Chatham House calls out EU for 'double standards' on refugees

Chatham House echoes others' concerns over a relativist approach to the protection of asylum seekers

Women and children make their way through Przemysl railway station in Poland after journeying from war-torn Ukraine.  Getty Images

The “unprecedented showing of solidarity” EU member states have made towards refugees from Ukraine has provided a “chilling reality check of Europe’s double standards,” say experts at Chatham House.

While borders have opened and social security is being extended to Ukrainians, Greek coastguards and Spanish police continue to engage in illegal “pushback” policies to repel asylum seekers from their shores, the think tank said.

Poland, which has so far welcomed 3 million refugees from Ukraine, continues to block entry to thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Central Asia, leaving them trapped in a forest along the border with Belarus or detained in centres to which few have access.

EU agreements with countries outside the bloc allow for an outsourcing of asylum processing while “detention, and lengthy asylum procedures await the few asylum seekers who manage to enter Europe from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa,” said the think tank.

“With Europe’s grim history of restrictive asylum policies, it is wishful thinking that the warm welcome to Ukrainians will extend to all asylum seekers. The EU solidarity to displaced Ukrainians illustrates the deeply politicised — and often discriminatory — nature of providing refugee protection,” commented Chatham House associates Emily Venturi and Anna Iasmi Vallianatou.

More than 10 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine — 6.5 million displaced within Ukraine and 4 million escaping to neighbouring countries — since the Russian invasion began on February 24.

The European Union is already facing its largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, which it has reacted to with widespread solidarity towards the people fleeing Vladimir Putin's war and has set an “important precedent” on how to treat refugees, said the policy experts.

“Unlike the usual — often media-fuelled — narratives of refugee ‘invasions’ into Europe, the waves of women and children leaving Ukraine prompted a surge of humanitarian action but they are also a chilling reality check of Europe’s double standards.”

The last time a significant number of refugees were at once on the move within Europe was in 2015, when 1.3 million people, mainly fleeing the war in Syria but also Iraq and Afghanistan, came to the continent seeking asylum.

While Germany and Sweden took in a significant proportion of the refugees at the time, a rising tide of nationalist and far-right policies across the UK and Europe have created increasingly hostile environments for asylum seekers.

On a visit to the UK this week to discuss ways to make the Russian president accountable for alleged war crimes in Syria, the chief of the White Helmets search and rescue group, Raed Al Saleh, said that all “refugees should be treated equally regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion, because they have equal rights”.

On Wednesday, the UK Home Office confirmed that 25,500 visas had been issued to Ukrainians since the war in the country began over a month ago.

This figure includes 2,700 visas issued to people who want to enter the country as refugees under the Homes for Ukraine scheme and 22,800 permits under a separate family initiative.

By comparison, the UK resettled 20,000 Syrian refugees over a six-year period during the peak of the decade-long war.

A further 666 are coming to Britain under a separate sponsorship route but there was never a family visa offered for Britons wishing to sponsor Syrian relatives.

The Chatham House experts said that “despite entrenched discriminatory precedents”, the unity shown over Ukraine could help “reshape and refocus political efforts” on asylum and responsibility sharing among EU member states.

Updated: March 31, 2022, 1:43 PM