The Ukrainian Conflict Could Be a Tipping Point for Refugee Protection
With nearly 6 million people fleeing Ukraine since the Russian invasion began in February, the displacement has exceeded any recent humanitarian crisis in speed and size over such a short period of time. The numbers of arrivals have dwarfed the experience of the 2015-16 European crisis, and the conflict is adding dramatically spiraling energy and food prices to the long list of challenges the continent is facing.
Recent displacement crises—from Syria, Afghanistan, and Venezuela to Myanmar, South Sudan, and most recently, Ukraine—have imposed huge stresses on the humanitarian protection regime. Trying to fit these mass-displacement situations into the global protection architecture often seems like trying to catch sand with a net. Yet individual countries and regional organizations have been innovating to meet the challenge and expand the options available for humanitarian protection. While some efforts have been uneven and poorly institutionalized, others have surprised observers with their creativity and possibilities. It is worth learning how some of these new trends may be reshaping humanitarian protection going forward and providing new approaches to protection at a time when displacement crises appear to be affecting larger numbers of people than at any time in recent decades.
Easing Pressures on Overburdened or Underdeveloped Asylum Systems: The Value of “Protection Lite” and Other Alternative Pathways
In the Europe Union, the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) for the first time since it was created in the wake of the Balkans crisis in the 1990s shocked observers who were dismissive of the bloc’s potential for coordination during crisis. TPD, which opens quick residence and work rights to Ukrainians, permits bypassing beleaguered asylum systems where individual determination requirements and opportunities for appeal result in slow case processing.
This kind of pragmatism has been growing in recent years: it echoes the approach taken by Turkey in response to the arrival of 3.6 million Syrians, and by Latin American countries in response to the displacement of more than 6 million Venezuelans. Colombia has extended ten-year temporary protection status to more than 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans, while Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic have done so for shorter periods of time, sometimes even offering a pathway to permanent residence. Argentina and Uruguay have used existing mobility agreements to grant short-term residency to displaced Venezuelans.
There are strong efficiency, humanitarian, and even political arguments for these more ad hoc approaches. They allow decisions on protection to be made quickly and avoid creating (or adding to) asylum system backlogs. Some beneficiaries even prefer prima facie recognition to individual determination processes. And in the case of an emerging crisis, the provision of temporary status forestalls permanent decisions when the outcome of the precipitating factor—the invasion of Ukraine or the continuation of an authoritarian regime in Venezuela—is unknown. This often makes it possible to put off difficult questions on permanence until the fate of the crisis is better known.
It is also common sense, especially for regional movements that sit at the intersection of labor mobility and displacement. Venezuela had visa-free travel and labor agreements with several Latin American countries, and largely open borders with others. Meanwhile, Ukrainians already enjoyed visa-free travel to the European Union pre-invasion. In all these cases, the choice was between having a population in circulation that could swell the ranks of people in irregular status or trying to get ahead of this scenario by providing temporary status with a way to stay and work legally. When major conflicts or environmental disasters take place against the backdrop of existing patterns of mobility, often including regional labor mobility agreements, the lines between humanitarian protection and labor mobility will be increasingly blurred.
But there are also criticisms of what has been seen as “protection lite.” Temporary protection regimes sometimes come with limited rights or make it hard for recipients to exercise their rights, as in the case of Syrians struggling to find jobs or spots for their children in Turkish schools, for example. Some observers have argued that Latin American countries could have used broader definitions of refugee status that already exist in many national laws to extend refuge to Venezuelans instead of using temporary measures. And a short protection status (as granted under TPD or in many cases in Latin America), can represent protracted uncertainty, especially if it is then renewed for a similarly short period of time.
