Lviv, Ukraine –The refugees arriving at the famous Art Nouveau railway terminal in Lviv are subdued. Mothers with children, elders too old to fight, and the disabled have traveled for more than a day to get here. The last leg of their exodus will be by bus.
“This morning we heard the sirens. It was very tense. People here don’t talk too much; just walk very silent. There are a lot of people coming from many places, “ said Manuel Ortiz Escamez, a researcher and journalist from Mexico.
Ortiz said it’s a 1½ hour ride to Poland from Lviv where the refugees get off the bus and then walk across the border with everything they can carry. Ukrainians wait in line for about 1-2 hours to get their passports stamped; non-Ukrainians wait 5-6 hours because they need visas to travel in the European Union.
About 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled since the Russian invasion began February 24. That is the entire population of Paris and then some. Close to 1.6 million Ukrainians went to Poland. The rest have landed in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Bulgaria.
Warsaw’s mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, said at the beginning 95% of the arrivals went to stay with family or friends. Now it’s about 70% and authorities in Warsaw and Krakow say they can’t absorb any more refugees without more resources.
Poland’s border guards said the number of refugees dropped Saturday to 17,000, down from 25,400 on Friday. The European Council unanimously voted to grant protection to Ukrainians for up to 3 years. They will get housing, medical care, and work visa, Children can attend schools in EU countries.
“The flows across the borders are mostly women and children. Male Ukrainian citizens, ages 18-60, are not being let out of the country. This really distinguishes this cross border flow from other displacement crises we’ve seen in the past.,” said Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, Associate Director of the Migration Policy Institute.
In the usual case single men cross first, find work and housing before sending for their wives and children. She said before the latest Russian invasion Ukrainians were already one of the largest groups of labor migrants in the European Union (EU).
“Fifty-five percent of total resident permits awarded to non-EU nationals went to Ukrainians, most of whom went to Poland. Ukraine is also one of the largest sources of foreign students in the EU,” Banulescu-Bogdan said.
It’s a mixed bag at the border. On one hand this evacuation is much going much smoother compared to other conflicts. All of Ukraine’s neighbors have maintained open borders since 2017. Ukrainians enjoy visa-free travel for 90 days within the EU.
“That is not the case for the estimate 470,000 foreign nationals living in Ukraine including 76,000 international students who won’t qualify for temporary protection in the EU,” she said.
About 400,000 Roma have fled Ukraine and they are officially stateless because they have no papers and they will not be able to return to Ukraine until hostilities cease. The speed and scale of the refugee flow exiting Ukraine is unprecedented.
“Even though Ukrainians can travel within the EU without a visa, people will have to register to get special protection. This won’t happen automatically. People will have to go to the right office in the country and cities they find themselves in, and so we also have to think about what kind of information is being provided to people when they cross,” Banulescu-Bogdan said.
What role the U.S. will play in the refugee crisis depends on a number of things. The Biden administration has already announced $107 million in humanitarian aid to Poland. The U.S. Congress recently approved a $13.6 billion aid package for Ukraine and just under a half of that is for humanitarian assistance.
“In a best case scenario the Russian invasion would ultimately fail and then the Ukrainians will be able to return to rebuild once it’s safe to do so,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO of the U.S. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
She said we shouldn’t assume that everyone who has left the country would even want to come to the U.S. The U.S. has a temporary protective status program but it only grants refugees work permits, not other social services EU countries are offering the Ukrainians.
“In a worst case scenario where Russia is frustrated by its lack of progress and we see further attacks….we expect a larger and sustained exodus perhaps in excess of the U.N’s projection of 4 million refugees. One EU commissioner put the total at a possible 7 million,“ O’Mara Vignarajah said.
If that occurs she said Europe’s capacity and willingness to accommodate that many refugees may wane; we could see compassion fatigue set in or even a backlash.
“That where it’s going to be critical for the U.S. to step in in a more robust and direct way. So If and when that comes to pass the US needs to be ready with a refugee program that is nimble and prepared to accommodate much higher numbers. That capacity, I would say, exists but it will still require some work,” she said.
The U.S. refugee mission program began in 1980. The President sets a cap on the number of refugees each year who apply from a third country. That is not the same as asylum seekers who come to the border seeking refuge. Historically, the number is around 95,000 but during the Trump years it dropped to 15,000.
In its first year, the Biden administration has allowed 12,000 people to resettle in the U.S. The current limit is set as 125,000 but in the first 5 months of the current fiscal year, the U.S. has resettled only 6500 refugees.
The on again off again talks between Ukraine and Russia will go nowhere unless the U.S. takes an active part in the negotiations, according to Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT and currently Laureate Professor at the University of Arizona.
In a recent interview, Chomsky said Zelensky has signaled that joining NATO is not an option for Ukraine. That has not been widely reported in the West.
“He also insisted, rightly, that the opinions of people in the Donbas region, now occupied by Russia, should be a critical factor in determining some form of settlement,” Chomsky said.
Putin has not accepted Ukraine’s proposals for a ceasefire and to get the Russians to withdraw because the U.S. continues to insist on Ukraine’s sovereign right to join NATO. Chomsky said the war is not likely to end soon because the U.S. “is not willing to try”.