Lviv, Ukraine – February 26, 2022. People in railway station of western Ukrainian city of Lviv waiting for the train to Poland. (Shutterstock)
By Linda Nwoke
It’s been over twelve days since the commencement of Russia’s offensive attack and onslaught against Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The UN reports more than 1400 civilian casualties, including adults and children injured or killed. There is an exodus of more than 2.3 million Ukrainian refugees and an estimate of over 4 million over time. Ukrainians will contribute to the increasing statistics of over 80 million people displaced worldwide. Observers and experts are now questioning the potential impact of this crisis, on the short term and the future, with concerns like impact on the immigrants and refugees, host countries, and ways to prepare.
A discussion organized by the Ethnic Media Services and moderated by Pilar Marrero- journalist and author, addressed these concerns. Among experts covering front-line events at the border and research institutions working on migrants’ country-based policies. Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, Associate Director at Migration Policy Institute, shared some of the findings her organization has observed over the years on the crisis in Ukraine.
Before the recent attack from Russia, Ukraine managed one of the largest IDP populations in the world caused by Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Therefore, Ukrainians were facing challenges of social cohesion, national identity, and political participation, leading to scattering people all over the continent, especially as students and a vast Ukrainian existence in the diaspora. The attack on Ukraine has activated specific responses which were in the pipeline.
Seeking Legal Status
The crisis around the region resulted in neighboring countries developing and implementing a robust Temporary Protection Status that favors Ukrainians but does not cover other refugees or asylum seekers. Commencing from March 4, there is an agreement that allows Ukrainians 3 years temporary protection status, which will enable them to access the labor market. Non-Ukraine Migrants or refugees will be admitted into the EU states for passage to their countries of origin. Other Non-EU countries like Canada have also declared new policies and pathways, including options like the expanded family unification program for the refugees or immigrants.
Hence leads to the situation at the border where non-Ukrainians, Stateless people, and ROMA are disqualified for temporary protection in the EU, leading to increased discrimination cases.
The Case of Discrimination
Natalia said factors such as people not having a biometric passport, racial profiling, and undocumented non-Ukrainians also contributed to the discrimination incidence. “The emergency mechanisms were only set up for mainly Ukrainian nationals,” says Natalia. So non-Ukrainian nationals like Russians fleeing their country will have to apply separately for Asylum since there is no provision made for them or other refugees from other countries.”
Implication for Initial Solidarity
At the moment, the generosity expressed by people worldwide might seem eternal. However, this might wane over time, as people feel ‘generosity fatigue,’ especially at the increasing number of refugees. “There should also be the anticipation of a knock-on effect on refugee crises from other parts of the world.”
Manuel Ortiz, a reporter, and journalist for Ethnic Media Services and Peninsula 360 Press, reported firsthand experiences from the Ukrainian borders. Regarding the challenges people were facing, the restricted movement was the most pronounced. Manuel explains, “It’s difficult to enter Ukraine to deliver medical supplies or render support, especially as the recent attack comes closer to the West, relatively safe.”
Regrettably, people are becoming worried about their safety. Many leave the relatively safe western Ukraine to Poland and Romania as attacks step up and draw closer. “Various people are going to Poland and Romania. However, many elderly and disabled are staying back because they cannot make the 30 hour journey to these locations,” he said. Most of the trips are undertaken by women, some with kids and pets. They rarely are their unaccompanied kids fleeing the location alone.
Once they reach the border, there is enormous solidarity -food, medical supply, comfort, and various sources. “Before the attack, the Polish appeared very divided, but with the attack, they have joined forces to help Ukrainians,” he reported.
Although Poland has few shelters, there are adequate provisions for the refugees with people staying in houses, taking up offers on Airbnb, or occupying available spaces donated by the people. Manuel affirmed the potential problem of ‘generosity fatigue’ setting in with time as the attack rages and more people seek safety. “People didn’t want to leave because they didn’t expect any attack,” he says, “but now people want to leave, tension is increasing, and more and more people are starting to leave.”
Psychological Disposition of Ukrainians
There is a mix of distinct reactions among the Ukrainians. At the same time, those at the border want to go back and fight to save their country. Those facing the onslaught remain resilient despite the ominous military presence.
“Many have told me that they want to fight. Some women want to go back to fight for their country,” Manuel reports. “In Ukraine, it is very silent even in a massive-line, people work silently, people don’t talk.”
He painted a picture of a city with a lot of tension and military checkpoints. “It is not everyday life,” Manuel concludes.
The abnormality of the situation extends to the lack of precaution against contracting COVID-19. “Everyone says we are not worried about COVID right now. No one is using a mask, and even those using it like the journalists seem strange wearing their masks around.”
Other issues like Moscow’s misinformation and propaganda seem inconsequential to the people because “People are more concerned on how to leave, stay safe or save their pets.”
National Responses Towards Protecting Refugees
Since the onset of the Russian invasion, several countries have rallied around to support Ukrainians, including smaller ones. Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, pointed out that migration into some smaller countries like Moldova might eventually lead to another crisis. For instance, as the crisis progresses and the pressure on resources and infrastructure increases, people from the host nations might start seeking alternatives. Now, countries like Poland are beginning to struggle. As the US House approves over $13.3 billion as support for the Ukrainians, the scenario will continue to change.
Potential Scenarios and Consequences for Nations
There are two possible situations as the attack progresses. In a best-case scenario, the Russian invasion will fail, and Ukrainians will be able to return to their country to rebuild their nation.
In such a scenario, refugees might not want to travel far into other countries like the US. Other factors like cultural issues apply.
Natalia explains that the more protracted and prolonged the displacement, the more difficult it becomes to return to new relationships and build a new life. “Support for one refugee population does not apply to a refugee’s situation because people have personal reasons for seeking asylum such as cultural proximity, cultural differences,” she says. So, they will prefer to stay in countries like Poland or Germany.
“Therefore, even though the US initiated the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) and accompanying Visa for a time like this,” Krish explains, “which is not as robust as the TPS status offered by other countries to Ukrainians, it still might suffice.” However, in a worst-case scenario, she further explained, “where there is a significant uptick in the attack, there will be more refugees than the estimated 4 million to 7 million.”
As earlier stated, the initial solidarity and humanitarian response to the Ukrainians began to wane in Europe. A backlash will set in. The US must step up with a more robust ‘Refugee program” that will accommodate higher numbers of refugees despite the annual cap that the president sets.
Krish notes that there are concerns about the possibility of political calculations in managing TPS awards to Ukrainians compared to other immigration cases. The concerns range from the perception of different treatment options for refugees seeking Temporary Protection Status, dealing with application backlogs, and working with unreviewed policies like Title 42.
According to Krish, ” I don’t see policy changing anytime soon, and it is worrisome. ”
Therefore, as millions flee Ukraine seeking protection and assistance in various countries, the ongoing voluntary aid must be supported. The government should continue to mobilize resources to sustain immediate needs.
Policymakers across the European Union (EU) and the United States need to continue reviewing appropriate responses for the short and long term. A good example is the unanimously approved Temporary Protection Directive that provides immediate protection and rights, enhances responsibility-sharing, and reduces pressures on national asylum systems among member countries. Additionally, preparing for the longer-term effect of the inevitable displacements through reviewed internal policies and faster administrative procedures within countries.