As the war drags on, what’s next for Ukrainian refugees?

UN assistant high commissioner for refugee protection, Gillian Triggs. (Geneva Solutions/Michelle Langrand)

For the UN’s refugee protection chief, Gillian Triggs, the EU needs to start thinking long-term.

As Russian tanks rolled in and bombs started to rain down on Ukraine a little over a year ago, thousands and then millions of Ukrainians fled their homes in search of safety. European countries opened their borders and welcomed them in a surprising show of solidarity. It only took one week after the beginning of the invasion for the European Union to activate its temporary protection directive for Ukrainian refugees – the first time in the 20 years of existence of the scheme.

While the EU has been praised for its response, it has also been blasted for its double standards as it extends a hand to Ukraine and tightens its policies towards other refugees with the other. Some 13 months into the war and now with over eight million Ukrainians spread across Europe, what can be said about the EU’s response to the crisis?

Gillian Triggs, assistant high commissioner for refugee protection at the UN Refugee Agency, spoke at an event on the humanitarian impact of the war and its risks of escalation, organised by Geneva Solutions in partnership with Le Temps and the Geneva Press Club.

Geneva Solutions sat down with her to talk about the lessons to be drawn from the EU’s experience and the limits of the scheme as the war in Ukraine drags on. For the former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, refugee rights are also worryingly regressing in some countries while others are setting the example.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Geneva Solutions: We’re now 13 months into the war in Ukraine with no end in sight. What challenges does this pose for the temporary protection regime that the EU has activated?

Gillian Triggs: We are talking to governments about this because we have a concern that temporary protection doesn't give the security and full legal rights that a refugee would have. The temporary protection (directive) has been extended to March next year, so we're asking governments to now think about the next step after that. Would it be to transfer the temporary protection status into a refugee status, for example? If you had that, then you have very significant legal rights. Now, it may not be necessary. It may be that the war comes to a mediated settlement, and people can go home, but if it goes on for longer, we think it's necessary to go back to the classical [protection] under the Refugee Convention, where you've got very clear legal rights to freedom of movement, to access to employment, to freedom of religion – free and basic rights as well as labour rights and social security rights as a matter of law, not as a matter of a temporary situation.

That's not meant in any way to be critical of temporary protection. It is exactly what was needed for the time. But as the war becomes more and more entrenched, we need to look at reverting back to the traditional refugee status.

Wouldn’t that risk overburdening countries’ asylum systems, which are already processing a large number of applications from other nationalities?

That, of course, is an issue, not only in the case of Ukraine but in the context of Afghanistan, for example. People fleeing the Afghan war, following the withdrawal of the coalition from Afghanistan, were pleading for a special resettlement place but tens of thousands of Afghans have also been seeking protection over the last 20 years in these countries. It would be like jumping the queue in a sense.

With regard to Ukraine, we have to be very careful how we manage this. I suggest that we have what's called a prima facie recognition of the group. Everybody who has a temporary protection visa, for example, would be declared a refugee instead of the lengthy, tight backlogs of people trying to make an asylum claim individually, which has become a very burdensome, cumbersome process in Europe because rule of law entails rights to appeal, resistance to deportation from people whose claims have been rejected, etc.

Are there lessons that the world could draw from the EU’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis?

You might recall how quickly the EU triggered the temporary protection mechanism. That really is a very encouraging best practice. And we would want to perhaps see that in other parts of the world so that instead of the backlogs, and the very cumbersome legal processes, you have an immediate right to basic support through this temporary protection visa. It's a very interesting measure to deal with large numbers of people who need basic levels of support. But because we (the UN Refugee Agency) are based on a treaty, we would obviously want to be sure that eventually that was translated into longer-term refugee status and legal protections.

The other thing that's unique is that this is 27 separate countries in the EU that have agreed to do this. You don't have that level of regional solidarity in other parts of the world. You have small regional groups that might want to do this, but it's a model worth looking at.

The response to the crisis has been described as an outstanding show of solidarity from governments and citizens in Europe. What does it say about our refugee system if a population relies on our will to help it or not?

There are huge challenges to the refugee norms. The United Kingdom, the United States, and some Scandinavian countries, for example, have been flirting with the idea of effectively blocking access to asylum. Canada has now reduced the number of people who were accepted at the border, and we've seen Australia putting people on offshore islands for years. We're seeing a regression in some countries, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is the world at large. Turkey, for example, has been hosting four million Syrian refugees for 12 years. The United States itself has huge resettlement programmes for particular groups. But if you can bring countries together at a regional level with similar values and similar objectives, you have a better chance of ensuring that they meet international needs for refugees. And we've seen that for practical purposes here in the EU.

The recent budget cuts announced by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were another reminder that the humanitarian sector is struggling to gather the necessary funds to meet the growing needs of populations. How is the UN Refugee Agency doing in this aspect?

Curiously, we have had a very good response from donors. In other words, the funding in the last year was pretty much the same as the year before – a little bit more.  But the real problem is that the money we get from the donors is far too small to cope with the escalating numbers of people who need protection. The other problem is that many of our donors earmark the funds to what they see as important. We try to dissuade them from earmarking funds, but they do it increasingly.

What could be driving that trend?

It's probably because governments are increasingly transparent and accountable to their own electorates. And the electorates want money to go on certain things and not others. For example, the LGBTIQ issue is one that the United States strongly supports but most Islamic and Catholic countries deeply reject. Finland, for example, is very keen for funds to go on disabilities for refugees because something like 15 to 16 per cent of refugees has a disability. Sometimes it's a good thing because we actually end up with some very particular targeted funding for something we would very much like to spend more on. But it doesn't always work that way.

Around 77 per cent of Ukrainian refugees say they want to return to their country, and the government has also said it wants people to go back home to participate in Ukraine’s reconstruction. Can we expect a mass wave of returns?

People are already going back because they have land, culture, history, etc. But Ukraine has to be aware of the fact that some of its best talent might not come back. Only 12 per cent would consider going back in the short term. In a way, that's a more important statistic than saying 77 per cent of them want to go back. As the war continues, the number of those who will go back will be smaller and smaller.

What about when the war ends?

Then people will take stock. People will not be able to go back to the areas of fighting immediately. It's just flattened, there's absolute devastation, there are no schools or clinics, little water, and the infrastructure has been destroyed. So it will be years before people have the confidence to go back to those areas, whereas the ones that come from central and Western Ukraine can go back to their rural communities and their cities and resume their lives. But they will do so partly for patriotic reasons. They will want to return to their own country to rebuild it, which is very healthy.

But there's also going to be a number of people from the younger generation who will not go back. They will have had education and training opportunities; they'll have jobs. They may have married or formed new partnerships; they may have had children. That's what Ukraine is perhaps particularly worried about, that the ones who go back are the ones who will not be as productive as the young ones who choose not to go back.

Given your mandate to protect refugees and facilitate voluntary returns where it’s safe, how do you reconcile the two?

It's not a binary question. Refugees have a right to return to their own country as its citizens. So it's not for us to tell them they can't. And in some cases, we'll facilitate returns where we think it's safe. But equally, if a refugee feels that they can get citizenship or opportunities in their host country and that they don't see those opportunities for themselves and their families back in Ukraine, we can't make them go back either. But if the war ends, and then a whole reconstruction initiative starts in Ukraine, legally, they would have to go back unless the country where they've been living decides to provide a path towards citizenship. But if the war ends within the next year, I think there will be a big push for reconstruction, and people will want to return.