Russian invasion of Ukraine could trigger refugee crisis in Europe

Following months of a military buildup along the borders of Ukraine, Russia began a major military offensive in that country on Thursday.

As missiles began falling on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, which is home to at least 3 million people, thousands were seen trying to flee the city in traffic jams that stretched for miles. U.S. intelligence services have warned that the unrest could signal the beginning of what could be the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since nearly a million Syrians, seeking to escape a civil war in their home country, flooded across the continent in 2015.

Pentagon officials estimate that a nationwide attack on Ukraine by Russian troops could result in 1 million to 5 million refugees. Many Ukrainians are expected to flee to Poland and other neighboring central European nations, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a right-wing populist with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was among the world leaders who condemned Moscow’s actions on Thursday. He said Hungary was preparing humanitarian aid for Ukraine and was ready to accept refugees.

To help prepare for the anticipated influx of refugees, the Biden administration had also deployed nearly 5,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to Poland. U.S. military officials told the New York Times that the troops have been converting several Polish military facilities to receive and provide shelter for tens of thousands of evacuees, including Americans, who are expected to flee Ukraine. According to officials, just a few people had sought to use the facilities on Thursday, but the number is expected to rise sharply as the conflict intensifies and expands in the coming days.

“People are afraid. There’s mortar fire landing near their houses and they’re getting in their cars and they’re leaving,” Erol Yayboke, director and senior fellow for the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Yahoo News. “That doesn’t immediately mean that they’re refugees. Refugees are only when they cross an international border,” he added.

Lines of cars in a huge traffic jam as people try to leave Kyiv.
People are stuck in a traffic jam as they try to leave Kyiv in the direction of the western parts of Ukraine on Thursday. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

Yayboke said that at the moment, most Ukrainians who are affected by the conflict are driving to Ukrainian cities in the west, such as Lviv, to get out of harm’s way. The problem, he added, was that Russia has launched its military offensive in virtually all sections of the country, closing off many internal escape routes.

“It’s sort of like [they’re] surrounded,” he said, adding, “And so that question: ‘Where is safety? Where, where can I go to, to provide safety for my family?’”

As the invasion wears on, more Ukrainians will begin looking to find safety outside the country, Yayboke said.

“You’re gonna start seeing people leave Ukraine for Moldova, Poland, Romania and elsewhere,” he said.

Some Ukrainians have already started trickling into Poland, according to some reports. That makes sense given that it is already home to around 1 million of them and is the easiest country to access from Kyiv.

Refugee agencies have also been preparing for the fallout from a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of global public affairs of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), told Yahoo News that it has been actively coordinating with its partner organization in Ukraine, Right to Protection, on contingency plans and responses.

“We’re starting to talk about how we can make sure that we can provide humanitarian assistance to those people, including emergency response kind of activities like cash, food, blankets, transportation assistance and things like that,” Nezer said. “All of these things are under discussion right now,” she added.

Founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS is one of the world’s oldest refugee aid organizations. In 2001, HIAS established an office in Ukraine to help Ukrainian Jews and other religious minorities seeking to migrate to the United States, and then later began assisting people who were seeking asylum in Ukraine.

Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, humanitarian organizations like HIAS have helped vulnerable populations in Ukraine. According to estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently at least 1.6 million refugees and asylum seekers living in Ukraine.

Ukrainian servicemen are seen next to a destroyed armored vehicle that they said belongs to the Russian army.
Ukrainian servicemen next to a destroyed armored vehicle that they said belongs to the Russian army, outside Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Maksim Levin/Reuters)

“There are lots and lots of Ukrainians that are already living in displacement. They have already been forced from home, so those people are going to be at most immediate risk now because where do they have to go?” Yayboke said. “Not everybody is gonna be able to get out, and so there are going to be people coming across fire, and getting humanitarian assistance to those people I think is going to be exceedingly and increasingly difficult.”

In the short term, Yayboke believes efforts by central European nations and the American troops in Poland to receive Ukrainian refugees will likely be enough. However, he says these are only temporary solutions, and that there will be many hurdles ahead.

“The challenge with these displacement scenarios is that you wish that it was only going to be a couple of weeks and that they could go home, but who knows how long this is going to go on,” Yayboke said.

The Biden administration has yet to announce a plan to accommodate refugees fleeing from the current conflict to the United States, but Ukrainians have been welcomed by America for decades. In fact, in 2019, during the Trump administration, the U.S. resettled more nationals from Ukraine than it did almost any other nationality, even though at the time Ukraine wasn’t even one of UNHCR’s places “of concern.”

Most of the Ukrainian refugees to the U.S. in recent decades came under the Lautenberg Amendment, a law enacted by Congress in 1990 to provide a clear path to refuge for Christians and Jews fleeing religious persecution in the former Soviet Union.

Yayboke says it is not clear whether this new wave of Ukrainian refugees will have to go through a similar resettlement process or one that is streamlined. However, he believes that there will be increasing calls from the refugee advocacy community, the think tank community and academics to admit more Ukrainians. “Providing a place, a safe haven for these people to go in the United States should be and will likely be on the table,” he said.