From Syria to Ukraine: Unpacking Europe’s Refugee Reception Divide

How to cite this journal: Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post, ISSN: 2628-6998,

This article analyses the EU’s differing responses to Syrian war refugees in 2015 and Ukrainian refugees after Russia’s invasion in 2022. It explores factors like cultural background, religion, gender, and skill level affecting refugee reception. Despite the EU’s human rights principles, political complexities and societal biases lead to unequal treatment. The article underscores civil society’s role in combating xenophobia and advocating for consistent adherence to human rights in refugee policy.

“Wir schaffen das” – these three words by former German chancellor Angela Merkel stood out from the rest of her chancellorship (Heißler 2021). She said it in the context of the refugee movement in 2015 caused by the still ongoing war in Syria. It was an emotional time for many Germans and other EU citizens. I vividly remember photos and videos of refugees walking the Balkan route in the hot summer and seeing the picture of the drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi in school. It was practically impossible not to know about the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking to flee the terror in their home country. Sports halls of schools were reorganised as refugee camps. This also happened at my school. When the headmaster called for an assembly to inform parents about the new situation, one mother stood up and asked how it could be that it could not be ensured that her son would probably not be able to do sports once a week anymore. Other people in my social environment warned me of the young men from Syria who were not used to seeing girls and women showing skirts and that it could be dangerous outside for me. Merkel’s optimism about overcoming the challenge of helping about a million people seeking refuge from a war in their home country was not always mirrored by society. However, even though faced with a very similar situation in 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germans and other Europeans were more than happy to take in as many Ukrainians as would like to come. It seems like Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” can apply to the refuge policy. But why was the EU’s reaction to the refugees of Ukraine so different from the reaction to refugees of other countries?

EU asylum policy
The EU claims to stand for human rights. This becomes also visible in her approach to asylum seekers: “The European Union is an area of protection for people fleeing persecution or serious harm in their country of origin” (European Commission w.D.a). There are different directives and EU strategies to deal with refugees. First, “to alleviate pressure on national asylum systems and to allow displaced persons to enjoy harmonised rights across the EU”, the “Temporary Protection Directive” was created after the Yugoslavia wars (European Council 2023). In this directive, the rights of refugees are put down, which include the topics of residence, access to the labour market and housing, medical and social welfare assistance, and access to education for children (ibid.). The directive is directly designed for the EU to deal with “the event of a mass influx or imminent mass influx of displaced persons from non-EU countries who are unable to return to their country of origin” (European Commission w.D.b). Second, to determine the jurisdiction for asylum seekers, the Dublin III regulation is used. According to the regulation, the EU country in which a refugee is registered for the first time is responsible for processing their asylum application (Schwartz 2016).

The EU’s response to the “refugee crisis”* in 2015/2016
After political unrest due to the Arab Spring, thousands of people made their way via the Mediterranean Sea towards the EU in search of safety. 2015 almost a million refugees and migrants arrived on European shores (Spindler 2015). Throughout the year, several turning points led to the so-called crisis. In April, “over 600 people drowned in the Mediterranean when their boat capsized shortly before midnight on April 18 in Libyan waters some 180 kilometres south of Italy’s Lampedusa Island” (ibid.). However, rescue-at-sea operations continued to be controversial. When the body of the young Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi washed up on the Turkish shore, empathy rose increasingly in the population of EU member states like Sweden or Germany but levelled off again after a short time (Schulte von Drach 2017). Due to the high risk of drowning, more and more refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq chose to follow the Balkan route to reach West Europe. However, there were still many dangers on the way. In August 2015, 71 dead refugees were found by Austrian authorities in an abandoned refrigeration truck (Spindler 2015). Also, Hungary built a fence at the border with Serbia, not allowing more refugees and migrants to pass through the country. Other EU member states followed by re-instating border controls (ibid.).
Especially Mediterranean EU members like Malta, Italy and Greece did not want to accept more refugees. Italy and Malta were still high-frequented destinations for refugees from North African countries like Tunisia and Libya. Even though this event happened in 2019, it is still noteworthy in the handling of refugees and migrants reaching the EU over the Mediterranean Sea: The Sea Watch 3, a ship belonging to a private sea rescue organisation was denied entry in many European ports after a rescue mission. When the captain of the ship, Carola Rackete, entered the Italian port of Lampedusa without permission after rescuing refugees who needed medical attention, she was arrested and put on trial for breaking laws (Kailouli & Schreijäg 2019). Also, since 2016, so-called “pushbacks” have been used regularly by the EU as a “border control” instrument (ECCHR 2021).

Studies show that the public attitude towards the public opinion on migration remained relatively stable during the years 2015 and 2016. In most EU countries, open migration policies are supported (Goubin et al., 2022). However, not everyone was welcoming towards refugees. During the years 2015 and 2016, there was an all-time high in attacks on refugees in Germany. In 2015, there were 1031 offences against refugees, in 2016 there were 921 (LPB 2021). This makes between two and three attacks against refugees every day, which is a horrific number. While most of these offences were committed by right-wing extremists, there was a shift in German society as well. The “Kölner Silvesternacht”, in which men, most of whom had come to the EU illegally from North Africa, committed sexualised crimes of violence against women, brought about the first change of mood. Germans were becoming more cautious of refugees and migrants and some even tried to defame them as a whole group (Wertschulthe 2017). This shift in Germany which triggered a debate about the general migration and asylum policy is important to note as Germany was a pioneer in accepting and welcoming refugees (BAMF 2017).

