Europe cannot allow a two-tier system for refugees to take hold

Contrast between EU response to different refugee groups is stark and troubling

On March 1st, 2022, the bodies of six people washed up on the shores of Lesbos Island in Greece. These people died seeking safety and refuge, trying to reach the EU in search of international protection from conflict or oppression.

Asking for international protection is a human right, enshrined in EU law and yet there are almost no safe routes to come to the EU to do so, and the EU has stopped search and rescue operations that had been saving lives.

Everyone has the right to seek asylum, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or country of origin

On that same day in March, EU officials were preparing to activate – unanimously and for the first time in its history – the Temporary Protection Directive, an essential and life-saving mechanism affording people fleeing the violence in Ukraine access to a three-year residence permit, education and employment in any EU country, without having to have individual asylum claims assessed.

The contrast between the responses of EU leaders to different groups of refugees is stark and troubling – and goes beyond safe and legal passage.

This difference was even acknowledged by EU leaders. At the press conference announcing the agreement to activate the Temporary Protection Directive, the Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs said, “...if you compare to 2015”, refugees who arrived in the EU from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and other places of conflict were left in limbo as “just to have their asylum processed could take years. Today, it’s just one week since it [the Ukraine crisis] started and we adopted a Temporary Protection Directive. They [those fleeing Ukraine] can work, they can have help with accommodation. Children can go to school, there will be no waiting time here. This is really important.”

Everyone’s right

The Temporary Protection Directive is an historic and welcome change to the EU’s refugee response. People fleeing Ukraine shouldn’t have to live in anxious limbo, waiting to hear if they will be allowed refuge in the EU or sent back to the danger they just escaped.

But neither should anyone else. Everyone has the right to seek asylum, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or country of origin. No human life is more valuable or deserving than another and the law applies equally to all of us.

The Irish Government has worked rapidly and effectively to make the arrival of those fleeing Ukraine as smooth as possible, including setting up a one-stop shop for those arriving at Dublin Airport to receive their PPS numbers and letters of protection upon arrival.

The horrific crisis in Ukraine has reminded us how important international protection is; how vital it is for innocent people to travel to safety freely, without being pushed back into violence and danger or having their suffering prolonged by being kept in inhumane conditions in camps.

How important it is that the richest countries in the world use their resources to welcome and shelter instead of leaving that responsibility to poorer countries, and how important it is that international law and human rights are respected.

What are we being punished for, when all we want is to rebuild our lives and be safe in Europe?

And yet, violent pushbacks of refugees are happening so regularly at EU borders that the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants has accused governments of using pushbacks as part of border governance.

European coast guards are not only accused of pushbacks that are illegal under EU and international law but they are also accused of sexually and physically assaulting refugees and migrants while they push them back from EU borders.

Historic change

We are in a moment of historic change in the EU approach to international protection. A moment that brings with it both danger and opportunity. The danger is that a racialised, two-tier system of protection will become entrenched in the EU.

One in which the principles of equality key to the post second World War crafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention are cast aside and one group suffers denial of their rights and continued oppression based on their ethnicity or origin. This cannot happen.

The opportunity is that now that we have seen what can be achieved for international protection when EU leaders co-operate, the EU becomes a place where international law is respected, all those fleeing are accommodated in a safe and dignified manner, no matter where they come from, and people in danger of drowning are rescued from our waters.

On a recent visit to a refugee reception centre on the Greek island of Samos, one Afghan refugee posed this question to us and our partners, “What are we being punished for, when all we want is to rebuild our lives and be safe in Europe?” This is a question that those responsible for international protection in the EU must address and ensure is never asked again.