Faced with the greatest human exodus since the end of World War II, the European Union has agreed to trigger a never-before-used directive to grant temporary protection for Ukrainians fleeing the military aggression waged by Russian forces.
More than one million Ukrainians have fled the country since Russia's invasion began one week ago, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The vast majority of these exiled people have arrived in EU countries with Poland registering over half a million Ukrainian refugees and Hungary seeing more than 130,000 arrivals.
To cope with the large and abrupt number of migrants, the 27 member states have dusted off a 2001 EU directive that had never been used before and is designed to provide immediate assistance and protection to war refugees.
The Temporary Protection Directive circumvents the traditionally overburdened asylum procedure and offers a quick and simplified path to access protection across the EU.
Ukrainian refugees will be given residence permits to stay inside the bloc for at least one year, a period that will be automatically extended for a further year. Member states can then decide to prolong the exceptional measure by one more year if the war continues to ravage the country.
Although Ukraine is not part of the passport-free Schengen Area, its nationals are entitled to visa-free travel for up to 90 days. The EU's scheme intends to offer a lasting solution once the 90-day limit is exhausted.
Following a meeting in Brussels on Thursday, national ministers reached a unanimous agreement to move ahead and activate the Temporary Protection Directive. The law will enter into force once the proposal is formally adopted by the Council, a step expected to take place in the coming days.
The special protection will be given immediately after adoption.
The decision was described as "historic" and a "great day" by Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for home affairs, who praised the EU's "unity" and "firmness" throughout the conflict.
"I'm proud of being European, I'm proud of the solidarity that individual citizens are showing" towards Ukraine, Johansson said at the end of the ministerial meeting.
Her celebratory words were echoed by France's interior minister Gérald Darmanin. France is currently holding the EU Council's rotating presidency and has been one the leading advocates behind the directive's activation.
"We should not be naïve," Johansson noted. "Millions and millions of Ukrainian refugees will of course cause a challenge to our societies."
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, also welcomed the news, calling it "unprecedented".
Thursday's decision should not be the only step in the EU's migration plans and must be accompanied by further logistic and support action, said Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).
"We need to see the EU asylum agency providing support, including operations, and member states requesting that kind of support from the agency," Woollard told Euronews.
"Above all, the crucial thing is to remain united also in the response to displacement for security reasons, as well as for humanitarian seasons."
How does the Temporary Protection Directive work?
Approved in 2001 in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia and Kosovo wars, the Temporary Protection Directive is an extraordinary scheme that grants immediate and temporary protection to displaced people coming from non-EU countries
Besides the legal right to stay inside a EU member state, the directive enables access to the education system, labour market, healthcare, housing, professional assistance and social welfare.
The protection will apply to Ukrainian nationals and their relatives, as well as to long-term residents from other nationalities who are unable to go back safely to their country of origin.
Short-term residents, like seasonal workers and exchange students, will not benefit from the temporary protection but will be nevertheless allowed to enter EU territory to plan their return trips.
The protection can be granted by any EU country, not only by the first country reached by the refugee. In recent days, the national rail companies of Germany, Austria, France and Belgium are offering free-of-charge tickets for Ukrainian refugees who wish to cross the continent and reach their country.
For those who fled their homes without their passports or any other means of personal identification, the Commission says member states can relax border controls and allow them to enter their territory so they can reach a safe location, where the ID checks will be carried out.
Displaced Ukrainians can bring their personal belongings without being subject to traditional customs duties.
The temporary protection does not automatically mean the person is granted asylum. But those under the special scheme are able to lodge an asylum application at any time during their stay.
Notably, the 2001 directive is based on a "balance of efforts" between EU countries: the allocation of refugees is done according to the capacities of each government.
This marks a significant U-turn from the note struck during the 2015 migration crisis when some capitals vehemently opposed a burden-sharing policy, leaving front-line Mediterranean states overwhelmed by arrivals.