Europe’s two-tier asylum system: doors open for Ukrainians as others seeking refuge face barriers

Similar story for asylum seekers in Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Germany and Poland as Ukrainians enjoy priority treatment and others sometimes struggle

After months of hiding from the Taliban, Mohammed fled Afghanistan and spent weeks travelling, first to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, then to Europe to seek asylum. When he reached Ireland, Mohammed said he hoped for “a safe place to rest, and the possibility to work”. Instead, he found himself homeless on the streets of Dublin.

After several days, Mohammed ended up in Citywest, the refugee transit hub on the outskirts of the capital, where he joined 200 other asylum seekers sleeping on floors and chairs while waiting to be housed. “We are all brown and black people from places like Afghanistan and Syria,” he said.

The Government has said it can no longer guarantee shelter for asylum seekers due to the severe pressure on the system caused by the number of claimants.

But at the same time, under the European Union’s the Temporary Protection Directive, Ireland has welcomed Ukrainians fleeing the war with almost the same access to housing, work, healthcare and education as Irish citizens.


The EU passed the directive in 2001 after the Balkan wars of the 1990s to deal with a possible future mass refugee influx, but until Russia invaded Ukraine last year, had never used it. Non-Ukrainian asylum seekers pass through the normal asylum process. Of the 17,500 asylum seekers being accommodated by the State at the end of 2022, about two-thirds were provided with basic accommodation under the much-criticised direct provision system. The other third stayed in hotels at a cost of €166 million last year.

Authorities swiftly issued Ukrainians with Personal Public Service (PPS) numbers giving access to welfare and public services, and medical cards allowing free healthcare

Meanwhile, Ireland is providing hotel rooms to many more Ukrainians (some 47,000 by the end of 2022) at a considerably higher cost – €385 million between March and December last year. Another 5,700 were in homes offered by the public, while the rest of the 67,000 Ukrainians in Ireland at that time were renting their own housing or living with family and friends. Since the start of the year, more than 10,000 further Ukrainians have arrived.

There are marked differences in access to healthcare, labour and education between Ukrainians with temporary protection and other asylum seekers in Ireland, said Fiona Hurley, chief executive of migrant and refugee support organisation Nasc.

Authorities swiftly issued Ukrainians with Personal Public Service (PPS) numbers giving access to welfare and public services, and medical cards allowing free healthcare. However, asylum seekers “waited months to get access to a PPS number, without which they were often left destitute”, Hurley said. “People looking for medication to treat their illnesses often had to resort to NGOs for help.”

Phone lines

The State quickly set up interpretation phone lines for Ukrainians to access GPs. Hurley said they should be available in every language, pointing out that GPs normally have to pay for interpreters themselves.

Asylum seekers “feel they’re being sidelined in comparison to Ukrainians,” said Sharon Mpofu, who arrived in Ireland from Zimbabwe four years ago seeking asylum. She now volunteers with an advocacy group, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland.

“The State has proven that if they can do this for people coming from Ukraine, they can do it for everyone,” she said.

Mpofu’s asylum application was approved last year, but she remains in an asylum centre until she finds a place to rent, which is difficult due to soaring costs.

Mpofu found work in a solicitor’s office, but said she was “at an advantage because we speak English in Zimbabwe. Many asylum seekers don’t have English at all”.

Figures obtained from the Department of Justice show that 4,772 labour market permits and 1,601 renewals of permits were issued to asylum seekers in 2022. However, this figure does not reflect the number of asylum seekers who managed to find employment, and the CSO does not collect this data.

More than 10,000 Ukrainians were in employment in Ireland by February 2023, with a mean weekly earning of €434, data collected by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) showed.

But language is also a barrier for many Ukrainians. About 70 per cent of Ukrainians who attended employment support events said the need to speak English made it harder to find a job. But some have succeeded.

Good English

Natalya Krasnenkova and her son fled Kyiv last year and both already had a good level of English. Krasnenkova attends a college course in community development and leadership and has just started a new job.

“I sent my CV to a Government organisation. It was my first CV I sent. I work just one day a week, but when I finish my course in the summer I will work full-time with them,” she said.

Some 92 per cent of Ukrainian children in Ireland – more than 13,750 – are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, one of the highest rates in Europe

“Now I will have more instruments and possibilities to help Ukrainians with jobs, basic needs, and advocating for their rights. I think my son is happy, because when we arrived he already had brilliant English,” Krasnenkova said.