*The author wants to explicitly state that framing the ordeal that refugees coming to the EU had and have to go through should not be considered a crisis for the lack of empathy towards the refugees. However, as this is, unfortunately, the coined term in the debate, this expression is used at this point.

The EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine 2022
The EU’s response towards refugees coming from Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in February 2022 was quick and demonstrated solidarity. For the first time, the Temporary Protection Directive was activated (European Commission w.D.c). For individuals fleeing the war, the EU centralized key information on a webpage, providing practical details in English, Ukrainian, and Russian about their rights concerning temporary protection, travel within the EU, and access to housing, healthcare, education, and jobs.

Hungary and Poland, two EU member states that were very restricted in the acceptance of refugees from Syria and other Arab countries in 2015/2016, were among the most welcoming member states in the EU towards refugees from Ukraine. “The Hungarian Government, being the first in Europe, decided to grant temporary protection to everyone, regardless of their nationality, who had a legal basis to stay in Ukraine and fled the country to Hungary” (Juhász et al., 2022). The acceptance of Ukrainians in Polish society was described as a “refugee miracle” (Rice-Oxley 2022). However, while welcoming Ukrainian refugees, non-Ukrainian refugees are not allowed to enter the country (ibid.).

Why are refugees being treated so differently?
This different treatment of refugees based on their origin country opens up questions. The EU does claim to support human rights universally, but evidently, politics are more complicated than that. Several factors can influence attitudes towards refugees: Especially the cultural background of the refugee (including religion), age, and gender come to mind.
Even though there is not much research on the acceptance of refugees, similar trends in comparison with the acceptance of immigrants can be noticed (Bermúdez 2020). For example, refugees, like immigrants, are more likely to be accepted by society if they are Christian, and Muslim asylum-seekers are less likely to be accepted (ibid.). Bermúdez also states that high-skilled are also more likely to be accepted. Another study shows that female and younger asylum-seekers are more likely to be accepted than male asylum-seekers (Bansak et al., 2023).

However, studies show that other factors influence the perception of refugees as well. Bermúdez (2020) states that high-skilled are also more likely to be accepted. At the same time, factors like former (high-skill) employment in the country of origin and having host country language skills have a positive impact on the acceptance of refugees (Bansak et al. 20203).
Last but not least, the reasons for fleeing one’s country also matter. If refugees were victims of torture and fleeing persecution of war, they were more likely to be accepted than migrating for economic reasons (ibid.).

The question then remains: how are the different factors weighed? Refugees from Syria are fleeing war and persecution; many of them were victims of torture, and most refugees are young. However, they are still not treated the same as Ukrainian refugees, who are mainly Christian and female (ibid.). Are gender and religion the main factors determining the attitudes towards individual refugees? Looking at the (political) reactions regarding different refugee groups and their media coverage, it could seem like that.

Human rights are universal and apply to everyone, regardless of nationality, religion, gender, or cultural background. Every refugee has the right to seek asylum in the EU, and political motivations and societal biases do not undermine these fundamental rights. However, in light of increasing populism and a shift towards the right in the European community, there is a pressing need for action. It is disheartening to witness xenophobic voices gaining traction in society and discriminatory policies being enacted by political actors. This must not be tolerated.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon politicians to take a stand for justice and equality in refugee policy. They must vehemently condemn xenophobia and racism, as well as any anti-Islamic sentiments present in the EU. Instead, they should prioritise policies that uphold human rights principles and ensure fair and equal treatment for all refugees, regardless of their personal background.

Only by concerted efforts from political leaders, civil society organisations, and engaged individuals can meaningful change be achieved. We must strive to create a Europe where compassion, solidarity, and respect for human dignity prevail over fear and prejudice. Let us work together to build a more inclusive and just society for all.

– Bansak, K., Hainmueller, J. and Hangartner, D. (2023) Europeans’ support for refugees of varying background is stable over time. Nature 620, 849–854.
– Bermúdez, S. (2020) Refugees welcome? Cross-European public opinion on asylum seekers following the 2015 crisis, [online]
– Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF) (2017) Das Bundesamt in Zahlen 2016 Asyl, Migration und Integration, [online]
– European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) (2021) Report for the Special Rapporteur on pushback practices and their impact on the human rights of migrants at European land borders, [online]
– European Commission (w.D.a) Common European Asylum System, [online]
– European Commission (w.D.b) Temporary protection, [online]
– European Commission (w.D.c) Migration management: Welcoming refugees from Ukraine, [online]
– European Council (2023) Ukrainian refugees: EU member states agree to extend temporary protection, [online]
– Flack, A., Hanewinkel, V. and Latz, V. (2017) Das Jahr 2016: Ein Rückblick: Terroranschläge und die anhaltende Diskussion um kriminelle Geflüchtete, [online]
– Goubin, S., Ruelens, A., & Nicaise, I. (2022). Trends in attitudes towards migration in Europe. A comparative analysis. HIVA – Research Institute for Work and Society.
– Heißler, J. (2021) Ein Jahr „Wir schaffen das“: Merkels drei große kleine Worte, [online]
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– Kailouli, N. and Schreijäg, J. (2019) Exklusiv: Was geschah auf der Sea-Watch 3?, [online]
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– Schulte von Drach, M. C. (2017) Aylan Kurdi: Die vergängliche Macht der furchtbaren Bilder, [online]
– Schwartz, K. (2016) Fragen und Antworten: Wie funktioniert das Dublin-System?, [online]
– Spindler, W. (2015) 2015: The year of Europe’s refugee crisis, [online]
– Werthschulte, C. (2017) „Nach” Köln ist wie “vor” Köln: Die Silvesternacht und ihre Folgen, [online]

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