EU grants Ukrainians temporary residency in unprecedented move

Refugees arrive at western European stations as UN describes exodus from Ukraine

The European Union has agreed to grant all Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion temporary residency as it prepares to face what may become the continent's greatest exodus since the second World War.

The 27 member states unanimously agreed to activate the never-before-used Temporary Protection Directive to bypass the usual asylum procedures and allow Ukrainians to travel to safety and receive the right to work and access healthcare across the European Union.

“We did reach an agreement, a historic agreement indeed, that will allow the member states of the EU to afford the individuals fleeing the Ukrainian conflict temporary protection,” French interior minister Gérald Darmanin told journalists.

It came as exhausted refugees from Ukraine began arriving in train stations in western Europe, with volunteers providing food, water and medical attention for arriving crowds at Berlin's central station.

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Train fares have been waived for people with Ukrainian passports or ID cards across the continent including in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland,

The EU decision to grand temporary residence covers all Ukrainian nationals residing in the country prior to the invasion, as well as people who were refugees in the country, allowing them to work and access education and healthcare. It also covers their family members.

Member states can also offer temporary protection to non-Ukrainian permanent residents who cannot return safely to their country of origin, or alternatively can provide them with an adequate status according their national law, the agreement sets out.

Irish preparations

"Ireland will be applying this to any person who is fleeing Ukraine, and I think the vast majority of member states will be in that position also," Minister for Justice Helen McEntee told The Irish Times, adding that logistical preparations were under way to prepare for many thousands who may come.

The home and interior ministers were joined remotely by their Ukrainian counterpart Denis Monastirski, who described a worsening situation with bombarded cities cut off from humanitarian assistance and without water, food and electricity.

“Obviously we will do whatever we can to support Ukraine on this matter. We are 100 per cent behind them,” Ms McEntee said.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said a million people have fled Ukraine in the week since the invasion began, which is more than 2 per cent of its population of about 44 million people.

The agency has warned that figure could grow to four million as people flee the intensifying destruction of Ukrainian cities by Russian forces, with crowds of desperate people reaching neighbouring countries such as Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

"I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one. Hour by hour, minute by minute, more people are fleeing the terrifying reality of violence,"  UN high commissioner for refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement.

“Unless there is an immediate end to the conflict, millions more are likely to be forced to flee Ukraine.”

Domino effect

The invasion has prompted a domino effect of countries declaring their ambitions to join the EU in reaction against the attempt by Vladimir Putin to assert control over the former Soviet region.

On Thursday Moldova followed Ukraine and Georgia in declaring it was applying for EU candidate status, with president Maia Sandu stating that "citizens are prepared to work hard towards a stable and prosperous future".

Moldova came under sustained political pressure from Moscow after it elected a pro-EU government last year. At the outset of the invasion it joined Ukraine in disconnecting from the Russian electricity grid, and is now running on isolated power while technicians work to connect it and Ukraine to the EU system.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times