The EU on Thursday agreed to approve temporary protection for refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine — so far numbered at one million — while also setting up a humanitarian hub in Romania.
The moves by the European Union came in parallel to its sanctions on Russia imposed in successive waves over the course of the invasion, now in its eighth day.
EU interior ministers agreed in a Brussels meeting to activate a temporary protection mechanism drawn up two decades ago — in response to the wars in the former Yugoslavia — but never used.
European home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, who attended the meeting, tweeted that it was a “historic decision”.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said: “The European Union will accord temporary protection to all those fleeing the war in Ukraine.”
Both later told a media conference that the decision was unanimously taken by the ministers representing the EU’s 27 nations.
Darmanin said the temporary protection would apply to Ukrainians and their family members crossing into the EU, as well as anyone who had prior refugee status in Ukraine.
Johansson said there were many foreigners, including students, who had been in Ukraine when the Russian assault started, and stated: “They are not covered by Temporary Protection directives, but they are being helped out of Ukraine.”
“The significance of this moment for Europe cannot be underestimated,” the Oxfam charity said in a statement of the EU’s decision, calling it “a turning point for Europe”.
It said the EU protection mechanism “offers a direct lifeline to people fleeing from danger in Ukraine” and now “all EU member states need to chip in and take responsibility”.
With a political agreement reached, it was expected to come into force within days, once the EU legislation is finalized.
The protection allows refugees from Ukraine and their family members to receive a residence permit and the right to access work and education for an initial year, renewable every six months for a total of two years.
Currently, Ukrainians with passports bearing biometric data have only the right to visit the EU’s Schengen area for up to three months, without the right to work, meaning they can already enter the EU.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said as she arrived for the meeting that adopting the blanket protection for Ukraine refugees was “a paradigm shift” for the EU, which has long struggled to reform its asylum rules.
Hungary’s government — which has the closest ties to Moscow of any EU country — had said opposed the blanket EU protection measure, according to a media conference by Prime Minister Viktor Orban‘s cabinet chief Gergely Gulyas.
But, according to Darmanin and Johansson, that opposition was dropped and all 27 EU countries backed it.
As the interior ministers met on Thursday, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the EU was also setting up a “humanitarian hub” in Romania, one of four EU countries bordering Ukraine.
“Protecting the people fleeing Putin’s bombs is not only an act of compassion in times of war. This is also our moral duty, as Europeans,” she said.