As refugees continue to flee Ukraine, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) outlines eight key actions the EU and its member states must take to ensure a humane and effective response. 

What is happening? 

 More than 10 million people have been displaced by the devastating conflict in Ukraine 

Since 24 February, the number of people fleeing Ukraine and crossing international borders has continued to rise exponentially. In the first month of the conflict alone, almost a quarter of Ukraine’s population, or more than 10 million people, have already been displaced. UNHCR has stated that over 3.8 million  refugees have already fled into neighbouring countries. Over half of these (more than 2.2 million) are in Poland, with others reaching Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, or moving on to elsewhere in Europe. Another 6.5 million are estimated to have been newly internally displaced within Ukraine. Many million more are stranded in Ukrainian cities affected by conflict including Mariupol, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Sumy, living through the horrors of urban conflict. These people require urgent humanitarian assistance and are exposed to safety and security risks.  

For those who flee, the journey is not without risks, and many have faced unbearably long waiting times in freezing temperatures, and difficulties in boarding transportation or crossing the border. People are arriving in distress, with significant health risks, and with few belongings, often leaving behind many of their documents. The vast majority of those leaving the country are women and children – who often bear the brunt of crises and face greater risks of violence, exploitation and abuse – as well as the elderly. More than half of Ukraine’s 7.5 million children have been forced from their homes.

As the conflict escalates further, civilians are unlawfully targeted and breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) - including attacks on critical infrastructure and denial of access - continue to mount, the number of people forced to flee their homes will continue to rise. 

European states have been united in offering a safe haven 

In these first weeks of the response, European citizens and governments have taken commendable steps to prepare to receive refugees fleeing Ukraine in a spirit of European solidarity. Eastern European states directly neighbouring Ukraine have committed to keeping their borders open to all people fleeing. Governments have invested in creating new reception centres, expanding the support available for refugees, and fast-tracking temporary residence permits. Volunteers and civil society actors have been meeting refugees upon arrival to offer food, hot drinks, and blankets, and housing them in their homes. 

Across the EU, other states have stressed their readiness to help, including by providing humanitarian support to Ukraine and neighbouring countries, supporting reception and protection efforts within Europe, and facilitating safe passage within the continent. 

On 3 March, EU member states agreed to activate the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) for most people fleeing Ukraine, granting them temporary protection in Europe for up to 3 years, without having to apply for asylum and placing pressure on asylum systems, and with a broad set of rights including access to work, accommodation, health care, social assistance and education across the EU. This is a vital step to ensure that states can manage the response effectively and people receive the swift support they need. Moreover, on 8 March, the European Commission announced a range of measures to boost EU funding for member states’ refugee responses. 

Yet, beyond the welcome emergency response, the EU and its member states must take concrete steps to guarantee durable protection and sufficient support for people fleeing the conflict, and enable them to rebuild their lives. Volunteers, NGOs and civil society actors have already signalled the urgent need for greater coordination and systemic support from authorities. A growing number of people are now arriving alone and vulnerable, without resources or friends and family to support them elsewhere in Europe, so the help they need will also continue to rise. It is vital that this openness and solidarity with refugees continues. 

The IRC highlights eight priority actions for a humane and effective refugee response, as the conflict continues to escalate. 

Ukrainian refugees wait at Polish railway station
Refugees from Ukraine gather at Przemysl railway station, Poland - 3 March 2022

Photo: FPistilli/IRC

What needs to happen? 

1. Ensure an inclusive and effective application of temporary protection for people fleeing Ukraine

The IRC firmly welcomes EU leaders’ decision to trigger the TPD on 3 March 2022, enabling the EU-wide recognition of the protection needs of people fleeing Ukraine, as an eminently humane and practical response. Granting people a clear, predictable and durable legal status, with swift access to rights upon arrival, is vital for their inclusion and wellbeing. This is the first time the TPD has been triggered since its adoption in 2001; the failure to activate this tool in response to earlier humanitarian emergencies or refugee arrivals – such as in Syria in 2015 or Afghanistan in 2021 – is a regrettable missed opportunity, and the IRC urges states to seriously consider its broader use going forward. 

It is now up to EU states to implement the decision and secure the protection and access to rights to all people fleeing Ukraine in an effective and inclusive way. The European Commission must closely monitor this implementation and promptly address any inadequate standards or limitations in scope.

States should: 

Ukrainian refugees gather at Medyka border crossing point, Poland
Ukrainian refugees gather at Medyka border crossing point, Poland - 5 March 2022
Photo: FPistilli/IRC

2. Ensure safe passage into Europe, promptly and without discrimination

As ever, the EU must ensure safe passage and access to its territory for asylum seekers, guaranteeing their safety and protection. All European states must continue to uphold their commitments to offer protection to refugees in need, and promptly remove undue obstacles to accessing their borders. Flexibility as to entry requirements and innovative solutions will be necessary to respond to the rapidly evolving situation. 

