FAIR Issue Brief | An Overview of the Mounting Ukrainian Refugee Crisis
Pawel Styrna, Senior Researcher | March 2022
On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin’s Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, creating a geopolitical crisis and a humanitarian disaster that threatens to destabilize Europe. Large numbers of Ukrainians have fled or are actively fleeing the now war-torn nation or are temporarily unable to return. Others, however, are returning to Ukraine to join the war effort.
The invasion and its fallout will undoubtedly impact immigration policymaking in the United States. On March 3, the Biden administration quickly granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ukrainians in the United States, a decision that was made in response to an aggressive push that began as soon as Russian tanks and soldiers violated Ukraine’s sovereign borders. While the United States has always willingly assisted the victims of war, we must ensure that such temporary programs do indeed remain temporary, rather than what they have been for the past three decades – constantly renewed de facto amnesties.
The recent Russian offensive is not the first time the Kremlin has attacked Ukraine (or another neighboring nation). In 2014, Russia took over Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula while Russian-backed separatists established breakaway “independent” pro-Russian republics in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Now Moscow turned that “frozen” conflict into a red hot one. But the history goes even further.
Both Ukrainians and Russians can trace their roots back to the Medieval Kievan Rus state. Following the Mongol invasions, both embarked on increasingly divergent political-cultural paths. Moscow was strongly influenced by the Mongol Horde and its ruthless governing style, while the lands of modern-day Ukraine came under Western European cultural influence.1 Russia subsequently conquered most of Ukraine but failed to erase its separate identity.
Following the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, Ukraine was forcibly integrated into the Soviet Union and suffered seven decades of brutal communist oppression. This included the infamous Terror-Famine (Holodomor) that killed between 4 and 7 million Ukrainians.2 Not surprisingly, as the USSR imploded, 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence in December 1991.
Because of the long history of Russian invasion and occupation, the Ukrainian people are not taking their independence and sovereignty for granted. Moscow’s view of President Joe Biden as weak – based on everything from his refusal to secure America’s own borders to his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan – has only emboldened Putin, convincing him that now is the time to make a high-risk move in his long-term strategy to rebuild the Soviet empire.3 However, unlike in the Afghanistan case, most Ukrainian refugees so far are women and children, as most able-bodied men have opted to defend their country.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of March 8, more than 2 million people have already escaped Ukraine into neighboring countries since Putin’s invasion. These numbers may easily swell into millions if the conflict does not end soon, with some high-end predictions ranging from 5 million to over 7 million displaced Ukrainians.4 After all, the population of Ukraine is approximately 44 million, making it one of the more populous countries in Europe.5
There are 355,000 Ukraine-born individuals currently living in the U.S., based on Census Bureau data.6 Of these, 259,000 are naturalized citizens and 96,000 are non-citizens. According to government estimates, approximately 30,000 Ukrainians were granted temporary visas during Fiscal Year 2020 and could therefore qualify for temporary protection under the TPS designation passed by the Biden administration on March 3.7 Any Ukrainians who are currently in the country illegally could also qualify for deportation relief.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the United States has already accepted approximately 18,500 Ukrainian refugees.8 While visiting a refugee center in Poland, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken indicated that the United States may accept additional refugees. “The United States is committed to doing anything we can, first of all to support the countries that are bearing the immediate burden of taking in Ukrainians, and then, as appropriate, if people seek refugee status in the United States, of course we will look at that and, I’m sure, act on that.”9
The ideal option for temporarily resettling Ukrainians, until they can return to their homeland once the fighting stops, is regional resettlement in neighboring, friendly nations, such as Poland and Romania, as well as other European countries.
This is already happening to a significant extent. As of March 8, more than 1.2 million Ukrainians have fled to Poland, and the country has signaled a willingness to accept more refugees as needed.10 Others have fled to Romania, which borders Ukraine to the southwest, as well as Moldova, Slovakia, and Hungary. The Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – may also be possible temporary, regional resettlement locations. There are many cultural and religious affinities between the Ukrainians and the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. In the specific context of Poland, for example, the Polish and Ukrainian languages are relatively close to one another, which greatly reduces potential linguistic barriers.
Of course, given Ukraine’s large population, it is doubtful whether Europe can accommodate the entire burden of the potential refugee situation if the deluge out of the country escalates. Prior to the conflict, there were already between 1 and 1.3 million Ukrainian nationals in Poland, mostly economic migrants. So, considering that number has now doubled in a week’s time, it stands to reason that the country may be limited in the number of additional refugees that it will be able to accept.11
Another option could include creating official refugee safe zones in parts of western Ukraine, where fighting has been limited, into which Western monetary and food aid could be poured to ease the suffering.
