Refugees take shelter at Przemysl rail station in Poland, after fleeing Ukraine, March 1, 2022 | Photo: Arafatul Islam/DW
Refugees take shelter at Przemysl rail station in Poland, after fleeing Ukraine, March 1, 2022 | Photo: Arafatul Islam/DW

The EU "stands united to save lives," Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson has said. The number of people fleeing into neighboring countries could run into the millions.

The European Union's interior ministers on Thursday agreed to a scheme offering temporary protection to refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As of Thursday, over 1 million people have fled Ukraine into neighboring countries, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, as the Russian war enters its second week.

The UNHCR expects over 4 million people will need protection and assistance due to displacement from Ukraine. The EU's crisis management commissioner has said the figure could reach 7 million

Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs, called the agreement on temporary protection "historic." 

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser called the temporary protection plan "a paradigm shift" for the EU, which has long struggled to reform its asylum rules.

"I hope that there will be this agreement in principle today. I actually assume that," Faeser said ahead of the meeting, adding that it would then take a week for the proposal to be "set in motion."

Her French counterpart, Gerald Darmanin, said the proposal could be enacted "in the coming days." 

What is the EU's plan to offer Ukraine refugees protection?

The European Commission put forward a plan on Wednesday to offer temporary protection to refugees coming into EU countries from Ukraine, waiving lengthy national asylum-seeking procedures.

"All those fleeing Putin's bombs are welcome in Europe," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a press release on Wednesday announcing the move.

The proposal aims to allow refugees from Ukraine to apply for protection status in any EU member state. They would then be offered temporary residence permits and access to employment and social welfare, among other benefits.

The protection status would remain valid for one year, although it could be extended for two years, based on a decision from the EU member states. 

The plan, called the "Temporary Protection Directive," was designed in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s to deal with large numbers of displaced persons arriving in the EU. However, it was never used.

Where have fleeing Ukrainians gone?

The UNHCR and Polish authorities said over half a million people crossed into Poland from Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24. Poland had already been home to around 1.5 million Ukrainians before that. 

Some 133,009 people have crossed from Ukraine into Hungary, which counts five border crossings with Ukraine, according to the UNHCR.

The agency said another 97,827 people went to Moldova, 72,200 were in Slovakia, 51,261 people were in Romania and 357 had traveled north into Belarus.

However, around 8.5% of those who had fled Ukraine into neighboring countries — 88,147 people — had already moved on toward other European states, the UNHCR reported.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said Wednesday his country had welcomed around 20,000 Ukrainian refugees since the conflict started.

fb/nm (AFP, dpa)

First published: March 3, 2022

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