The War in Ukraine Shows That Europe Could Help Refugees If It Really Wanted To

In Europe, the volunteers welcoming Ukrainian refugees are often the same people attacked for aiding refugees in the Mediterranean. That’s not just hypocritical, it’s inhumane — we should welcome all migrants fleeing war and terror.

People queue after arriving from Ukraine at the train station in Przemysl, near the Ukrainian-Polish borders on March 14, 2022.(Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP via Getty Images)

Across Europe, vast networks of collection points and delivery systems for aid to Ukrainian refugees are springing up, in some cases formally organized but often simply run by everyday people doing their bit. In a small city in rural France, I saw no less than three homemade signs pointing to such help on a short walk. Meanwhile, backed by volunteers, the Polish railways ministry is frantically rebuilding a line to move people through the region. Images of baby strollers left at Przemysl station on the Polish-Ukrainian border for those who need them have gone viral.

Cities across the continent have made public transport free for incoming Ukrainians. The Czech Republic, a country about the physical size of Scotland, has announced its ability to absorb up to two hundred fifty thousand Ukrainians. The EU’s internal borders remain resolutely open. There are severe problems, including reports of racism at the borders and attempts to dismiss such claims as Russian propaganda. But taken as a whole, Europe’s response to the sudden upheaval of millions of Ukrainians has been admirable.

It is a small silver lining to a dismal few weeks. Yet as someone who has followed and worked on migration and refugee protection for years, it is also maddening to watch this and realize that we were capable of such a response all along. Europe has worked diligently over the last decade or two to build one of the world’s most violent borders; including routine pushbacks that are linked to thousands of drownings every year. Dozens have drowned in the last few days alone.

Then there are the exchange deals of the kind that return people to slavery in Libya, alongside a vast and expanding web of military and surveillance infrastructure policing the sea, and the widespread criminalization of rescuers. Now, the Ukraine response has proven that the institutions had it in their power not to orchestrate such a campaign of barbarism.

Beyond Double Standards

The role of selective compassion in all this has been commented on at length. In the UK, a Sunday Times newspaper cartoon welcomes refugees from this crisis, in a sharp departure from the section’s previous tasteless racism on the issue. As well as aid, one can even buy military equipment for irregular Ukrainian forces in online crowd-funders; something that in any other case would get you swiftly put on a watch-list or worse.

Obviously, this is partially because the surge in violence has in this case been driven by a rival power rather than a NATO country or ally, as in the cases of Yemen or Iraq. But Europe’s swift moves to slam the door to Afghans fleeing the Taliban — hardly a friendly regime — last fall suggest that straightforward racial as well as geopolitical concerns inform such markedly different responses. Indeed, plenty of commentators have flatly said so. Meanwhile, Russia is engaged in its own strategic and equally uncharacteristic fast-track citizenship policy for people in separatist-held territories.

But talking about selectiveness only gets us so far, because assisting refugees is always the right thing to do. The UK Home Office’s initial approach, which seemed to involve being as bluntly sociopathic toward Ukrainians as it is toward anyone else fleeing war (with just fifty Ukrainians granted visas in the first two weeks of the war), is hardly preferable to selectiveness. Instead, we should focus on how Europe’s relatively liberal approach to Ukrainians seeking safety has exposed its usual behavior as not only cruel but profoundly unnecessary.

For years European politicians and commentators across the political spectrum have told us that the continent is full up, that letting people in only encourages more people to move, and that most refugees aren’t genuine anyway. In the Ukraine case, such facile arguments have melted away. Even usually virulently anti-migration governments have not entertained them. What we were told was impossible and impractical by countless hand-wringing European politicians is now happening, rapidly and at a huge scale.

The positive implications of this for refugee protection as a whole need to be seized on swiftly. Firstly, this is likely to be a protracted crisis, with considerable potential for escalation. EU commissioner Josep Borrell is already warning that up to 5 million Ukrainians could flee as it goes on. In such a context, attitudes could easily begin to shift with time, and so we need to ensure that provisions made for Ukrainians in the EU are maximal and long-lasting, and include rights to work and social security regardless of the status of Ukraine’s mooted EU accession.

Secondly, there are already record levels of displacement around the globe and a high chance that current instability will produce more. The war is already driving a pre-existing fuel crisis and sparking fears of food shortages in third countries, causing some countries to further endanger supply by hoarding grain. And finally, because the same Europe that is behaving with an uncharacteristic level of human decency toward those fleeing their homes is also about to strengthen its ability to do the exact opposite in other cases.

On March 22, the EU’s new Strategic Compass is set to be approved at the European Council. It is a grand new concept of operations for European defense and as such, it is about far more than just migration. But escalating border violence is written into the strategy’s DNA.

Two European Borders

The EU Strategic Compass and related documents are reflective of trends in military and strategic thinking across the Global North. There are several key elements, all of which will be seen by planners as increasingly urgent in light of the Ukraine situation. A primary one is rearmament and defensive integration across the bloc, which is seen as contingent on fostering the development of Europe’s arms industry.

Even before Ukraine, war industry CEOs were relishing the profitability of present geopolitical chaos. Germany’s new rearmament announcement has sent shares in the industry through the roof. Last autumn, a Transnational Institute report argues that Europe’s war industry had directly produced and distributed weapons which forced millions from their homes.

In the last two decades, spurred on by both military and private use of Iraq and Afghanistan as a testbed for coercive technologies; domestic surveillance and policing, border violence and migration control, and arms manufacturing have increasingly become inseparable and mutually reinforcing. One example of such cross-sector links is a recent bilateral development agency plan linked to an Airbus-involved security deal that involved dispatching German police officers to train Saudi border guards — shortly after they had opened fire on Ethiopians at their border.

The Left group in the European Parliament have also exposed the extent of European strategic involvement in a militarized border and surveillance industry. With war ongoing in Ukraine, the demand for tougher defenses at NATO borders will inevitably link up with demands for tougher external border control. The Compass commits to deepening the EU’s externalization of migrant-control to North African regimes and Turkey in spite of widespread human rights problems.

The Compass meanwhile makes explicit a desire to “cooperate for mutual benefit between . . . civilian and military operational engagements and the EU’s justice and home affairs actors,” including border agency Frontex. This means the expansion and militarization of Frontex, which the industry has been lobbying aggressively for.

There are references to migration in the context of hybrid conflict, particularly the recent Poland-Belarus dispute. The Polish state’s stance toward Ukrainians jars with just months ago, when Belarus’s claimed use of migrants as a weapon to undermine the EU’s borders was used to legitimize militarization of the European frontier, as people seeking safety and dignity were left to freeze in the forest and aid workers were forced out of the region. While inherently linked, the Ukraine response and the provisions in the Compass present us with two wildly different European border policies.

Solidarity Versus the War Machine

European rearmament is unavoidably a kaleidoscope of opportunities for prejudice and profiteering. It is not solely about the danger of increasing tensions between great powers, although that is an obvious and serious area of risk. It is also about the militarization and privatization of public policy in a vast range of areas. Interstate rivalry — where all major powers see themselves as subject to “hybrid” threats from the other sides — fuels the relentless militarization of everything in sight. Take the Strategic Compass’s (somewhat ill-defined) promise to “respond to climate threats.”

This is meant to refer to a greener defense and security strategy (quite how this squares with expanding a violently polluting sector is unclear — while the US military is reportedly the world’s largest polluter, the EU and UK militaries currently contribute an estimated combined 35m tons of CO2 annually). But in a world where climate-linked migration seems to be a major driver of the push for more border walls, and where the war industry frequently works for polluters and extractors, as recently detailed by Friends of the Earth, the limits of what planners understand as a “climate threat” is far from clear-cut.

If we are lucky enough to avoid general interstate conflict, which we should by no means be complacent about, we are still looking at the subordination of a wide range of basic social and political functions to the demands of those who make war machines.

Yet great powers are not the only actors here. Just because the public response has been facilitated and driven by more widespread media coverage of this crisis than others, doesn’t mean that most Europeans are inherently prone to selective thinking. Presented with images of human suffering, there is in people everywhere a powerful and universal impulse to help which has been demonstrated in the last two weeks in a powerful outpouring of compassion and care.

The desire to do one’s part to help is human, and demonstrates how solidarity across borders and backgrounds can be mobilized both quickly and deeply. In such a moment is the kernel of a better way of doing things, one that stands in stark opposition to both Putin’s war in Ukraine and the wider systemic dynamics that keep the cogs of the world’s war machines running. We can choose not to live in a world under siege.