States should: 

Refugees wrapped in blankets arrive at Medyka border crossing point, Poland
Refugees arrive at Medyka border crossing point, Poland - 3 March 2022.
Photo: FPistilli/IRC

3. Continue to invest in urgent reception capacity and sufficient support upon arrival

All European states, and particularly those neighbouring Ukraine, must continue rapidly expanding their capacity to receive people seeking protection, in preparation for additional arrivals and the possible protracted nature of the conflict. 

States should: 

4. Mobilise a truly pan-European response in solidarity with refugees and those states hosting them through concrete, durable and significant support

Responsibility for receiving and protecting people arriving in Europe should be shared equitably among European countries. The IRC greatly welcomes the expressions of solidarity expressed by EU institutions and member states in recent weeks. They must continue to support states of first asylum within Europe to build their capacity to welcome new arrivals, deliver adequate reception conditions, and full access to asylum procedures. 

A mother and her daughter meet at the Medyka border crossing point, Poland
A mother and her daughter meet at the Medyka border crossing point, Poland - 3 March 2022
Photo: FPistili/IRC

5. Step up humanitarian diplomacy to safeguard humanitarian access and ensure significant humanitarian support for Ukraine 

The ongoing conflict is already resulting in critical, rapidly deteriorating humanitarian needs in Ukraine. In addition, many people forced to flee their homes will be displaced internally, requiring assistance to rebuild their lives. We greatly welcome the €500 million in humanitarian aid pledged by the EU for Ukraine and neighbouring countries supporting refugees, as well as the assistance provided through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. The EU and its member states should continue offering support to Ukraine to support conflict-affected and displaced people within its territory, and address the complex humanitarian needs arising.   

6. Secure the status of Ukrainian nationals already in Europe

European states must ensure that Ukrainians already within their territory and who arrived before 24 February do not find themselves in limbo following the conflict and rapidly evolving situation in the country. 

States should: 

7. Beyond the emergency phase, prepare to address the long-term needs of refugee arrivals and ensure durable political commitments are in place

Beyond the immediate response of the past weeks, which has involved a remarkable mobilisation of civil society and the Ukrainian diaspora in Europe, EU states must now translate this momentum into a durable response that meet the long-term needs of refugees arriving in the Union. Reinforced capacity, resources and political commitments must be sustained for as long as protection needs remain for people fleeing Ukraine. 

Volunteers distribute meals to Ukrainian refuges at the Tesco reception center, Przemysl, Poland
Volunteers distribute meals to Ukrainian refuges at the Tesco reception center, Przemysl, Poland - 3 March 2022
Photo: FPistilli/IRC

8. While reinforcing the response to refugees from Ukraine, do not forget or overlook other grave protection needs within Europe

The IRC greatly commends the solidarity offered to people fleeing Ukraine by governments across Europe in the past weeks and the positive efforts made to ensure their dignified reception and secure status. This tragic emergency must serve as a lasting reminder of the values that Europe holds dear, and of what it can accomplish when it acts jointly, in a spirit of solidarity, to uphold refugee protection. We urge states to display this same level of preparedness, commitment and humanitarian leadership to other displacement situations and people seeking safety in Europe, who have regrettably received a very different treatment in the past – often facing violent pushbacks, detention, and the denial of international protection. Other ongoing displacement situations, and the fate of asylum seekers elsewhere in Europe or refugees awaiting resettlement, have not disappeared as a result of the crisis in Ukraine, and must not be forgotten or under-resourced as a result. 

Now, as ever, the IRC continues to call on states to put refugee protection at the centre of its asylum and migration policies: 

A boy cradles his dog at Medyka border crossing, Poland
Ukrainian refugees gather at Medyka border crossing point, Poland -5 March 2022
Photo: FPistilli/IRC

What the IRC is doing to help

The IRC is working with partners to assist civilians who have been forced to flee their homes.

In Ukraine, we are working with local partners to provide emergency assistance to internally displaced people. So far we have supported evacuation efforts for women and children, provided critical information services about registration for displaced people, housing, employment and refugee rights as well as psychosocial care through a dedicated hotline. We have also been able to provide material support including access to essentials such as groceries, blankets, warm clothes, electrical appliances and stoves where gas and electricity has been destroyed.

In Poland we are working through partners to provide specialised services to refugees including psychosocial support, cultural assistance and translation services. A dedicated hotline service also provides legal assistance and support for women. Material assistance has included medical equipment for teams operating at refugee reception centres and border crossing points along the Polish/Ukrainian border.

“We will work to respond where we are needed the most and with the services that are needed urgently," says IRC Senior Director of Emergencies, Lani Fortier.

What can you do to help

Find out how you to support people impacted by the crisis in Ukraine here, and share the Tweet below to stand in solidarity.