Even so, these approaches may be the lesser of many evils in crises that involve millions and test the resources, goodwill, and hospitality of whole regions. The real test will come several years down the road if people covered by temporary protection need to transition to a more permanent status. Rather than accessing asylum systems, many Ukrainians may eventually opt for labor pathways to stay in European countries or resettle outside the European Union, given their skills and the real needs of labor markets in Europe and countries such as Canada, the United States, and Australia. But there is a real risk too that some will not be able to access these options and could fall outside the protection regime as well. It will be an ongoing challenge to balance pragmatic ways of integrating people with protection needs into host countries in the most efficient ways possible without depriving them of their right to international protection if they need it.
Crunch Time for Scaling Complementary Pathways
While some countries have been supporting Ukrainians and other displaced populations through refugee or temporary protection routes, others have been scaling up complementary pathways to expand options for offering protection that acknowledge refugee skills and family or social ties. Complementary pathways (including family reunification schemes, labor and education opportunities, and community and private sponsorship refugee resettlement and humanitarian admission programs) have grown in popularity in recent years, but thus far have benefitted only a small number of people.
This may change with new private or community sponsorship schemes put in place in Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom for Ukrainians that try to scale and fund these programs to unprecedented levels. The U.S. government announced a private sponsorship pilot program, although its rollout has yet to be announced. Meanwhile, the United States also is allowing for community sponsorship via a Sponsor Circles program—still a small pilot—for Afghan refugees and evacuees. And Ukrainians will be allowed to enter the United States on parole (a discretionary administrative admission category) if they have a U.S.-based private sponsor. These methods are still new for the United States, so it remains to be seen how they will work in practice; Congress might consider a special adjustment act for Afghans and Ukrainians paroled into the United States, setting them on course to legal permanent residence. Also, Canada has launched an Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot to channel potential refugees into the Canadian labor market based on skills rather than vulnerability, which could prove a model for other countries if effectively scaled.
Whether this promise bears out depends on how these complementary pathways are administered. A Migration Policy Institute (MPI) study found that the number of refugees entering complementary pathways has been constrained not only due to limited eligibility compared to other entry channels, but also because of other challenges. These programs are resource intensive to operate, need flexible legal frameworks to adapt existing visa channels (e.g. for study/work) to refugees’ backgrounds, require strong buy-in from and coordination between relevant stakeholders (including volunteers, civil-society groups, companies, universities, and local and national authorities), and typically rely on diverse sources of funding. Implementation of the UK Homes for Ukraine program already is playing out like a case study on why complementary pathways go wrong, with only a trickle having arrived (dwarfed by the number of volunteers who have signed up), processing bottlenecks, and concerns about vetting of potential sponsors.
The real promise of complementary pathways is to beef up capacity—both in the ability to process of refugees and in public willingness to welcome refugees. At scale, community sponsorship could transform humanitarian protection into something designed and delivered by communities, which in turn gain a stake in the lives and livelihoods of their newest members. Thus far, only Canada—the architect of this approach—has realized this vision, with roughly two-thirds of all refugees each year arriving through community or private sponsorship programs. If attempts to roll this model out elsewhere prove harder and more costly to administer than standard resettlement routes, or if governments are seen as using these pathways as a means of shirking their responsibilities by outsourcing to communities, this could undermine public trust and erode the ecosystem of nonprofit partners that these processes rely upon—resulting in an even patchier grab-bag than the current system. But a set of successful experiments could vastly expand the possibilities for humanitarian protection.
Integration Is a Day 1 Issue
Many parallels have been drawn between the integration needs of Syrians and others who arrived in Europe in 2015-16 and more recent displaced populations. In many ways, European countries feel well prepared. Because of the large volumes of migrants and asylum seekers they absorbed several years ago, many have invested significant resources and strategic thinking into how to support newcomers so that they can move quickly into the labor market. These efforts range from fast-track programs combining language training, work experience, and supplemental education to creative ways to evaluate technical skills.
These lessons aside, the 2015-16 response was imperiled by a sequential and time-inefficient approach to integration that required first processing asylum applications, then sorting out housing, then investing in introduction and language programs, and finally plugging vocational gaps. Latin American countries learned from this, and saw integration as essential from the get-go. Their approach was aided by the fact that many Venezuelans had valuable skills and qualifications and the light-touch regulation of Latin American labor markets. This process is highly imperfect, but ongoing.
