'Europe has learned from 2015', EU migration chief says, as millions flee Ukraine

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By Orlando Crowcroft
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson delivers a speech during a debate on the situation of refugees after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Tuesday, March 8, 2022
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson delivers a speech during a debate on the situation of refugees after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Tuesday, March 8, 2022   -  Copyright  Pascal Bastien/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Sweden’s Ylva Johansson was a minister in Stefan Löfven’s government in 2015 when the European migration crisis saw millions of Syrian refugees arrive on Europe’s shores.

Stockholm took in 135,000 refugees that year, mostly from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and then 163,000 more in 2016, the most per capita of any other European state.

As it did so, nations in southeastern Europe were pulling down the shutters. Neighbouring Denmark closed its border with Germany. The European Union warned countries against hampering freedom of movement but could do little to stop it.

“I remember my feeling then,” Johansson recalls, seven years later. “How alone we felt.”

As Europe faces a new migration crisis as millions of Ukrainians flee the Russian invasion, the continent is arguably still living with the repercussions of 2015, which fed a populist right-wing narrative in Europe and the US and saw hardline governments elected and emboldened from Slovenia to Poland to Hungary. Some remain in power today.

Even liberal Sweden has hardened on refugees. The Social Democrats - whose leader, Löfven, once said that his was a country that didn’t build walls - has proposed banning firms from hiring non-EU nationals ahead of a significant election challenge from the far-right Swedish Democrats.

For Johansson, now European Commissioner for Home Affairs, the failures of the aftermath of 2015 was two-fold. On the one hand, European nations acted mostly unilaterally in their response to the crisis, with some opening their borders and others closing them. On the other, not enough was done to integrate refugees when they arrived in Europe.

“We have learned a lesson, I hope, from 2015,” she told Euronews.

This week Brussels introduced the Temporary Protection Directive, a 2001 law that will allow Ukrainian nationals displaced by the war to immediately qualify for housing, healthcare, employment, and schooling for their children. Unlike in 2015, the settlement of refugees will be shared across all the EU’s member states.

Daniel Cole/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Ukrainian refugees wait at Przemysl train station, southeastern Poland, on Friday, March 11, 2022.Daniel Cole/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

“Of course, all Ukrainians want to be ready to go back soon, but unfortunately, it seems like things are getting worse and we are going to see millions and millions more to come,” Johansson said. “There is going to be huge pressure on our societies, I am not naive, but I think there is an opportunity now to act very differently.”

The fact that Europe was able to act so quickly and efficiently to the Ukrainian refugee crisis in comparison to 2015 has led to criticism in some quarters, where it has been noted that the majority of Ukrainian arrivals are white and Christian rather than Arab Muslims, as was the case seven years ago. Johansson dismissed the idea that the protection directive approach could be widened to apply to all refugees arriving in Europe.

“They have other kinds of protection, many of them have asylum here and are part of our society,” she said.

“I think one difference is that people are now fleeing directly from Ukraine, when people are coming from a little bit far away they are usually using smugglers to get here.”

As for whether she supports Ukraine becoming a member of the EU, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksyy has called for, she said it could take time.

“Ukraine belongs to Europe. They are fighting for our values. Being a formal member of the EU is quite a long journey, but their emotional belonging is there,” she said.