FXB Director of Research Prof. Jacqueline Bhabha Provides Insight on Conflict in Ukraine

Jacqueline Bhabha, JD, MSc

“In the past two weeks, 2 million Ukrainian citizens and residents have fled the relentless military violence unleashed on their country by Russian President Putin. Images of innocent civilians forced to flee life-threatening attacks on their homes and communities are all too familiar. In less than a decade we have already witnessed massive forced migration from Syria, Myanmar, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Tigray. Again and again, global publics have been brought face-to-face with the enormity of human suffering willfully and indiscriminately inflicted by brutal leaders on peaceful populations. These populations are compelled to navigate arduous exits, to undertake painful decisions about whom and what to take or leave, to make terrifying choices about where to head for safety and security. As has been the case before, so too with the Ukrainian refugees, the first response from receiving communities has been one of enormous generosity and solidarity. But the Ukrainian situation is radically different in a key respect.

For the first time since World War II, a massive exodus of refugees seeking safety in Europe has been met with a very timely, generous and hugely consequential official welcome across the Union as a whole. With its unprecedented announcement on March 4, the EU has activated its “temporary protection directive,” a powerful protection tool created after the Yugoslav conflict but never before used. With the unanimous concurrence of all EU Member States, this Directive grants immediate legal access and protection across EU territory to all Ukrainian citizens and residents legally present in Ukraine on February 24. This protection will last, initially until March 4, 2023, with the possibility of renewal thereafter for two six-month extensions, i.e. until March 4, 2024.

During this time, all the refugees will be able to travel directly, without EU generated obstacles or delays, without enforced detention or exposure to hazardous routes, to the European destination of their choice. They will not have to dodge hostile border guards, they will not have to pay large sums to smugglers to lead them along hidden pathways to safety, they will not have to endure months of misery in squalid camps as their asylum applications are processed. No, the Ukrainians will be treated like human beings deserving of protection, compassion, solidarity and support, and will be allowed to flee the nightmare that has befallen them secure in the knowledge that, for all its strangeness, their new place of shelter will be welcoming and secure. Significant humanitarian resources, including cash payments and other supports, have already been sanctioned by official bodies, in addition to the immense outpouring of civic generosity from European citizens at large.

This set of arrangements is just and in line with international law obligations willingly entered into by EU member states. But it contrasts dramatically with all other recent refugee reception responses. It exemplifies the sort of state reaction that should occur each and every time peaceful civilians are forced from their homes as a result of violence and conflict outside their control. It exemplifies the rights respecting policy approach that international human rights laws and conventions have articulated for decades, only to be observed in the breach again and again.

The fact that Ukrainian refugees, once they settle in their chosen temporary destination, will be able to seek regular work, send their children to school, seek health care and housing on fair terms, will not erase the horror of the past weeks or the devastating losses that have resulted. But this dignified and appropriate response by states towards non-citizens in desperate need of protection will greatly alleviate their ongoing trauma. It will allow the Ukrainian refugees to protect their children from new terrors, and to avoid the brutalization of racist taunts or indignities that so many other refugees have inflicted on them in places where they seek protection. It will allow the Ukrainian refugees to contribute their skills and energies to the host societies, strengthening the latter’s resolve to continue their solidarity. Perhaps, out of the horror of the barbarous invasion of Ukraine, a silver lining will emerge: that future governments facing the arrival of forced migrants will recognize the imperative of acting with foresight, humanity and justice because the outcomes are win-win all round.”

— Jacqueline Bhabha
Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights