Staggering Ukrainian refugee numbers show no sign of slowing

Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press
An elderly woman sits in a refugee center at the Global Expo, in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The exodus of 5 million people from Ukraine has raised questions over just how large the refugee crisis may grow as the conflict there nears the two-month mark.

Russia shows no signs of abetting its invasion, instead pushing even further West into Ukraine, piercing an aura of relative safety and spurring enough migration to top the 5 million benchmark that U.S. intelligence agencies had originally predicted would be the high end of potential displacement. 

The figures also renew focus on Europe’s ability to handle the surge, especially in Poland, which has thus far accepted more than half of Ukraine’s refugees. 

“Having just crossed the grim milestone of 5 million refugees from Ukraine it’s concerning that there’s no end in sight,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. 

“I’m incredibly fearful of what capacity remains in terms of Europe’s ability to welcome additional refugees.” 

The mayors of Poland’s two largest cities warned in mid-March that they were nearing capacity, but refugee totals since have showed little sign of slowing.  

The 5 million figure means that more than 10 percent of Ukrainians have fled the country, though millions more remain internally displaced and could be poised to add to the refugee totals as conditions in the country deteriorate. 

“If 10 to 15 percent of the population has fled, that means 85 to 90 percent of the population is still there, and we very well could still be at the beginning of war,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director with the International Refugee Assistance Project. 

“So much is unpredictable depending on the war and depending on Russia’s targeting of civilians and various groups and the use of torture — it just depends, and is hard to predict.” 

In many ways, Europe’s response to the crisis has been unprecedented. 

The European Union invoked for the first time ever its Temporary Protection Directive, which provides immediate temporary residency and work authorization to those who might otherwise face significant wait times through the asylum process.  

But even with the freedom to go anywhere in Europe, officials have seen a clustering of Ukrainians near the border.  

It’s a common effect in such crises, but one that has been exacerbated by a Ukrainian directive to men ages 18 to 65 not to exit the country, leaving women and children hesitant to stray far from family in hopes of reuniting. 

“A lot of Ukrainians don’t even want to move further [west] from the border countries in Eastern Europe because this is a situation where women and children are separated from their husbands, fathers, brothers,” a U.S. official told reporters Thursday while rolling out a program that would allow Ukrainians to come to the U.S. on a temporary basis, rather than through the long-term refugee program. 

But the clustering could lead to some issues, despite the outpouring of support already seen across Europe at both the government and individual level. 

“We talk about empathy fatigue, solidarity fatigue where the challenges that people in these host communities face themselves on a daily basis, especially in countries that have maybe smaller economies or problems with unemployment or economic issues, you start to see some tensions arise and people develop a sense of competition with refugees and migrants,” said Daphne Panayotatos, an advocate for Europe at Refugees International. 

And while the initial wave of refugees was able to quickly move through so-called reception centers within hours or days to stay with friends and relatives, the latest influx of Ukrainians may not be as connected.  

“There are now people coming out of Ukraine who don’t have as many resources or contacts and networks outside of Ukraine. The need for perhaps longer-term accommodation is really becoming a big problem,” she said. 

Rachel Levitan, vice president for international policy and relations with HAIS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said discussions among EU members are in the very early stages of how to aid those who may be open to moving further west in Europe. 

“There are challenges in how to absorb such large numbers,” Levitan said. 

“I don’t think that they’re at a stage where they want to force relocation at this time. But eventually, Poland may reach out and say, ‘Look, we’re at capacity. Period. We need support from other member states to absorb the number of Ukrainians that are willing to leave,’ ” she added.   

“There may be a need for Europe to institute some system that would facilitate relocation of these very densely populated areas inside Poland if they ask for that support. But we’re not there yet.” 

The response from Europe, especially in the east, has highlighted the small scale of the U.S. response. 

Vignarajah said Moldova has accepted one Ukrainian refugee for every 25 of its own citizens, given that roughly 100,000 Ukrainians now plan to remain there. 

“It’s important to kind of understand what the U.S. committed to against that backdrop, because if we were to apply that ratio, a ratio of 1 to 25 here in the U.S., that would mean that we’d be accepting roughly 13 million,” she said.  

“It was important that President Biden committed the U.S. to accepting up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. But that figure can’t be aspirational. It needs to be the bare minimum of what we do.”  

Advocates have grown concerned that the White House hasn’t yet been clear about how it plans to ramp up processing and resources for the unfolding crisis. 

Last fiscal year the Biden administration resettled the lowest number of international refugees in the history of its program after it atrophied under President Trump, but so far there is little sign Biden will get anywhere close to his goal of reaching 125,000 refugees, which is separate from his Ukraine commitment. So far this fiscal year, the U.S. has resettled just 8,758 people, according to the latest figures. 

The U.S. accepted just 12 Ukrainian refugees in March through what’s known as the Lautenberg program, which allows religious minorities to apply for the U.S. refugee program from within their country rather than having to flee to another one.  

But so far it looks like the U.S. has little appetite for addressing Ukrainians through its refugee program, as the Biden administration on Thursday morning announced it would create a new humanitarian parole program for Ukrainians, allowing those with U.S.-based sponsors to enter the country on just a temporary two-year basis.   

The Biden administration has taken other steps to provide a safe haven for Ukrainians.  

Just days into the invasion, it offered temporary protected status (TPS) for Ukrainians already in the U.S., allowing them to remain another 18 months without fear of deportation. 

The move was initially most beneficial to those on student and temporary work visas, but the Department of Homeland Security recently extended the date by which those eligible for TPS must have been in the U.S., expanding eligibility of the program to 60,000 Ukrainians. 

But such programs don’t include the same government funding for support that aids organizations in supplying housing, job placement assistance and other resources designed to help refugees as they resettle in the U.S.  

“That was our big concern, and we and other NGOs have been pushing for quite some time on the Biden administration to make sure that they did use the refugee admissions program and not a form of something like parole that would not provide the same level of support and stability as people need,” Panayotatos said. 

Tags Russia Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Ukraine crisis Ukraine invasion Ukraine war Ukrainian refugee crisis

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