Likewise with Ukrainian displacement, there is a strong case for streamlining integration processes. It helps that Ukrainians have immediate labor market access even before their TPD applications are processed and that they have a relatively high educational level compared to earlier displaced populations. And just as importantly, the real labor market needs as many European countries pull out of the COVID-induced global recession mean that there are key sectors almost everywhere that are desperate for workers.
In reality, though, many countries will have to contend with major challenges too, including housing capacity, education, and mental-health and trauma-related issues. And arriving Ukrainians are largely women, children, and the elderly, which means thinking creatively about support for families. Coming up with fast ways to meet their needs and unlock potential labor market benefits will require creative thinking about ways to bypass bottlenecks. Some strategies could include remote work, options to get child care and training simultaneously, or jobs that do not require full host-country language proficiency.
Resource limitations represent another challenge. The EU Cohesion's Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE) proposal adds greater flexibility to unlock existing funding, but puts little new on the table; national governments are grappling with the aftermath of colossal fiscal stimulus spending around the pandemic. Already, there has been heavily reliance on volunteers and social entrepreneurship to welcome arriving Ukrainians. This is an opportunity for rethinking how to do integration and seeding a more community-driven, holistic approach, as MPI has written about earlier, but this will necessitate smart public-private partnerships. Governments will also need to tap into the leadership and agency of refugees themselves, especially since the sizable Ukrainian diaspora in Europe (and elsewhere) already is playing a major role in receiving and integrating those who are arriving.
Integration is the test case for how well countries can manage large-scale humanitarian flows, and its success will dictate how much appetite there is to receive refugees in future and how they are dealt with. So, the stakes are high. But the opportunity this time is that receiving countries may find that providing legal status quickly and early on drives economic benefits that were not realized in prior displacement crises, especially at a time of tight labor markets. This may be a key lesson that spurs creative thinking around how to think of integration and protection together rather than as separate or sequential steps. This will, however, require more flexibility in the way that integration services are designed and organized, since these are largely oriented towards permanent arrivals rather than temporary flows.
Expanding the Boundaries of Protection
A massive experiment is playing out in Europe (and soon perhaps elsewhere) that could tie together demographic and labor market needs on the one hand and protection needs on the other. The Ukrainian situation has echoes in prior displacement responses in Latin America and elsewhere, but the conditions seem even more favorable this time if policymakers, international organizations, and the public take advantage of them to unlock opportunities in refugee populations and society at large. This requires accepting increasingly flexible boundaries between humanitarian protection and labor migration, both allowing those with protection needs to be shielded from harm but also integrating them first and foremost as workers, students, and neighbors. These approaches will not work in every case, and they should not replace existing mechanisms for asylum and refugee protection, but they will be an increasingly important addition to the existing protection regime when the conditions on the ground allow for pragmatic solutions that complement traditional asylum and refugee designations.
Major question marks remain. First, will the Ukraine experience reduce the bandwidth for receiving future displaced populations, including through resettlement, or chill the welcome they receive? Or will it reinvigorate the international protection regime by showing that countries can benefit from taking in displaced populations with the right policies in place? Second, is there a danger that creating alternative pathways to protection will keep people in second-tier status indefinitely or will they provide a gradual and programmatic avenue to integration and permanence, if needed? And third, does blurring the lines between protection and labor mobility create unrealistic expectations for what displacement crises may offer in the form of meeting labor shortages and demographic needs—and set up refugees for failure, by suggesting that the case for protecting them turns exclusively on self-interested calculations? With the right policy responses, these issues can be sorted out, but there are questions that need to be kept front and center as crisis responses evolve.
Overall, the lessons learned so far in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere have been far more positive than negative, and there is ample scope to continue to adapt the response in Europe—and beyond—to ensure successful outcomes for vulnerable populations and their host societies alike.