Different responses to mobility at Europe’s borders – PRIO Blogs

Ukrainian refugees crossing the Polish border. Wikimedia Commons

In this blog post, we aim to contribute to the comparative reflections on the European Union’s response to the sudden and massive arrivals of people across its borders, in 2015 and today.

Does it make sense to compare 2015 to today?

In the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, some indicate to Europe double standards, while others underline the particular responsibilities of Europe “at home”. Claims of racism abound, supported by the experiences of African students racist behavior when fleeing Ukraine, but also by push-back operations in the Mediterraneanand to Poland’s border with Belarus.

So, does it make sense to compare the arrival of over a million people to Europe’s southern borders in 2015, with the arrival of over 4 million people beyond borders between Eastern European countries in 2022 (so far)? And if so, what are similarities and differences?

Time range

The war in Ukraine produced an extremely compressed mass displacement in 5 weeks until now. Seven years ago, more than a million refugees and other migrants arrived in southern Europe and moved north in the summer and autumn of 2015. Yet there is about an ongoing crisis.

The dimensions of time defy comparison. The war in Ukraine is unfolding at shocking speed. This period of time lies in contrast with limbo that tens of thousands of refugees and other migrants have been stranded for years in camps in Greece, Italy or France. There, due to poor management of migration, closely linked to the failure of global protection in prolonged displacements (see also here, here and here), people are waiting.


Beyond internal displacement, neighboring countries are the main recipients of refugees. People who fled Syria traveled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, before heading to Europe. People leaving Ukraine are heading to EU countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and non-EU country Moldova. The proximity of the conflict affects neighboring countries: bombardments can sometimes be heard beyond the borders. The evidence suggests that Ukraine’s neighbours, to some extent, feel “next in line” to attack, shaping how conflict is viewedand no doubt also how refugees are welcomed.

People are escaping the bombings in Ukraine, as Syrians escaped a decade earlier. In 2015, some were leaving a relatively safer neighboring country, where the situation had by then become tense. The experiences of refugees from Syria and Ukraine reveal two different dimensions of protection: immediate (out of danger, often in the first neighboring country) and beyond (either in the first host country or in more away, through resettlement programs, or with people choosing to move on).

Border crossing

In 2022, insecurity and a humanitarian crisis rampage inside Ukraine. Land borders are crossed by car, train or on foot. Those fleeing are traumatized by the war. However, despite the long queues, the chaos and the cold, the border itself is not the scene of a humanitarian crisis because, unlike those who arrived in 2015, border crossing is both supervised and facilitated by border guards.

In 2015, people sought to reach Europe by sea: from Turkey to the Greek islands, or from Libya to Italy. The lack of legal routes to Europe for people without visas, for example asylum seekers, has turned the border itself into a site of humanitarian crisis. Their crossing of the border has been and remains actively prevented by increased surveillance. Nevertheless, crossings continue: in 2021, some 1838 migrants died or disappeared in Mediterranean. The border between Belarus and Poland is another site where failed policies turned into a protracted crisis. In both cases, migrants at an EU border – regardless of how they got there – have the right to dignified treatment and to seek asylum.

Refuge in Europe – open for some, closed for others?

Questions about unequal treatment at EU borders and the apparent underlying racism who causes it have been repeatedly raised. Recent examples include Ukrainians were staying in hotels in Calais, unlike others mainly from African or Middle Eastern countries living in tents nearby. How can we compare the experience of a Sudanese chased back and forth at the Polish-Belarusian border, who was helped by volunteers, but could not apply for asylum, with that of Ukrainians who receive temporary protection upon arrival in European countries?

In other words, the question of refuge in Europe reveals dilemmas on or protection is granted, and for who. These issues relate to the material rights and benefits associated with international protection, which differ radically depending on where a person is seeking asylum. While it is easy to identify examples confirming Europe’s “double standard”, we argue that this is not enough. Rather, we must confront the dilemmas that failing global protection systems continue to produce.

Refugees and other migrants

People fleeing Ukraine are called refugees. In Europe in 2015, for a time, Syrians were also referred to as refugees. Others who arrived in Europe in 2015 were labeled as “migrants” with the implicit assumption that they were distinct from “refugees” and therefore their presence was illegitimate.

A debate on whether Europe was facing a “migrant” or a “refugee” crisis monitoringregardless of the fact that all refugees are also migrants, and all migrants are entitled to dignified treatment. And at the border, everyone has the right to seek asylum.

The distinction drawn between refugees and migrants is subject to dangerous abuse. Moreover, blindly adopt state categories to describe and understand the real world, is problematic and inaccurate. For example: should a Syrian arriving in Europe to study be considered a refugee or a migrant student? Would a Ukrainian who had a work permit in Poland before this war, who cannot return today, be considered a refugee or a migrant worker?

What can we learn?

The fact that more than 4 million people were able to flee Ukraine (largely) across EU borders, in a matter of weeks, shows that much is possible. So what can we learn?

  • The civil society response to people fleeing Ukraine in neighboring countries highlights the need for good collaboration between the state and civil society. States must take on systemic responsibility, such as the right to dignified health care and education, but also recognize the role of civil society actors, who have enabled the current refugee response along Ukraine’s borders .
  • States and civil society should recognize the agency of refugees, whether mobilizing their networks, granting them the right to work or including them as volunteers, where appropriate. This should apply to all refugee reception in EU states, protecting people from passive and destructive waiting while slow bureaucracies do their job.
  • The current situation shows how important border management is. The violent borders of the EU (for some, but not for others) are a fact. The reality that 4 million people could cross the borders of EU countries (and Moldova) in a matter of weeks, with no casualties, is telling.
  • Despite an incredibly high number of people having left Ukraine, even more people remain affected by the internal conflict. Any response to refugees from Ukraine must also be considered in conjunction with continued humanitarian relief in that country. And this is true for all conflicts.

What will happen next remains uncertain, but there is always a risk that the mode of crisis mobilization will fade; both for tired volunteers across Poland and in other neighboring countries, and among EU states, which have not yet received significant numbers of refugees.

But when that happens, how will neighboring countries fare? The EU offers support funds to countries helping refugees, but long-term details are yet to be determined. The current refugee response in Europe should be seen as an opportunity to address protection issues for people around the world, as it shows what necessity and urgency can afford.

  • Marta Bivand Erdal (Research Professor and Co-Director of the Migration Center of PRIO) and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (Research Director, PRIO and Co-Director of the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies).
  • This was first published by the Oxford BlogBorder criminologies March 31, 2022