The European Union and its member states illustrate patterns of systematic discrimination towards refugees and asylum seekers in their policies. This has become abundantly clear over the last year from the mounting evidence which is now unavoidable.
From Russia invading Ukraine, more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees crossed into the EU. This is three times the number of refugees and asylum seekers that arrived in the European bloc in 2015 from the southern part of the globe. However, the EU Commission rushed to label the 1.3 million refugees seeking refuge in 2015 as a “migration crisis”. This labelling is a problematic term on two grounds. One issue with labelling refugees and asylum seekers as “migrants” is that it is a term associated with “illegal migrants”. Secondly, it invokes a “crisis” narrative that deems the people seeking refuge as a threat to European border management, public safety, economy, and security.
The use of the “migrant crisis” in reference to non-Ukrainian refugees helped legitimise illiberal and illegal extreme measures centred on deterring, blocking, thwarting, and pushing back asylum seekers from the global south. However, this lack of rhetoric was invoked by the EU in reference to Ukrainian refugees and no calls were made in Brussels to “strengthen” the EU’s external borders with Ukraine to block the flow of refugees.
Furthermore, the EU hastened to activate the Temporary Protection Directive to the benefit of Ukrainian refugees. This directive allowed the refugees to cross freely into the EU, and travel to any member state getting immediate residency, equal rights, and full benefits without limited waiting time.
Conversely, refugees from southern parts of the globe take dangerous, life-threatening routes to reach the EU. These routes include sea migrations and smuggling across borders on foot through forests and rivers. Refugees endure this as asylum seekers cannot enter the European bloc without obtaining a visa in advance (e.g. for tourism, studies or work) and the majority of them cannot get visas and most certainly cannot apply for asylum outside EU borders.
Non-Ukrainian asylum seekers must go through an excruciating and painfully long process of examination, questioning, interrogation, and screening to get their asylum claims examined and decided on. This can sometimes take years while they wait in overcrowded refugee camps. They also cannot choose which EU member state to reside in, because, unlike Ukrainian refugees, EU member states can use the Dublin agreement to deport asylum seekers back to the first EU state where they interacted with authorities or registered their information.
While some EU officials might argue that the two situations bear certain differences, this is certainly not a comparison of apples and oranges under international and EU laws that enshrine the rights of refugees and assert the principle of non-refoulement. Both Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers are humans fleeing mortal dangers, persecution, and even death. They deserve all the protections afforded to them under international law.
On the level of EU member states, a concerning pattern of violations against non-Ukrainian refugees has been documented. Many of these violations happen with the condoning, complicity, and funding of the EU.
For instance, Denmark has a strict “zero asylum policy” for non-European refugees and a law called “the jewellery law” that only applies to non-Ukrainian asylum seekers, where the state confiscates their valuable belongings in the name of financing their stay in refugee camps. The Danish government has imprisoned hundreds of asylum seekers from countries such as Iran and Afghanistan in camps for rejected asylum applicants who cannot be deported back to their countries. This means they do not have the right to study or work in Denmark, and they cannot return to their home countries, leaving them in a permanent state of limbo. The camps are deliberately distant from cities and hubs of life, and when asylum seekers jointly buy vehicles to drive into nearby towns, the government, under the Jewelry Law, reportedly confiscate some of the vehicles.
Other frontal EU member states like Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Croatia have been violently preventing asylum seekers who cross into their countries from claiming asylum, while Ukrainian refugees are received with ease and no obstacles in comparison.
In one blatant case in Hungary, local authorities separated an interracial family fleeing from Ukraine and allowed only the Ukrainian spouse and child to cross while their non-Ukrainian partners were deported to Serbia and prevented from crossing into the EU. The Hungarian border police welcomes Ukrainians with open arms while assaulting and reportedly unleashing dogs to attack asylum seekers from the MENA region. Unsurprisingly, in justifying this discriminatory policy, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban invokes the labels “refugees” for Ukrainians and “illegal migrants” for the rest; a residual implication of the EU’s “migrant crisis” narrative.
Similarly, Poland received more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees, while some asylum seekers from the MENA region froze to death in the forests at the Polish-Belarusian borders. The Polish government declared a state of emergency in these zones, effectively preventing journalists, medical crews, and humanitarian missions from accessing the area. It had further suspended the registration of asylum claims of people who cross irregularly from Belarus and has been pushing them back to the Belarussian side of the borders, citing that the Lukashenko regime is “weaponising” asylum seekers against the EU.
There have also been cases where the Croatian police capture asylum seekers who cross into the country from Bosnia, beat them, confiscate their belongings, subject them to various forms of intimidation and even torture – and in some cases reportedly shave their heads and spray-paint them with crosses – before illegally throwing them back into Bosnia and outside the EU zone. This treatment only applies to non-Ukrainian refugees.
In Greece, the local coastguard sometimes works alongside the EU Frontex agency in illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers who reach the country by sea. This is further seen in Bulgaria where the border police violently assault people who cross into the country and lock them up in animal cages before illegally forcing them to cross into Turkey. Again, this is something only non-Ukrainian refugees are subjected to.