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We Must Do More: The Refugee Crisis in Ukraine

While fighting intensifies across cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukrainians are desperate to find a haven from the horrors of war. As each day goes by, more and more people are forced to make the impossible decision to leave their homes behind – all due to Putin’s senseless aggression against his neighbor.

In the past week, over 1 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries. Over 1 million people have left their country behind altogether, while the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is presently impossible to even calculate. However, the situation is far from over, and the refugees are still coming – it is anticipated that the number of international asylum-seekers could rise to 4 million in the coming weeks, while an approximate 12 million people are anticipated to be displaced or in need of aid within the country.

In a statement released on March 3, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said, “I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one.”

Where are displaced Ukrainians going? The majority have crossed into Poland, which has single-handedly processed around half of the total displaced persons who have crossed an international border so far. Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, Romania, and even Russia and Belarus have taken in large numbers, as well. Approximately 90,000 have since crossed from these initial countries to other European states.

To provide aid to these refugees and IDPs, the U.N. is seeking $1.7 billion to provide humanitarian support. This amount, however, will not be enough to benefit all Ukrainians needing this support. While $1.1 billion is intended to help those in need within Ukraine, it is only expected to provide aid to around 6 million people – half of the projected IDP count. Additionally, this amount is only intended to last for around three months. The remaining $550 million, requested by the Refugee Response Plan (RRP) for the Ukraine situation, is reserved for those who have sought asylum in neighboring countries.

To allow easier accessibility for asylum seekers, Poland has waived passport requirements for Ukrainians. Additionally, Ukrainian citizens do not need visas to travel within the Schengen area as of 2017. However, crossing the border has proved to be challenging for those seeking asylum. Al Jazeera reported on Feb. 27 that some Ukrainians have waited to cross the Polish border for over 24 hours, facing freezing winter temperatures and limited access to food and water.

However, as the global community faces this crisis, the U.S. government has done little to help Ukrainians seeking refuge internationally from the war. While the Biden administration pledged on March 3 to offer Temporary Protection Status (TPS) from deportation to approximately 30,000 Ukrainian nationals living in the United States, it has not yet made a decision to allow the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees within its borders.

The refugee resettlement system in the United States is deeply flawed, and it has regressed in recent years. In the early 1980s, the refugee ceiling in the United States was set at around 200,000 refugees annually. Since then, the numbers of refugees that the U.S. has been willing to accept has been largely trending downwards, bottoming out at a mere 18,000 under the Trump administration in 2020. The number of refugees globally doubled between the years of 2011 and 2020, rising from 10 million to 20 million. However, during the same period, the numbers of resettlement for refugees globally decreased by more than half.

While the Biden administration has begun to raise the refugee ceiling back to previous levels, the number of refugees resettled in the United States has not been consistent with the ceiling increase. In 2021, the Biden administration set the ceiling at 62,500 refugees, yet it only accepted 11,400 – the lowest number of refugees resettled since the U.S. refugee resettlement program formally began with the Refugee Act of 1980.

The United States has historically served as a global leader in refugee resettlement, and it has remained the top resettlement destination by sheer numbers (though not by per capita resettlement rate), the issue has become politicized in a way that helping innocent people should never be. In 2020, for example, Gov. Greg Abbot of Texas announced that the state would no longer accept refugees for resettlement, though this decision was later overturned in federal court.

When the world faced the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, Senator John McCain was an advocate for those displaced by war. When some members of his party argued that the United States should only accept Christian refugees, McCain opposed this, saying that “all children are God’s children.” During this crisis, he blasted the Obama administration on its inaction regarding Syrian refugees.

Many American people and organizations are helping to provide aid and support to Ukrainians; charitable organizations such as World Central Kitchen are serving hot meals to those waiting at border crossings, and military veterans are answering President Zelenskyy’s call for volunteers from across the world in helping Ukraine fight for its freedom. The Biden administration has asked Congress to approve $10 billion in additional humanitarian aid. But while these actions are all commendable, the U.S. government must do more to help civilians who have been forced to leave Ukraine behind altogether.

Due to Vladimir Putin’s reprehensible actions in Ukraine, refugees will continue to cross into neighboring countries. As the situation in Ukraine continues to develop in the coming months, the United States has a moral responsibility to rekindle its refugee resettlement efforts and serve as a global leader on the issue by welcoming those who seek asylum with open arms. We must do more to help those whose lives have been upended by this heinous war, and refugee resettlement is a critical element of these efforts.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Annie Faulkner
Publish Date
March 8, 2022