Europe braces for wave of Ukrainian refugees

A mass exodus of Ukrainians risks overwhelming resources in neighboring countries even as Europe pledges to aid refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion.

U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that anywhere from 1 million to 5 million Ukrainians could be displaced as Russian forces enter the country from the north, south and east.

It’s a movement that could well exceed the capacity of Ukraine’s neighbors, some of which have limited resources given a history of resistance to accepting refugees.

“It is unlikely these nations could successfully support a surge of millions of refugees without the support of the U.S. and the wider international community,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which resettles refugees, said.

Romania has said it could accept up to a half million refugees, Hungary has said it is preparing for tens of thousands and Moldova has pledged to keep its borders open to Ukrainians.

While Poland, a likely destination for refugees to the west of Ukraine, has pledged to take a million refugees, the country’s own data suggests its spaces for housing refugees have fewer than 3,000 spots. 

“This reality is likely a significant driver of the U.N.’s appeal for $190 million in humanitarian assistance for Ukrainians,” Vignarajah said.

Hungary, another western border crossing for Ukrainians, has been openly hostile to refugees in the past, earning rebuke from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNHCR said Friday that at least 50,000 Ukrainians have already fled the country, including crossing into Poland, Romania and Moldova, while an estimated 100,000 have been internally displaced. 

Roadways in Kyiv were flooded Thursday, with vehicles stretching for dozens of kilometers as they sought to flee the capital.

Ukraine has also already been dealing with the aftereffects of internal displacement after Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.   

But the movements of Russian troops could push people further west and into neighboring countries.

“These are small countries bordering Ukraine, so even if they're willing to host Ukrainians, they don't necessarily have the capacity, and so we’ll need to see much more technical and financial support coming from other EU [European Union] countries and I would argue also the U.S,” said Daphne Panayotatos, advocate for Europe at Refugees International. 

The U.S. so far has sent a 17-member disaster response team through the U.S. Agency for International Development to facilitate the Biden administration’s humanitarian response. 

U.S. troops currently stationed along NATO’s eastern flank are also helping process evacuees from Ukraine as they cross into Poland and Romania at temporary safe havens in those countries. 

The Biden administration is also facing calls to offer temporary protected status to Ukrainians already in the U.S. to avoid deportation and to offer its own refugee program resources.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the U.S. is prepared to accept Ukrainian refugees, but she said that most will want to go to countries in Europe. She said that the Biden administration is working with European countries to gauge where there is capacity.

“The [State] Department is engaging diplomatically to ensure neighboring countries keep their borders open to those seeking international protection,” a department spokesperson said. 

“As with any refugee situation, we will continue to call on members of the international community to respond to the needs of those seeking protection within their borders in a way that is consistent with their respective obligations under international law,” the spokesperson added.  

So far, the response from many European countries has been welcoming — a contrast with the reaction to past refugee crises, such as the one spurred by the Syrian civil war.

Just last week, the UNHCR issued a warning for the region, noting that several countries have been implicated in alarming reports of pushbacks of refugees arriving by boat.

The more welcome response from Poland comes after the country began construction of a wall along its border with Belarus to prevent refugee crossings.

“Poland’s plan to accommodate up to 1 million Ukrainians is particularly noteworthy given that just months ago, its government utilized troops to repel asylum-seekers at its border with Belarus. This disparity in the treatment of predominantly Muslim refugees speaks to the troubling rise of nationalist movements politicizing vulnerable migrant populations,” Vignarajah said.

But a largely white, Christian refugee population from Ukraine may be treated differently.

“The rhetoric that we are hearing around the very likely arrival of tens or hundreds of thousands if not around a million or more people coming from Ukraine, the rhetoric is welcoming and warm,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.

“It is a big contrast to the rhetoric we heard just a few months ago around Afghans arriving or potentially arriving,” she added. 

Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for global public affairs with HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement group with a partner organization in Ukraine, said there are parallels to the shift on refugees between the Trump and Biden administrations, where the U.S. went from an all-time low goal of resettling refugees under former President Trump to a much larger one set by the new administration that President Biden ultimately failed to meet.

“When the Afghan refugees came, we really had to scramble,” Nezer said, “to make sure that resources were available, the skills, that staff was in place and all of those things,” she said, adding that the U.S. had lost some “muscle memory” on the issue.

“These are countries that don't really have real established systems for accepting refugees,” she said.

Adding to the complexity is the tremendous uncertainty surrounding the scale of the potential refugee crisis, which is largely dependent on how the invasion unfolds. Russian forces were pushing into Kyiv on Friday, sparking worries that the Ukrainian capital with a population of about 2.8 million could fall. 

Ukraine has also ordered men aged 18 to 60 to remain in the country as it prepares to begin conscription of military reservists.

“It depends, obviously, what the course of the war is,” said Angela Stent, an expert on U.S. and European relations with Russia. “You could have a major refugee crisis.”

Sunderland applauded Poland’s decision to welcome Ukrainian refugees as well as foreigners legally residing in Ukraine, but she argued that the door needs to be “completely open” to include undocumented migrants in Ukraine. 

Panayotatos said Western Europe can also be of greater assistance, aiding in relocation by quickly bringing refugees to other parts of the continent after initial processing to house them while awaiting next steps in their asylum cases.

“If a million people go to Poland next week, Poland doesn't have the capacity to process a million applications. What would happen instead would be that 500 people go to Germany, and 500 people go to France and 300 people go to Ireland,” she said, using hypothetical figures.

“People could be relocated to another European Union country, and that country would assess their asylum claim and say, ‘Yes, we France, not Poland, but we France, think you qualify as a refugee, and we will give you refugee status to stay here in France,’” she added.

Vignarajah said the U.S. could also set the tone by making its own public commitment on taking more refugees.

“As the world’s humanitarian leader, the U.S. should do everything in its power to assist its closest allies as they welcome Ukrainians seeking safe haven,” she said. 

“The U.S. can also lead by example and live up to its highest ideals in welcoming more refugees,” she added. 

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