Different approaches – similar challenges: migration and integration policies towards Ukrainian refugees in Australia and the Nordic-Baltic region

Whilst Australia and the Nordic-Baltic countries have adopted varied approaches to Ukrainians fleeing from the Russian aggression, they face identical challenges and integration dilemmas. All the while, Ukrainian refugees confront an uncertain future. In this blog post, HROMADA members Anne Pintsch, Inese Šūpule, and Maryna Rabinovych, together with Olga Oleinikova, and Vilde Hernes summarise the discussion of the regions’ migration and integration policies at a time when important decisions need to be made.

The forced migration of millions of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s brutal aggression has put migration and integration regulations worldwide to the test. Individual countries and the European Union (EU) responded in a multitude of ways to the arrival of the temporarily displaced Ukrainians. In various countries, the high numbers of immigrants have sparked new discussions about asylum and migration policy. However, debates around migration and asylum policy were underway in Europe long before Russia’s full-scale invasion. In this debate, some countries have referred to the ‘Australian model’ as a template to follow. To this day, the focus has remained on Australia’s offshore processing of refugee claims. In contrast, the country’s approach to Ukrainian war refugees has received little attention in Europe.

At the same time, with no end to Russia’s war in sight, Australia, the Nordic, and the Baltic countries face similar questions and dilemmas concerning the long-term integration of Ukrainian war refugees into their societies. This prompted HROMADA members Maryna Rabinovych and Anne Pintsch to initiate a transcontinental debate on the variety of responses to Ukrainian wartime displacement with migration experts Olga Oleinikova (University of Technology Sydney), Vilde Hernes (OsloMet), and Inese Šūpule (University of Latvia). The blog post summarises the main points from the contributions and gathers some critical lessons for Nordic and Baltic policy-makers:

  • With a duration of three years, Australia offered more generous temporary protection (as opposed to just one year under the EU’s temporary protection scheme). Still, the application was only possible within a very narrow time window.
  • The comparatively rapid introduction and ongoing use of the protection schemes in the Nordic and Baltic countries provided millions of Ukrainians with a more reliable pathway to protection.
  • As both the Australian and EU regulations expire in early 2025 – and there is no end to the war in sight – forcibly displaced Ukrainians have uncertain prospects in both regions.
  • Policy-makers must find solutions that address both the refugees’ concerns for a safe and predictable future and Ukraine’s aim to encourage return.

Australia: Limited protection and an uncertain future for Ukrainian refugees

Due to both its distance from Ukraine, a small Ukrainian diaspora and the quick introduction of collective protection rules in the EU member states and other European countries, Australia received comparatively few Ukrainians fleeing from the full-scale war. Today, a total of 50,000 Ukrainians live in the country, which has nearly 27 million inhabitants. Following the full-scale invasion, mostly Ukrainians with relatives or friends on the ground came to Australia. This was not least due to the high costs associated with long travel routes. To enter the country, Ukrainians usually apply for a tourist visa.

Unlike the European Union, which activated an existing temporary protection mechanism in early March 2022, Australia did not introduce a protection visa programme for a temporary humanitarian stay until a month later. Shortly afterwards, however, with the war ongoing, the government announced that the visa programme would expire on July 14, 2022. At the time, the Australian government’s message to Ukrainian refugees was to arrive on a tourist visa, apply for protection, and receive protection for three years. The disorganised procedure and tight deadline caused unrest among Ukrainian refugees, which prompted the government to extend the deadline by about two weeks – to July 31, 2022. Nevertheless, for many Ukrainians, this meant they could not seek protection under the temporary humanitarian stay. This included refugees who only decided to leave Ukraine after the application period or could not make the necessary arrangements in Ukraine on time, e.g., caring for family members who stayed. Eventually, around 4000 Ukrainians were granted this protection status (subclass 786 visa). It has not been reopened since. Ukrainians can still apply for tourist visas and then apply for regular asylum. They can usually remain in the country on this basis, work, and be entitled to medical services and some payments until they start working. Ukrainians can also apply for another standard visa, for example, through skilled or student visa programmes. However, age limits or the requirement of certain qualifications apply.

The rather ad-hoc and brisk introduction of the temporary protection programme implies no long-term perspective. Meanwhile, the action will expire in 2025, and to date, no decisions have been made on how to proceed, causing a lot of uncertainty among the affected refugees. Australia has started to treat Ukrainians as new emergency migrants, and respective legislation is being discussed, which would lead to different treatment and support. Going forward, however, there is no consistent plan for how to manage Ukrainian war refugees in Australia.

The Nordic region: Large cross-national differences and tendencies of restriction

Although the European response to the high influxes of displaced persons was more unified in 2022 than in 2015, with the introduction of collective temporary protection, analysis shows that there were still significant cross-national differences in the rights and restrictions for displaced persons from Ukraine.

