As the United States and other countries formulate military and diplomatic responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they should also be focusing on how to protect the growing number of people who are being forcibly displaced because of the conflict. Since the invasion began, more than 500,000 people have fled Ukraine into nearby EU member states, including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. That number will undoubtedly continue to rise.
The number of people in Ukraine who are vulnerable to displacement ranges widely—from 1 million to 5 million—and could be the largest forcible displacement in Europe in the 21st century.
How should the European Union respond?
EU leaders met this week to discuss the possibility of using the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) to grant between one-year to three-year residence permits, the right to work, and access to social, financial, and medical assistance to Ukrainian refugees. On March 3, the EU will ask member states to grant temporary asylum for all arriving Ukrainians through this directive. With such significant sharing of responsibility to assist refugees, the EU should appoint a regional response coordinator to manage protection of those forcibly displaced.
Buttressing the capacity of EU states to receive refugees is critical. Poland, which has close ties to Ukraine, has already pledged to accept 1 million Ukrainian refugees, a huge increase from previous years. Ireland, another EU member, lifted visa requirements for Ukrainians in response to the invasion. Even EU states that have previously taken hardline stances against refugees, such as Hungary and Austria, are opening their borders to accept Ukrainians. EU states with a large capacity for accepting refugees—such as Germany and France—should increase their quotas to ensure that they can continue offering protection to all refugees in addition to newly displaced Ukrainians.
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On top of individual states’ plans to protect those forcibly displaced by Russia’s aggression, the EU has allocated 90 million euros in humanitarian aid to cover the basic needs of the internally displaced in Ukraine as well as Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Moldova. The EU has also launched a civil protection mechanism to coordinate the delivery of material assistance to Ukraine from 20 member states.
Ukrainians are eligible for visa-free travel to the Schengen Area—which comprises a majority of EU member states—a privilege that has proven critical in allowing many to seek refuge without fear that they would be turned away at the border. But it is important to note that Ukrainian citizens are not the only ones being forced to flee the Russian invasion. Immigrants from African countries, many of whom are students studying at Ukrainian universities, are also fleeing for their lives, and there are disturbing reports that they are facing discrimination and racism at the borders. Some have been sent to the back of waiting queues and denied entry into neighboring countries. This treatment of African students highlights the restrictionist approach that has dominated many of these countries, which have invested heavily in infrastructure designed to keep other groups of refugees from the Middle East and Africa out. It is critically important—from both a humanitarian perspective and to preserve the norms of refugee protection—that all those fleeing the Russian aggression in Ukraine have equal access to protection.
How should the United States respond?
While the European Union is rising to meet the challenge in Ukraine, the United States should match that and provide critical support—both at home and abroad—through humanitarian action and leadership on assisting those forcibly displaced from the conflict.
The Biden administration—which inherited a decimated refugee resettlement infrastructure from the previous administration—is working to rebuild capacity to resettle refugees to the United States. While it has ruled out an evacuation plan similar to that of Afghanistan in 2021 for Ukraine, the United States can and should increase the number of refugees it accepts annually as well as process these individuals’ applications more quickly.
People forcibly displaced from Ukraine face many challenges common to all refugees. Part of what it means to “stand with Ukraine” in the face of Russian aggression is to ensure that all those forced to flee Ukraine, regardless of their race or country of origin, find protection. These norms of international law designed to protect people fleeing persecution or violence have been under enormous strain in recent years, with many countries abrogating their obligations. Now is a time to reaffirm those commitments—to Ukrainians and to the millions of individuals across the globe who are forcibly displaced and facing armed conflicts in the current moment. All individuals must have the ability to seek refuge and receive asylum when displaced by persecution or violence, regardless of what continent they live on. EU and U.S. efforts to protect Ukrainians should reinforce these norms of protection for all—and humanitarian efforts and attention should reflect that.
Additionally, the United States should ensure that Ukrainians already present in the United States are protected from deportation to danger in their homeland. The administration is authorized by statute to designate a country for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) when there is a temporary emergency, such as an armed conflict, that would make return to that country unsafe. Ukraine clearly qualifies for such a designation, which CAP estimates could protect as many as 96,000 non-U.S. citizen Ukrainians—including an estimated 27,000 undocumented Ukrainians—living in the United States, and there is bipartisan support in Congress for doing so.
Likewise, the United States should designate specific refugee slots for Ukrainians and others—such as immigrants from African countries—fleeing the fighting in Ukraine while also providing humanitarian parole for those who already fled Ukraine and/or arrive at U.S. borders via other countries. In addition, as the European Union works through the complicated process to implement TPD for those fleeing Ukraine, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can provide technical guidance on how to offer protection in a swift manner and help secure solidarity between the EU member states on an ample set of rights for those affected by the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have widespread global implications, including the forcible displacement of millions of individuals. The robust and determined initial response from the European Union and the United States to the needs of those fleeing violence in Ukraine is encouraging. It will be critical to sustain and expand these efforts in the weeks and months ahead as the region absorbs the full ramifications of the Russian invasion. We urge the United States and the European Union to do all they can to mitigate this crisis and share the responsibility of assisting all people fleeing Ukraine.
*Authors’ note: CAP estimates that 96,000 Ukrainians living in the United States are not U.S. citizens but does not attempt to distinguish their immigration status using the 2018 and 2019 American Community Survey microdata. This estimate includes undocumented Ukrainians, Ukrainians in the country on temporary visas, and lawful permanent residents.
The authors would like to thank Elisa Massimino, Rudy deLeon, Carolyn Kenney, Max Bergmann, Nicole Lee Ndumele, and Mara Rudman for their review of this column.