Ukraine Refugee Crisis

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As the Russia-Ukraine conflict intensifies, Europe is seeing a mass influx of refugees. The UN estimates that up to five million people could eventually flee Ukraine for other European countries. Flood of refugees fleeing Russian invasion part of a broader pattern of displacement. The 21st century is being defined by displacement. Much of that has to do with conflict and war. A lot of it has to do with climate change. Even more, has to do with economic instability.

In a week that has seen at least 600,000 refugees escaping Ukraine in the face of a large-scale military invasion by Russia, a major escalation of a conflict began in 2014. What we’re seeing with the European response generally is an unprecedented opening of their borders. In that sense, Europe’s response has been very unusual in that they are allowing this movement and waiving legal requirements for border crossing, waiving COVID rules as well. In another unprecedented move, the European Union (EU) is meeting to discuss a completely new legal approach to responding to the displacement of people from Ukraine, which would enable them to be settled in any EU country for three years without having to go through any legal asylum process. That is interesting from many standpoints. It’s good in the sense that people need protection, but it also raises questions about the kind of people that Europe offers protection to and the kind of people who, in contrast, have their mobility constrained.

Just for comparison, if you look at the response during the 2015 refugee crisis which saw hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking asylum—or even the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border just three months ago—many refugees who were attempting to cross borders into Europe were being stopped, put into detention centers, deported and just generally being used as political pawns. EU nations that were supposed to be celebrating the Schengen border approach of the free movement were building walls, “fortressing” Europe, so to speak. We saw countries like Hungary, France, and Austria putting up physical barriers to stop refugees from crossing. What we’ve been seeing in the past week is the removal of legal and physical borders to enable what Filippo Grandi, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is saying is the biggest refugee crisis within Europe in the 21st century

The Biden administration hasn’t made any specific claims to provide protection to Ukrainian refugees as we speak, at least in terms of resettlement. That could change, of course. But doubtedly because while the public is pressuring the administration to do something, the reality is the legalities of getting refugees through the resettlement process—to get from the second country of asylum into the United States, Canada, wherever that might be—in ordinary circumstances, that takes years.

Now you might think, “What about Afghanistan in 2021?” That was an absolute exception to the aforementioned process, and I think the U.S. managed as well as they could in terms of providing refuge to thousands of people who were unexpectedly evacuated out of Afghanistan, basically overnight. But that was an evacuation of vulnerable people; it was not the standard process of refugee resettlement. It came with all these complications because the people being evacuated had not, for the most part, been processed for resettlement prior to fleeing.  So, the first thing that happened is that they got put into camps that were hastily set up in decommissioned military bases. And the public was asking, “Why are we doing that, aren’t they refugees?” Well, we must get the clearances and organize placements that would ordinarily be part of the processing of refugees for resettlement. That was an extraordinary legal process set up to respond to the specific situation of the evacuation of Afghan nationals, not a standard or routine situation. That was at least 70,000 people and we only just got the last of those Afghan refugees out last week just as the first Ukrainian refugees began to flee.

So, the U.S. is still reeling from the very rapid response to the Afghan evacuation. There’s a question of could we bring Ukrainians into these camps, do the same evacuation process? But do we want to be perpetuating this camp model? Those Afghans that were brought into the camps, many still don’t have officially recognized refugee status in the U.S. We call them refugees in the media, that’s the perception, but technically many of these people are legally termed “parolees” and many haven’t even been granted asylum in the U.S. yet. They are legally vulnerable. Right now, resettlement organizations in the U.S. are fighting to have the Biden administration create a legal process that would automatically transfer the parolee status of those evacuated Afghan people into asylum status. Because if they continue to be classified as parolees, technically, the U.S. government could still turn around, in say the next election cycle, and deport them. And the process of applying for asylum is exhausting and requires people to re-live their trauma. Moreover, resettlement organizations have been gutted by funding cuts from the previous administration and the economic impact of the pandemic. With all these complications, there is a question of whether the U.S. is equipped to manage another rapid refugee resettlement process. And with Europe stepping up, the Biden administration seems hesitant to even try.

Disappointingly, the Biden administration has not committed to providing what’s called “Temporary Protection Status” to Ukrainians who are already in the U.S., which would be an easy and important move in terms of our protection responsibilities. If you’re a Ukrainian on a student visa or a work visa, there is currently no recognition of the fact that your country may be unsafe to return to when your visa runs out. The administration may revisit this in the future, but to not even step up to offer this basic protection right now: What is that telling us?

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