Ukrainian refugees will have the right to live and work in the European Union for up to three years, under an emergency plan in response to what is becoming Europe’s biggest refugee crisis this century.
Nearly 875,000 people have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its brutal attack less than a week ago, according to the UN refugee agency, which has warned that 4 million could leave the country in the coming weeks and months.
More than half (454,000) have fled to Poland, while 116,000 have gone to Hungary, 67,000 to Slovakia, 45,000 to Romania and 79,000 to non-EU Moldova, Europe’s poorest country.
The EU plan, which is expected to be approved on Thursday by the bloc’s member states, would grant Ukrainian nationals and permanent residents the right to live, work, access healthcare, housing and education immediately for up to one year, without the requirement to go through lengthy asylum procedures. If the conflict continues, or refugees cannot return safely, that status could be extended for a further two years.
Ukrainian citizens already have 90-day visa free access to the EU, but this unprecedented change in EU law secures their status after that period expires.
“Europe stands by those in need of protection,” the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said in a statement that detailed the plans. “All those fleeing Putin’s bombs are welcome in Europe. We will provide protection to those seeking shelter and we will help those looking for a safe way home.”
The proposal is based on a 2001 law drawn up in the aftermath of the Balkan wars, which has never been used. By waiving the requirement to claim asylum for Ukrainian nationals and permanent residents, the EU hopes to avoid overwhelming EU asylum systems.
The EU will be looking to squeeze money from its existing asylum budget, but observers said the measures would need a hefty increase in funds. “This is billions and will require more EU funds as we are talking about an EU decision about EU borders,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, of the German Marshall Fund, who described the plan as a necessary move.
Meanwhile, authorities in Brussels called on border guards on both sides of the Ukraine-EU frontier to ensure everyone is allowed into the EU, regardless of nationality or ethnicity. Concerns grew after widespread reports from African nationals attempting to flee the war that they were being turned back, either by Ukrainian or Polish border guards.
A senior EU official rejected the “unfair” suggestion that Brussels was turning a blind eye to these reports, noting that the EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, was in Poland on Wednesday to assess the situation.
“What is very, very clearly the position of this commission and the position of the European Union … is that absolutely everyone regardless of nationality, of race, religion should be allowed into the European Union. They are fleeing war from Ukraine. We will be a safe haven.”
People without Ukrainian citizenship or the right to permanent residence – a category that could cover many international students – will not gain the right to stay in the EU, but will be helped to return to their country of origin.
The details of the EU asylum plan emerged after the British government agreed to relax immigration rules for Ukrainians, following widespread criticism its policy was not generous enough. Boris Johnson promised on Tuesday the UK would take in “considerable numbers” of Ukrainians, which the prime minister’s spokesperson later said would be about 200,000 people.
Officials in Brussels expect even greater numbers of refugees from Ukraine than in 2015-16, when more than 1 million Syrians and people from other countries fled war and violence in the Middle East.
At that time, the commission considered triggering the EU’s temporary protection directive, being deployed for the first time over Ukraine, but decided against doing so as the situations were “very different”, said the senior official.
In 2015-16, about 40% of people arriving in the EU were Syrians, the official said, adding that the temporary protection law was “designed for a one-nationality situation” and “wouldn’t have solved the issues being faced at the time”.