Sweden’s approach towards displaced persons from Ukraine has substantiated the ongoing shift from one of the most liberal immigration and integration policies in Europe to a more restrictive one. Today, Sweden has one of the most restrictive regulations for displaced persons from Ukraine. Contrary to others granted protection in Sweden, this group does not receive the same financial and integration rights as other protection holders, and they have limited access to healthcare.

Although Norway and Denmark generally have different policies towards protection seekers (where Denmark has had more restrictive and less generous policies than Norway), they have taken a somewhat similar approach in their reception of displaced persons from Ukraine. For instance, both countries introduced more flexible options for this group to find their own accommodation. Otherwise, contrary to many other European countries, their approach has been to provide displaced persons from Ukraine with the same rights as other protection holders, e.g., related to financial assistance and integration measures. However, after Norway experienced a high increase in arrivals from Ukraine during the fall of 2023, the Norwegian government proposed several new restrictions, ensuring that Norway’s relatively favourable policies would no longer be the case.

Finland has opted for a middle-road approach. Displaced persons from Ukraine have some restricted rights during the first year of residence (although not to the same degree as in Sweden). Upon arrival, they are integrated into the same system as other protection seekers awaiting a decision on their claim. After one year of residence, they may be registered in a municipality, meaning they receive the same rights to social welfare and other services as all permanent residents.

The Baltic states: consistent support for Ukrainian refugees in the present and future

The Baltic states, i.e., Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, are characterised by a high percentage of Ukrainian refugees relative to their population among the countries of the European Union. Currently, they provide support and temporary shelter to more than 150,000 Ukrainians.

Source: UNHCR

Considering that previously, in all three countries, the refugee reception systems were poorly designed, the response to the Ukrainian refugee flows in all the Baltic States was well organised. These three states provided solid assistance to those displaced from Ukraine, more or less covering their basic needs. For example, in Latvia, the Law on Assistance to Ukrainian Civilians was adopted very early: March 4, 2022. According to this law, immediate assistance with accommodation and food (for three months) was provided for all Ukrainians arriving in the country. It also guarantees access to education, healthcare, and social protection on an equal footing with Latvian citizens. The law thus creates better conditions for Ukrainians than for other refugees or asylum seekers. Advantages for Ukrainians include an exception to the Latvian language proficiency requirement, an accelerated recognition of their qualifications in certain regulated professions, free public transport, a single employment start-up allowance that is a special incentive facilitating their entry into the Latvian labour market, or a single self-employed start-up allowance. However, despite these more flexible requirements for the employment of Ukrainians, their employment participation is lower than initially expected (Žabko, forthcoming).

In 2024, the Baltic States became involved in the Regional Refugee Response Plan for Ukraine, which was developed to respond to the needs of a specific refugee population in the region’s neighbouring countries. Priority areas of this plan include protection, education, health and nutrition, livelihoods, socioeconomic inclusion, and basic needs.

Compared with the last two years, the assistance now needs to focus more on the long-term needs of displaced Ukrainians in the Baltic States. As the plans and needs of displaced Ukrainians after two years have evolved, a different type of support is needed, including language training, mental health support, job skills training, and general education. From a political point of view, there is no doubt that Ukrainians in the Baltic States will be given support in the previous amount, and a change in attitude towards Ukrainian refugees in the Baltic States is not expected. The majority of societies and governments in the Baltic States are fully aware that support must be provided not only until the end of the war but also after, supporting the restoration of Ukraine and supporting the integration of Ukrainians in the Baltic states if they choose to stay.

Challenging questions, integration dilemmas, and uncertain prospects

This discussion showed the vast difference in how the European and Australian continents have dealt with Ukrainian refugees. While the EU member states and several other European countries quickly activated temporary protection rules, Australia opened a very narrow time window for Ukrainians to apply for a three-year protection status and has yet to offer an application scheme for temporary protection. However, despite the overall generous European approach, gaping differences exist in the details between European countries – and even within the Nordic region.

In both Australia and Europe, temporary protection schemes will expire in 2025. While the Australian government does not yet have a plan to address the situation, the Baltic states have recognised the need for changes in their migration and integration approaches. Indeed, they are likely to remain steadfast supporters of Ukrainian refugees. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government encourages the return of displaced people. In sum, all host countries have been confronted with deeply challenging questions and integration dilemmas. As all of this unfolds, Ukrainian refugees face a future that becomes more uncertain by the day.

References: Žabko, O. (forthcoming). Contribution of displaced Ukrainians in addressing labour shortages in Latvia. Proceedings of the 2024 International Conference “Economic science for rural development”.

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