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The EU’s humanitarian response to Ukraine crisis

The EU’s response to the crisis in Ukraine has been rapid and transformative. As President Zelenskyy told the European Parliament this week, Ukraine is the front line for the global battle between democracy and dictatorship. Ukraine is not just defending these values but also the territorial integrity of Europe.

While 600,000 have already fled across borders, a further 160,000 are internally displaced. It is anticipated that the total number of refugees could reach 5 million. There are a number of humanitarian actions that Ireland should support in the EU.

Firstly, how we manage this population movement will require a major reversal in EU policy towards refugees. The opportunity now exists to implement the proposed Migration and Asylum Pact and to finally reform the Dublin Convention on refugees. This will allow for an even distribution of refugees across the EU, while ensuring that no refugee is discriminated against. It is worth recalling that the definition of a refugee is one who has fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country - the colour of their skin or country of origin is irrelevant.

Article 2 of the Treaty on the EU declares that the Union is founded on respect for human dignity, freedom and human rights. Such commitments are hard to reconcile with the securitisation of migration policy including border push-backs and the outsourcing of migration management to Libya and Turkey.

The European Commission, using the Temporary Protection Directive, has asked Member States to grant temporary asylum to all Ukrainians for up to three years. It remains to be seen whether all Member States will agree to this. At present, Ukrainians can stay visa-free in the EU for up to 90 days however not many have applied for asylum so far. All EU states including Ireland will need to be ready for that.

Poland, Slovakia and even Hungary have opened their borders and we must show solidarity. This is in stark contrast to the attitude taken to Syrian refugees since 2015. It will be ironic to hear Poland and Hungary demanding that other Member States share the burden given that they consistently blocked burden-sharing proposals that would have relieved pressure on Greece and Italy.

Hungary and Slovakia challenged the EU’s triggering of the Article 78 (3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU - a challenge that was rejected by the ECJ in 2017. The judgment confirmed the binding nature of the principle of solidarity in EU migration policy.

That being said, if this crisis reflects a turning point in the attitudes of EU citizens and governments towards refugees or, indeed, the meaning of their EU membership, we must welcome this and channel it constructively for our collective future. If citizens decide they want the EU to be a genuine Area of Freedom, Security and Justice, this is an opportunity to make this happen.

Secondly, the EU will have to support humanitarian agencies as they prepare to scale up their response in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries.

When I was CEO of GOAL, we responded rapidly to the conflict in Syria. Unlike other International non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) we made a decision to deploy inside Syria, in the north-western Governorate of Idlib, rather than in neighbouring countries.

In Ukraine, INGOs will be making decisions like this right now with emergency response teams on the ground assessing where they can add value. They will begin coordination meetings with other agencies deciding what services each one is best placed to deliver and in what geography. It is critical that the EU shares the risk associated with delivering aid across conflict lines. These are not laboratory conditions. Ensuring safe corridors for the delivery of aid will involve uncomfortable conversations and a degree of dialogue with Russian forces.

Finally, it is clear that Russia is guilty of war crimes. The attack itself is a war crime (a crime against peace) and a violation of International Humanitarian Law and I have urged the EU to support the establishment of an independent Commission to gather and preserve evidence for future prosecutions. None of this will comes as a surprise to anyone who has followed the war in Syria. Russian jets deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure including bakeries, hospital and schools since 2015.

In the Resolution passed by the European Parliament this week, the EU commits itself to working with other international bodies to prepare for prosecutions in the International Criminal Court. Prosecutions under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction are also contemplated as has already happened in Germany with individuals associated with the Syrian regime.

Like almost all difficult humanitarian contexts, there is no humanitarian solution but the EU has an opportunity to deliver a dynamic and principled response consistent with the Treaty commitments of the EU’s Member States.

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