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The Ukrainian refugee crisis has already begun

The time for the US and its European allies to act is now.

Ukrainian citizens traveling by train arrive in Przemysl, Poland, on February 25. The train from Odessa, was delayed more than three hours when it was stopped at Mostyska at the Ukrainian border, where only women and children were permitted to continue on to Poland. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are currently prohibited from leaving the country.
Beata Zawrzel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The United Nations has estimated that about 100,000 Ukrainians have already been displaced as a result of the Russian invasion, and that number could ultimately grow to 1 to 5 million. The international community is making preparations to meet their humanitarian needs — though perhaps not quickly enough.

Just hours after Russia’s assault began on Thursday morning, there were massive traffic jams, sold-out train tickets, and long lines at ATMs in Kyiv as people tried to flee with little clue as to how long they might be gone or if they’ll ever return.

“There is a significant movement of the population, but it is also hard to say whether people are moving permanently or for the short-term,” said Irina Saghoyan, the eastern Europe director for Save the Children, which has been on the ground in Ukraine since 2014.

A Ukrainian toddler looks out the window of the railway station in Przemysl, Poland, after arriving from Ukraine on February 25.
Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For now, central Europe is welcoming Ukrainians with open arms. Receiving countries include Poland, which is planning to accommodate up to 1 million Ukrainians, as well as Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Moldova, where 4,000 Ukrainians arrived on Thursday. But those countries aren’t currently equipped to handle the volume of refugees that are likely to arrive on their borders in the coming weeks, and European and US leadership need to scramble to help build up that capacity.

The primary receiving countries in central Europe simply don’t have the capacity to meet those needs on a large scale and on a prolonged basis. Poland, for example, only accepted about 5,200 refugees in the first nine months of 2021. A million is a big step up.

“The amount of resources being dedicated to this may not be sufficient to the full scope and scale of the crisis,” said Daniel Balson, the advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia for Amnesty International.

Ukrainians’ needs go beyond temporary provisions of food, clothing, and shelter that can sustain them through the cold weather. They are facing the prospect of long-term displacement, and that means they need formal pathways to legal status, access to resettlement services, permanent housing, education, and healthcare. They also need vaccination for Covid-19, which has ravaged Ukraine in recent months; only about 36 percent of Ukrainians are vaccinated.

European Union states will likely bear the brunt of any potential influx of Ukrainian refugees. That will require a lot of money and infrastructure that aid organizations can’t provide in full.

But there’s a role for the US, too. It can provide even more financial support and humanitarian aid than it already has. And while it has been helping to ensure that Ukrainians have a place to go, it also can help coordinate resettlement so no one country has to bear the entire burden, while also making it easier for Ukrainians to come to the US.

A Ukrainian hugs his 4-year-old granddaughter Diana, left, and his daughter Olena, right, after they crossed the border from Shehyni, Ukraine, into Medyka, Poland, on February 25.
Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

The time to act is now. The number of Ukrainians in need of humanitarian aid could balloon quickly, particularly given Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear in previous conflicts that he has no qualms about targeting civilians, like when he ordered airstrikes on Syrian civilian infrastructure in 2019. Indeed, he has already started bombing Ukrainian hospitals in violation of international humanitarian law.

Europe is welcoming refugees, unlike in past crises

Europe is facing down what could be its biggest refugee crisis since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees arrived on the continent. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday that the EU has been preparing to “welcome and host” potential Ukrainian refugees for weeks in coordination with front-line member states.

Von der Leyen said European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, the EU’s humanitarian arm, is ready to provide for the basic and immediate needs of internally displaced Ukrainians. And the EU will increase its financial assistance for refugees beyond the $1.2 billion in aid that is already available, though has yet to commit to an exact amount.

So far, Ukraine’s western neighbors have pledged to take in refugees fleeing Russia’s attack. On Thursday, Ukrainians began showing up on their borders by the thousands and there appear to be many more on the way given the crowded roadways.

Poland, the largest country on Ukraine’s western flank, is expected to be the primary destination for refugees. There are currently eight reception points along every border crossing where they can get food, medical assistance, and information. And there’s transport available to move them from those sites to other regions of the country if need be.

“We have a calling to ensure our national security, but also ensure the best conditions for Ukrainian citizens who will be seeking shelter in Poland from war,” the Polish deputy minister of internal affairs and administration Błażej Poboży told the media outlet Radio ZET in Polish on Thursday.

Volunteers feed refugees who just crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border in Medyka, Poland, on February 25.
Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Ukrainian citizens arrive in Romania after crossing the border in Siret, Romania, on February 25.
Alex Nicodim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Newly arrived Ukrainian refugees sit on a bus in Medyka, Poland, as they wait to be taken to a temporary shelter on February 25.
Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

But even countries that don’t directly border Ukraine have offered up support: Czech Republic, for instance, has offered to deploy its police force to Slovakia’s eastern border to help manage the influx of refugees.

This kind of mobilization across Europe to come to Ukrainians’ aid stands in contrast to past responses to migrant crises. Just months ago, Poland decided to utilize troops and construct a $400 million wall to repel predominantly Muslim asylum seekers at its border with Belarus. Over the past few years, Hungary has passed laws criminalizing support for asylum seekers and limiting the right to asylum and has allowed police to automatically expel any unauthorized migrants. And in 2015, the influx of Syrians fueled the rise of populist, anti-immigration, eurosceptic, and far-right parties across Europe.

