GENEVA – Europe's embrace of millions of Ukrainians who fled Russia's invasion showed that it's possible to welcome large numbers of asylum-seekers, and the approach should be replicated to receive those fleeing other nations, the head of the U.N. refugee agency said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi described the European Union's response as “exemplary," noting that nearly 4 million Ukrainians, mainly women and children, have registered with the bloc's temporary protection system since the start of the war nearly six months ago.
That stands in stark contrast to EU efforts in recent years to keep migrants from Africa and the Middle East from reaching Europe's shores. Some European leaders have sought to differentiate between the plight of Ukrainians and that of other refugees — a distinction that Grandi condemned as “racist.”
“If that’s possible for such a large number of people, and since that has proven so effective, why not use some of these approaches also for other people that are coming to knock at Europe’s doors?” Grandi asked.
Though it was created decades ago, the EU's emergency protection system was activated for the first time this year in response to the flight of more than 6 million Ukrainians over the course of just a few months — the largest exodus of refugees the continent has seen since World War II. It allows Ukrainians to move around the bloc, gives them the right to work, and helps them to access housing, education and health care.
It has been credited with helping Europe avoid setting up refugee camps to house Ukrainians — like the ones that have existed in Greece for years and where thousands of asylum-seekers arriving by boat have often languished.
In the wake of the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, when more than 1 million people, mainly from Syria, arrived in Europe by land or sea, leaders erected fences within the EU to keep many from moving deeper into the continent. The bloc has also spent billions to keep people, including those fleeing persecution and conflict but also poverty, from reaching its shores, giving money to countries like Turkey, Libya and Morocco to stop migrants before they set out.
The number of irregular crossings into Europe fell from its peak in 2015 to under 200,000 in 2021, according to Europe's border and coast guard agency, although they are on the rise again this year. While such crossings often attract significant attention, more than 80% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries, according to UNHCR.
“Heads of government in Europe spent hours, days negotiating where, who should take a hundred people floating on a boat in the Mediterranean," Grandi said, referring to European leaders' inability to agree on how to resettle those who have arrived in recent years in Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain. "And then contrary to that, millions (of Ukrainians were) embraced, accepted, allowed to have access to services in a very effective manner.”
Asked about the different responses, Grandi said he didn't think the European governments' policies themselves were racist.
But he added: “Declarations that I have heard from some politicians saying the Ukrainians are real refugees ... and the others are not real refugees. That’s racist. Full stop.”
Grandi didn't specify what statements he was referring to, but Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi was criticized by human rights organizations and opposition lawmakers when he used that phrase to refer to Ukrainians fleeing the war earlier this year.
Other European politicians have made similar statements — with some arguing that many people seeking asylum are looking for a better life, rather than fleeing wars, and thus may not qualify for that protection under international law. Some have also defended the differing treatment by saying they have a duty to help fellow Europeans, but shouldn’t be responsible for taking in refugees from other continents.
Grandi acknowledged that the issue is complex and some of those heading to Europe are economic migrants. But he stressed that effective systems exist to evaluate asylum claims.
Roughly half of the Ukrainians who have left the country so far have returned — and many more may eventually do so, although Grandi said some have ended up fleeing a second time.
Still, with no end to the war in sight, the U.N. refugee agency has said the total number of Ukrainians who have left their homeland at some point could reach more than 8 million by December. There are also currently 6.6 million Ukrainians displaced within the country, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Around 2 million Ukrainians have ended up in Russia, whether they chose to or not. An AP investigation earlier this year revealed that many were forced to head there and subjected to human rights abuses along the way. Grandi acknowledged that his agency's access in Russia was limited. Of the 1,500 accommodation sites for Ukrainians in the country, UNHCR teams had only been able to visit nine so far, he said.
While the war in Ukraine has attracted global attention and support for those displaced by it, Grandi pleaded with world leaders to remember the other 12 humanitarian crises for which his agency is struggling to raise funds. He especially noted the Horn of Africa, where a prolonged drought and protracted conflicts have not only forced millions from their homes, but have also pushed countries ever closer to famine.
“The big problem that we have at the moment is that it tends to marginalize all other crises in which people suffer," Grandi said.