Krasnenkova and her son live in Killarney, Co Kerry, a town that used to have a population of 10,000. Killarney has now been transformed by the arrival of 3,000 Ukrainians and 1,000 asylum seekers.

Some 92 per cent of Ukrainian children in Ireland – more than 13,750 – are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, one of the highest rates in Europe.

But children in the asylum system are at a disadvantage, Mpofu said, because their parents often cannot buy textbooks and other necessities out of their weekly welfare payments of €38.80 per adult and €29.80 per child.

Department of Social Protection figures showed 9,300 adults and more than 2,000 children within the asylum system received these welfare payments in 2022, at a cost of €19.3 million.

Ukrainians can access the full range of welfare support, including jobseekers’ payments, pensions, child benefit and rent supplement, the same as Irish citizens. The total expenditure on welfare support for Ukrainians under the Temporary Protection Directive was just over €240 million in 2022.

Further education

More than 12,000 Ukrainians are enrolled in further education and training, most in English language courses, which are free.

Meanwhile, Nasc works with children in the asylum system who have been in the care of the State, and who have the right to work and live in Ireland.

“But by the time they’re 18 and applying for college, they’ve the wrong type of immigration stamp and are not considered eligible for a grant,” Hurley said. “They don’t have a family network to help pay and there’s just no feasible way to go on to regardless of their own academic abilities.”

Sinéad Gibney, head of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, said she was concerned that a two-tier system was developing. “Unlike their Ukrainian counterparts,” she said, asylum seekers “have limited rights. This is despite the fact that they’re also refugees, sometimes fleeing very similar conflict and persecution.”

But it has not been smooth sailing for Ukrainians. “While they are entitled to accommodation, the accommodation is very varied and some are pretty poor,” said Nick Henderson, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council, a non-governmental organisation.

Some Ukrainians have also been forced to move several times when hotel contracts ended. There are also thousands of Ukrainians who are not yet fully registered.

“Those people only have letters of permission from the Government to be here, which isn’t well understood by employers,” said Brian Killoran, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.

This has not led to delays in access to vital services just yet “but it likely will”, he said.

He added that policymakers should look at applying some of the successes of the Temporary Protection Directive for other asylum seekers.

“The mould has been broken with Ukraine about these administrative issues and we know this treatment can be applied more broadly.”

Denmark: ‘Zero asylum’ policy reversed for Ukraine

Nestled in a patchwork of fields in remote rural Denmark and hidden from view behind trees lies Kaershovedgard, a former prison now housing hundreds of asylum seekers who have had their residence permits revoked.

Danish authorities call the Jutland facility a “departure centre”, but once refugees enter, they do not know when they will leave. The average length of stay is around five years, the Danish Immigration Service said.

Denmark has taken a hard line on immigration over the last decade, revoking refugees’ residence permits, confiscating asylum seekers’ valuables and looking to locate asylum centres in countries such as Rwanda and Serbia. It was one of the first EU countries to tell Syrians it was safe to return home, sending them letters telling them to go, despite rights groups accusing the Syrian government of persistent abuses.

Denmark has an opt-out from European Union asylum policy and had no obligation to follow Brussels’ lead in offering Ukrainians temporary protection. But when Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the Danish government quickly overturned its “zero asylum” policy, granting 30,000 Ukrainians access to housing, healthcare, education and employment.

“The special law for Ukrainians has created essentially two classes of refugees,” explained Dr Nikolas Tan, an expert at the independent, state-funded Danish Human Rights Institute.

The aim is to dissuade others from coming to Denmark, said Danish lawyer Niels-Erik Hansen.

Asylum seekers in Denmark are not allowed to find a job until their claim is approved, but they can apply for permission to work if their application has been pending for six months. In contrast, Ukrainians can begin applying for jobs almost immediately, but language is a barrier for both groups.

The special law for Ukrainians is to expire by 2025. With one-third of Ukrainians hoping to stay, Denmark has to decide whether to extend the welcome. If not, Ukrainians will have to apply through the normal asylum process, rights experts say. – Joanna Gill in Copenhagen

Belgium: Ukrainians find refuge as asylum seekers sleep rough

Though one of the world’s richest countries, Belgium says the sheer numbers of refugees from Ukraine, Africa and Asia are straining the resources of the country of 11.6 million people.