Why is this time any different? EU countries might be more open to absorbing Ukrainians fleeing the wrath of their adversary. But there might also be more willingness to accept Ukrainians because they are white, European, and majority Christian, revealing the “troubling rise of nationalist movements rooted in fear of the other,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

There’s still a lot European countries need to work out, including finding more permanent accommodations for Ukrainians. That will involve developing a regional resettlement scheme and ensuring that the kind of overcrowding that occurred in Greece and Italy in 2015 doesn’t happen again. Ukrainians can stay in the EU without a visa for up to 90 days, but it’s an open question what kind of legal status they might get thereafter. That will need to be cleared up as well.

The US can support the humanitarian response in Europe

Geography dictates that central Europe will likely be the epicenter of the Ukrainian refugee crisis. But the US still has a role to play.

“The responsibility to support refugees and asylum seekers in Europe cannot fall squarely or exclusively on Europeans,” Balson said. “The US constantly talks about the need to show solidarity in various spheres; there’s a need for solidarity in support for asylum seekers.”

Ukrainian refugees rest on camp cots in a temporary shelter at the railway station in Przemysl, Poland, after arriving on a train from Kiev, Ukraine, on February 25.
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Many of the 5,500 US troops deployed to Poland have already been helping set up processing centers. But some migration experts in Poland have raised concerns that Poland has nowhere near the capacity to absorb 1 million refugees as it has promised. As of earlier this month, there were only 2,000 spots for refugees across all the centers operated by the government’s Office of Foreigners. The Polish border guard had room for only 800 people (its facilities can hold a total of 2,300), though authorities said they would be able to make additional spots available. It will need to do so, and quickly, and is likely to rely on international funds and personnel to make those expansions happen.

A State Department spokesperson told Vox on Wednesday that the US has been coordinating with the government of Ukraine, European allies, international organizations, and NGOs on contingency planning and preparedness efforts. It was engaging diplomatically to ensure neighboring countries keep their borders open to those seeking international protection. And it was “actively planning to augment ongoing US humanitarian support in Ukraine” in response to Russian aggression, they said. It’s not yet clear, however, what form that support will take.

The UN Refugee Agency, which has a longtime presence in Ukraine, has been asking the international community for $190 million in humanitarian assistance, a request that hadn’t yet been answered as of Wednesday. That would help fund the agency’s 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan for Ukraine and meet the needs of an estimated 1.8 million people, nearly half of which are children or elderly, said Shabia Mantoo, a spokesperson for the agency.

Congress could also work to pass an emergency supplemental bill that would provide further resources for US embassies in affected countries. That would increase the effectiveness of relocation pipelines and provide further support to Ukrainians and other impacted individuals in the region, O’Mara Vignarajah said.

And though the US government has said that Putin has closed the door to diplomacy, Saghoyan said there is an urgent need to negotiate for a humanitarian corridor that would allow people who want to leave the country to do so safely and for humanitarian groups to continue to operate in Ukraine without fear of reprisal or harm after military activity subsides. On Thursday, safety concerns forced Save the Children to close its offices in Ukraine, which according to Saghoyan have served more than 350,000 children since 2014, though it is still partnering with civil society groups on the ground to assist displaced people.

Ukrainians wait on the road after crossing the border into Siret, Romania, on February 25.
Alex Nicodim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

How the US could welcome Ukrainians

There are policies that the US can pursue stateside that would help some Ukrainians resettle in the US.

Biden could immediately and unilaterally increase the number of spots allocated to Europeans under the US refugee admissions program. That number is capped at 10,000 for the current fiscal year, and as of January 31, 335 of those slots had already been filled, mostly by Ukrainians. But it can take months or even years to come to the US as a refugee, which might be too long for Ukrainians in crisis. And the capacity of the US refugee program abroad continues to be limited due to pandemic-era shutdowns and Trump administration cutbacks.

“The Biden administration should aggressively focus on rebuilding the processing efficiency and capacity of the refugee program abroad, which has continued to lag throughout its first year in office,” O’Mara Vignarajah said.

Biden could also provide temporary protected status to Ukrainians who have already arrived in the US, which would temporarily shield them from deportation and allow them to work legally. That kind of status is typically offered to citizens of countries suffering from armed conflicts like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are an estimated 30,000 Ukrainians already living in the US who do not have American citizenship or other kinds of permanent status.

Ukrainian refugee Hanna Drohantschuk waits with her children, Sofia and Viktor, to be taken to a temporary shelter after crossing into Medyka, Poland, on February 25.
Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

Biden can also allow Ukrainians to come to the US on humanitarian parole, which allows people facing urgent humanitarian need to enter and stay in the US without a visa. The benefit of parole is that it can be approved within a matter of days or hours, as opposed to the many months or years it typically takes to process a visa. It’s the same mechanism that allowed tens of thousands of Afghans to come to the US following the American withdrawal last year.

But given that the airports in Ukraine are now closed or destroyed by Russia and Biden has said that his administration will not carry out an evacuation, it’s not clear if any significant number of Ukrainians would be able to reach the US even if any of those immigration pathways were available. That makes the US’s imperative to support the humanitarian response in receiving nations in Europe even stronger.


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