authorities and municipalities. They play a major role in the reception of arriving refugees. Which EU mechanisms and financial instruments are in place to support them, and are they sufficient?
It’s the municipalities, indeed, that are active, in addition to a lot of civil society actors and NGOs. And actually, especially if you look at Poland and Hungary, the state authorities are almost absent, and all the work there is being done by civil society and municipalities. We had a meeting with EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson on 16 March 2022, and she said there is now some unspent money from the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) which will be used for this, but there’s also a new budgetary proposal and she agreed with us that it should be used and directed in a very flexible way because it’s needed now on the ground. I explicitly asked her, and urged her, to make sure that it is directed immediately to the actors providing the assistance and not disbursed through the state structures. She did not give a direct response to this, but as the EP has to approve the budget, we will be able to amend the proposal, and hopefully we get sufficient support to formulate our demands for the use of it.
There’s also an initiative being developed by mayors of different cities, such as Budapest, Warsaw and Bratislava, to also make a joint call upon the Commission to give money directly to the municipalities, and NGOs have the same concerns. So I really hope it becomes clearer very quickly that this is happening. Because apart from rule of law concerns in Poland and Hungary and risk of corruption, I think the argument of efficiency and speediness is the most convincing at the moment.
You already mentioned NGOs and civil society taking over a lot of responsibility, but there’s also a huge solidarity and willingness to support people fleeing from the war by individuals. What is the best way to support them as an individual?
It is indeed really heart-warming to see all those private initiatives and we should, of course, certainly welcome them and support them, but it doesn’t dismiss states of their own responsibility, because I think for private actors it’s sometimes difficult to realise what it means if it takes a longer time to house people. State authorities should not only be there to help them in any way but also to inform the refugees of their rights and direct them to all the different institutions that can help them further to make sure they get money so that they do not become financially dependent on the private actors who are willing to host them. That’s important to make it more doable for the longer term, and this is really a state responsibility.
And, on the other hand, apart from the overwhelming hospitality, we also must be aware of the risk of abuse and exploitation if we leave it to the private sector alone. People left on their own, even minors, may be taken by people who want to exploit them. We hear a lot of disturbing signals about trafficking. I even heard about a large group of children who came from an orphanage house to Poland. There was already a linkage with an organisation in the US that wanted to take them all, but luckily someone checked the organisation. It turned out that this was far from being an offer of integrity. Everyone should be checked, not to distrust anyone, but to protect people during this chaos. Therefore, I really plea for safe transport, so that people are not completely dependent on the driver of the bus they are entering, for instance. It should be clear where people are going, and it should be clear who is helping them; on the other hand, authorities should be much more willing and ready to support the private actors who are generously helping these people. I think together, with the right balance, it’s really important to have this societal support.