By early March, Fedasil, a Belgian institution that is responsible for the reception of asylum seekers, said between 2,000 and 3,000 asylum seekers were homeless. But Ukrainians are more likely to be in proper housing, and in education or employment.

Refugee campaigners said the failure to house asylum seekers highlighted what they called the government’s double-standards.

“This is actually institutional racism, a lack of political will to provide a minimum of dignity to people,” said Marie Doutrepont, a lawyer working with asylum seekers. Now, she said, if you want to get on a housing waiting list, you have to take the Belgian government to court.

The government said in March that it would increase reception capacity, hire more immigration officers and deport failed asylum claimants more quickly. It also pledged to set up a container village for asylum seekers, but has yet to receive a permit. The Flemish regional government opened a container village for Ukrainians last year, only three months after Russia’s invasion.

For the hundreds of asylum seekers unable to find housing, sleeping rough has health costs. Under asylum rules, applicants should have access to basic medical care as soon as they are registered, with Fedasil paying the costs, but the bureaucratic process means sometimes people are missed, Doctors without Borders (MSF) said.

In January, a pregnant asylum seeker was turned away from a Brussels hospital as she did not have medical insurance or the €2,000 to deliver her child. The government called it a misunderstanding and Fedasil said it would have paid.

However, once Ukrainians register for medical insurance, they have the same healthcare as Belgian citizens. – Joanna Gill in Brussels

Germany: Ukrainians skip bureaucratic hurdles

Germany, like other EU states, has given Ukrainians rights similar to its own citizens. But refugees seeking asylum in Germany from other countries have to navigate a bureaucratic process that gives priority and some rights, like the ability to work, to people with a good chance of having their claim approved, such as Syrians and Afghans.

Germany wanted to avoid the mistakes of 2015 that hindered refugees’ prospects, such as barring them from some training programmes

Most Ukrainians in Germany have managed to find private housing – 74 per cent, according to a representative survey led by the Federal Institute for Population Research. By contrast, asylum seekers are assigned places in state-run accommodation centres where they have to live while their application is processed, which takes an average of 7.5 months.

Part of the motivation for Germany’s application of temporary protection to Ukrainians was a result of the mass migration from Syria in 2015, said Constantin Hruschka, a legal expert at the Max Planck Institute in Munich. Germany wanted to avoid the mistakes of 2015 that hindered refugees’ prospects, such as barring them from some training programmes.

Temporary protection has eased the administrative burden of accessing training and benefits, said Ruth Billen from the Berlin Refugee Law Clinic.

The blanket rights applied to so many Ukrainians through temporary protection, she said, had undermined the EU argument that granting such rights to asylum seekers would overwhelm the social security system.

“It’s not about being able to, but wanting to,” she said. – Sadiya Ansari in Berlin

Poland: Hostile policies except for Ukrainians

Those seeking asylum in Poland from countries other than Ukraine are faced with hostile policies – they are increasingly pushed back from the EU’s eastern frontier, and put into detention if they succeed in reaching Polish territory.

Poland opened detention centres in August 2021 in response to a surge in asylum seekers entering from Belarus – Polish border guards reported more than 39,000 attempts at crossing that year.

Poland set up a detention centre in Wędrzyn, near the German border, where Ghith, a 29-year-old asylum seeker from Syria, was transferred after crossing from Belarus.

Conditions were difficult – dirty, overcrowded quarters, being locked in a room from 9pm to 9am with no access to smartphones, Ghith said. This echoes findings from asylum lawyers, and Poland’s Commission for Human Rights, which described conditions in detention centres as “inhuman and degrading”.

Nearly 2,400 people were put into detention in 2021, according to a report by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles network of non-governmental agencies.

Last year, as Poland built a 5.5-metre barbed wire-topped fence along 186km of its roughly 400-km border with Belarus, a steady flow of refugees arrived at the Ukrainian border – and they were let in.

A similar language has eased the transition for Ukrainian refugees, and a history of Ukrainian migration into Poland means newcomers often have support networks to rely on. – Sadiya Ansari, in Poland

This article is part of a series between The Irish Times and Thomson Reuters Foundation investigating the impact of the first-ever application of the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) by the EU to Ukrainian refugees.

This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe.