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Wikipedia says:

The Temporary Protection Directive (TPD; Council Directive 2001/55/EC) is a 2001 European Union directive providing for immediate, temporary protection for displaced people from outside the external border of the Union, intended to be used in exceptional circumstances when the regular EU asylum system has trouble handling a "mass influx" of refugees. It was introduced in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars, but was not used before 2022. When invoked, it requires EU member states to accept refugees as allocated based on their capacity to host them, following a principle of solidarity and a "balance of efforts" among member states.

Were there any discussions to activate the TPD for Syrian refugees? If so, why was there no agreement? I'm vaguely recalling there were disputes about the quota sharing. Was that the reason? (The Wikipedia page on the TPD doesn't mention Syria at all.)

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Many EU member governments have expressed their belief that refugee situations should be resolved regionally. For Ukraine, they see the EU as a regional destination and responsible for housing most of the refugees. For Syria, they see the EU as not a regional destination and not responsible for housing most of the refugees. Only a tiny number of Syrians did enter the EU directly from Syria, most would have come through third countries where they might have asked for refugee status and stayed.

So it was not just a question of numbers, but also a feeling that Ukrainians should find temporary shelter in the EU which prompted the EU members to streamline that process through the TPD. In practice, preferential treatment on regional/national origins amounts to preferential treatment on ethnic origins, as many critics inside and outside the EU pointed out.

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  • preferential treatment on regional/national origins amounts to preferential treatment on ethnic origins => this sort of ignores the fact that Ukrainians have generally integrated well into the workforce and have low crime levels, compared to non-European asylum seekers. The difference in treatment is there for a reason. Nov 1, 2023 at 20:31
  • @JonathanReez, the key thing here is that the EU is the first safe country for refugees coming from Ukraine (taking the EU as a country for these purposes). Refugees from Syria would have gone through countries like Turkey, where they should have received protection. (A large number do, I'm talking about those who don't.)
    – o.m.
    Nov 2, 2023 at 5:13
  • Sure but I'm pointing out that the "critics" are conveniently ignoring the fact that Ukrainian refugees are way easier to integrate and cause a lot less problems to European society. Nov 2, 2023 at 5:15
  • @JonathanReez, and those who say that are understating the effect of demographics over culture. Ukraine is keeping young men in, generally the most crime-prone grouping.
    – o.m.
    Nov 2, 2023 at 5:58
  • 26% are male between the ages of 18 and 64. And plenty of Ukrainians immigrated to the EU before the war as well, with a low impact on local crime rates. Racism has nothing to do with it - some groups just integrate nicely and the locals welcome them and some don't. Nov 2, 2023 at 6:06
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In 2016, the EU published a report on the TPD and why it had never been activated so far. The main work on the paper was done before the 2015 "refugee crisis", so it contains no conclusion from that episode, especially from the influx of Syrian refugees.

The first observation about the directive is its inprecise language (p. 17).

In sum, the broad – or vague – use and definition of the term ‘mass influx’ in the Directive was to allow for the possible activation of the TPD in the context of different types of mass influx. However, in the absence of definitions of these different types of mass influx, and indicators on how to measure these, stakeholders agree that it has been hardly possible to attain Member State agreement on the (possible) activation of the TPD.

The second observation criticises the activation process as "cumbersome" (p. 19):

Should the TPD be activated in the future, this may potentially undermine its very objectives, i.e. to rapidly relieve the pressure on national asylum systems affected by a mass influx of applicants for international protection and to provide immediate access to those applicants (in clear need of international protection).

...it was noted that the activation process can only be initiated by the Commission, either ex officio or upon request of a Member State. The Member State’s request only has to be examined, it does not oblige the Commission to submit a proposal to the Council to activate the mechanism. Article 5 (2) of the Directive describes in detail the content of the Commission’s competence to such a proposal. Once the Commission has submitted its proposal, the Council can adopt a Decision to activate the temporary protection mechanism by qualified majority.

A third observation notes that since 2001, a large amount of other legislation has been adopted by the EU to handle mass influx of migrants (p. 30):

...since 2001, several Member States’ asylum systems have significantly evolved, including a surge in and subsequent consolidation of experience and knowhow on how to deal with situations of pressure. Moreover, at EU level, the legal and political context in the field of asylum has significantly changed...including also the tools available at EU level that aim to assist Member States in handling large influxes.

...In response to the situations of pressure as experienced in 2001-2014, preference was given to alternative measures both by the Commission as well as Member States...

But the core of the failure of the directive was the missing solidarity mechanism. Articles 25 and 26 talk about "a spirit of Community solidarity" and urges "the Member States shall cooperate with each other", but there is no further implementation for these intentions. Thus the paper concludes (p.24):

...the expectation that Member States indicate capacity is problematic without common criteria to calculate or project reception capacity. This may not only lead to Member States declaring that they are unable to receive beneficiaries, but also to disagreement between Member States and disputes within the Council as to the factual – but also ideal – capacity of each Member State. This slows down, but may also compromise, the prospect of an equitable burden-sharing.

A 2019 study by H. Deniz Genç and N. Aslı Şırın Öner notes there were at least three occasions where an activation could have been reasonable, but did not happen (p. 7f):

  • After the 2011 Arab spring, Italy and Malta encountered large numbers of refugees arriving across the Mediteranean. Both countries requested the activation, but it was turned down by the Commission on grounds of the numbers not being high enough.

  • The start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014 brought a large influx of refugees to Poland, but Poland did not experience an excess pressure on its asylum system and thus saw no reason to ask for the activation. The EU report (p. 138ff) explains that most refugees used Poland only as a transit point. In 2015, about three quarters of them withdrew from the asylum procedure there, and traveled on to other destinations (p. 28).

  • After Syrian refugees started to arrive in large numbers on the Balkan route, it were "academics, activists and social workers that called for an activation". The European Left GUE/NGL brought a resolution to the European Parliament, but the text adopted no longer mentioned the directive. No member state requested the activation, as required by the directive.

Instead, the member states discussed the ammendment of the Dublin III treaty with a "crisis relocation mechanism". The failure to find a consensus led to a new emphasis on deterring refugees from entering the EU and the EU-Turkey refugee return agreement.

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