What Can The United States Do?
In and of itself, offering TPS to Ukrainians in the U.S. on temporary visas should not be entirely controversial. As FAIR President Dan Stein recently emphasized, “Temporary Protected Status (TPS) was established by Congress more than 30 years ago to address exactly the sort of situation that is playing out in Ukraine today.”12
However, the problem is that TPS has been regularly abused by the pro-mass-migration lobby, serving as a perpetually renewed amnesty in all but name for many countries – long after any of the original motivating factors have passed. For instance, Honduran nationals continue to benefit from TPS more than two decades after the original justification, a hurricane that occurred in late 1998.13
Moreover, the American people have been facing the consequences of a mass illegal migration crisis unleashed by President Biden at the Southwest border over the past year. His administration has demonstrated that it is not concerned about mass abuse of our immigration system by foreign nationals. Because of this, the American public must have assurances that a grant of TPS to Ukrainian nationals will not become yet another de facto amnesty.
The recent TPS designation must truly be temporary and based on clear and hard deadlines. If implemented successfully, such an approach should serve as a template for reform across the board – something that has been sorely needed for many years.
Lastly, the Biden administration recently requested $10 billion in humanitarian, military, and economic support for Ukraine. Congress must ensure that every dollar intended for refugee assistance is for regional resettlement only.
 Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2012).
 Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Viktoriia Gorbunova and Vitalii Klymchuk, “The Psychological Consequences of the Holodomor in Ukraine,” East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies, Volume VII, No. 2: 33-68.
 On Afghanistan see Pawel Styrna, “Thinking Outside the Box: How to Help Our Afghan Allies Closer to Their Home,” August 2021, https://www.fairus.org/issue/fair-issue-brief-thinking-outside-box.
 Erin Doherty, “UN: Over 874,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled since Russian invasion began,” Axios, March 2, 2022, https://www.axios.com/ukraine-refugees-russian-invasion-un-9f8b6e8e-87ed-4a5b-b7e9-d9229b373dca.html?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=editorial&utm_content=world-russiaukraine (note: some of these refugees – most likely ethnic Russians or those sympathetic to Russia did flee to the Russian Federation); W.J. Hennigan, “Exodus Grows as Nearly 370,000 People Flee Russia’s Ukraine Invasion. Millions May Follow,” Time, February 26, 2022, https://time.com/6151809/russia-ukraine-refugee/; Sabine Siebold and John Chalmers, “EU says expects millions of displaced Ukrainians,” Reuters, February 27, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/eu-says-expects-more-than-7-million-displaced-ukrainians-2022-02-27/.
 The World Factbook, “Ukraine,” last updated February 16, 2022, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/ukraine/.
 U.S. Census Bureau, “Selected Population Profile In The United States,” 2019: ACS 1-Year Estimates Selected Population Profiles, https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=ukraine&tid=ACSSPP1Y2019.S0201.
 Camilo Montoya-Galvez, “Bipartisan group of senators ask Biden to shield Ukrainians from deportation,” CBS News, February 28, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/senators-ask-biden-shield-ukrainians-from-deportation/.
Stef W. Kight, “How many Ukrainian Refugees the U.S. Has Admitted,” Axios, March 2, 2022, https://www.axios.com/ukrainian-refugee-us-data-a95846c1-dd5c-45d6-b2c8-86b9a2446ad7.html.
 Lara Jakes, “Blinken Arrives in Poland to Gauge Additional U.S. Aid for Ukraine,” The New York Times, March 5, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/05/us/politics/blinken-ukraine.html.
 Łukasz Olender, “Górny: Liczba Ukraińców w Polsce wróciła do poziomu sprzed pandemii; statystyki mogą być zaburzone,” Bankier.pl, August 12, 2021, https://www.bankier.pl/wiadomosc/Gorny-Liczba-Ukraincow-w-Polsce-wrocila-do-poziomu-sprzed-pandemii-statystyki-moga-byc-zaburzone-8239097.html.
 Dan Stein, “ Provide Temporary Protection to Ukrainians, But Do it the Right Way,” The Hill, March 4, 2022, https://thehill.com/opinion/immigration/596633-provide-temporary-protection-to-ukrainians-but-do-it-the-right-way.
 Federation for American Immigration Reform, “Temporary Protected Status,” August 2019, https://www.fairus.org/issue/legal-immigration/temporary-protected-status.