On “Fox News Sunday” Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that “Any day now, Russia could take military action against Ukraine.” Of course, the Biden administration has been preparing for this for weeks with troop movements, sanctions threats, and attempts to find energy replacements for Russian gas. However, one area getting little attention is the potential for one to five million Ukrainian refugees to flee the potential conflict. They would flee into other states in Europe that are ill-prepared to take them in.
Over the last decade, Europe has struggled to handle refugee flows coming from conflict in the Middle East and central Asia. Germany currently hosts 800,000 Syrian refugees, which dwarfs other European countries who have taken in fewer refugees combined. The conditions that these refugees are living in are grim. Other than the chance of freezing, drowning, or living in squalor in refugee processing centers, refugees in Europe face the potential of meeting their torturers in the street. In recent weeks, Denmark has even begun to push for refugees to return to their war torn homeland.
European governments have struggled to do more for these refugees. Public sentiment is mixed across the continent. For example, then-Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel got massive blowback from her decision to allow in refugees. The Syrian refugee crisis also helped add fuel to the fire of far right movements already gaining steam across the continent. Additionally, it does not help that the Syrian refugee crisis came sandwiched between an economic crisis and the pandemic. While Ukrainian refugees have Visa-free access into the European Union, they unfortunately are in the worst geographic position when it comes to refugee assistance.
Ukraine’s European Union neighbors include Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova. These countries are struggling on their own with per capita gross domestic product being in the bottom half of Europe. So, managing over one to five million Ukrainian refugees would be difficult even if they wanted to. The bigger problem is that they might not. During burden-sharing discussions over the Syrian refugee crisis, Hungary and Poland took no refugees. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban even built a border fence as a symbol for his efforts to keep refugees out. More recently, during the tensions between Poland and Belarus, Belarus “weaponized” refugees by forcibly moving more than 33,000 Middle Eastern refugees across the border. Poland, with support from the European Union, accepted almost none of these refugees.
It is expected that most refugees will flee to Poland should Russia invade Ukraine and some argue that Poland is more likely to accept Ukrainian refugees than Middle Eastern ones. Of course, more than 250,000 Ukrainians already live in Poland and Poland’s Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wąsik has said “We have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and [we have] been taking steps so as to be prepared for a wave of up to a million people.”However, saying the right thing and doing the right thing are significantly different. Following the seizure of Crimea by Russia, over 1.4 million Ukrainians were displaced from their homes and roughly 2,000 sought refuge in Poland. Of those, only one percent of applications for asylum were accepted. In addition, following years of not accepting many refugees, a significant amount of effort will be necessary to train bureaucrats, set up processing centers, and successfully resettle even a limited number of refugees-let alone millions of them. If Poland and Europe more broadly are going to prepare for the worst, more must be done to consider the humanitarian fall-out and not just the military one.
The first thing that should be done is to prepare for the logistical challenges that can be anticipated. Poland only has 10 refugee centers that can house 2,000 refugees. U.S. troops currently mobilized in Poland are building access points for themselves and could be retooled to assist Polish forces in creating temporary refugee processing and rehouseing capacity. Even in the best of circumstances, there is no way that Poland will be able to absorb all of the refugees fleeing violence in Ukraine. As the world saw in Afghanistan, merely airlifting citizens from a warzone is a tall task. The U.S. should work with our NATO allies and others in the region to set up a plan that would effectively transport refugees to pre-ordained processing centers, in countries across the region. This will help speed processing and prevent the maladies that often follow large groups of people fleeing for their lives and corralled into a single location.
Of course, a prerequisite to coordinating logistics is to coordinate the ultimate destination of these refugees. The European Union has attempted a number of different refugee burden-sharing agreements but they have mostly failed to actually effectively share the burden. There are a few ways to potentially break the logjam on this. The first is to make the agreement small and focused on this as a singular conflict. This might help avoid the racism and bigotry that has flowed from the talks around Middle Eastern refugees. A second way is to tie cash outflows from the EU to hitting refugee targets. Germany and other northern European states are known for being incredibly austerie when it comes to supporting their more profligate spending southern neighbors. If Germans and Danes do not want to take on more refugees, they need to open their wallets.
Third, the United States should offer to join a refugee resettlement agreement. President Biden has raised the U.S. refugee cap to 125,000 which is the largest it has been in almost 30 years, but it is still lower than it was in 1980 and 1981. In addition, the cap is only a problem if we actually accept enough refugees to hit the cap – which we have done only seven times in the last 40 years. In that same time period, the U.S. GDP grew by more than 600% while our population only grew by 45%. The United States has the money and the space to bring in more refugees and should use that to unlock space for refugees closer to their home country.
The final way to break the logjam on a European refugee burden sharing arrangement is a cultural one. Poland and Hungary have been blockers to deals in the past due to their hard right governments. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is incredibly vocal about his desire to make Hungary a bastion for Christianity and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party draws its strength from conservative Catholic voters in Poland. So it is common for both to make arguments against Muslim refugees. However, fortunately for those who care about human rights, Pope Francis is incredibly pro-refugee. President Biden should work with the Holy See to encourage a Papal visit to Poland and Hungary where the Pope can be outspoken on these issues. It would be incredibly hard for Orban and the leaders of Poland to reject the teachings of the Pope while claiming to be protecting Christianity within their borders.
Moving forward, longer-term solutions are necessary to fix the creaking refugee system. There are no easy solutions but one potential path forward is for countries, or groups of countries, to create shared resources. For example,a refugee response reserve corps, trained on bureaucratic procedures for refugee processing and resettlement, that could be deployed in a similar way as the national guard in times of crisis. By paying these humanitarian workers, it might also support community based organizations that assist refugees long after the initial crisis is out of the headlines.
While the future of the ongoing crisis on the border of Ukraine is unclear, what is clear is that Europe is ill-prepared to handle the massive influx of refugees that a full-scale Russian invasion would create. In order to be prepared not just for the military response but for the humanitarian one, the U.S. needs to work with our allies and partners in Europe to respond to refugees’ needs at every point from processing through resettlement and beyond.