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Opinion We might be on the verge of the greatest displacement of Europeans since World War II

A center for refugees from Ukraine is set up in Dorohusk, Poland, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in Ukraine on Feb. 24. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)
4 min

The greatest displacement of European people since the aftermath of World War II could soon be underway. The United States and other allies need to prepare now before this becomes the massive humanitarian crisis so many fear.

Doing so is in Ukrainian refugees’ interests — and America’s.

The United States has offered many soaring words of support for Ukrainians whose homeland is under siege. It has also levied some sanctions on those doing the sieging. But neither will be much comfort to the many desperate Ukrainians already fleeing their homes, flooding highways, trains and bus stations.

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U.S. officials have said the Russian invasion could displace as many as 5 million Ukrainians. For context, that would be several multiples of the number of migrants who sought asylum in Europe during the peak year of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015. Both Europe and the United States are still dealing with the political fallout from those events today.

It is still early in the Ukraine conflict, so it’s too soon to know how many civilians will ultimately be displaced, where they will go and how long it will be before they can safely return to their homes. If they ever can. But recent experiences with Afghan and Syrian refugees show it’s better to start planning for a mass exodus now.

If compassion insufficiently motivates Americans, our national security should. Integrating large numbers of desperate migrants can cause turmoil and stress if not handled smoothly, not only for those migrants but also for the societies that receive them. The Syrian refugee crisis, for instance, bred a far-right backlash and political violence across Europe.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin knows it.

“Putin saw in 2015 how destabilizing the refugee debate was to Western Europe,” said Heather Hurlburt, a foreign policy expert and a director at New America. “Showing now that the West is ready to deal with this in a non-alarmist, non-hostile way takes away a tool Putin has to destabilize Western society.”

There are some basic things President Biden can, and should, do immediately.

These include making it easier for Ukrainians already in the United States to stay a little longer by designating them eligible for temporary protected status and special student relief. These programs were created for circumstances such as this — when it’s unsafe for immigrants to return to their home countries, including because of armed conflict.

Of course, that won’t help families newly fleeing the region. So, to whatever extent possible, we must also expedite the processing of pending refugee applications for Ukrainians. We could also temporarily “parole” in other categories of Ukrainians who have already applied to join family in the United States, but whose visa applications haven’t been completely processed.

After years of sabotage under the Trump administration, however, U.S. immigration processing infrastructure is damaged and understaffed. It is also grievously backlogged with Afghan parole applications. So ramping up admissions of Ukrainians is not exactly a quick fix, especially without Congress granting more dollars to the relevant immigration agencies (which it should do anyway, by the way).

Even so, announcing that we’re working toward higher admissions would at least signal to European allies that the United States will help shoulder the burden of this humanitarian tragedy.

In the meantime, Ukrainians will probably flood neighboring countries such as Poland, particularly since the European Union recently announced that Ukrainians would not need a visa to enter the Schengen Area. And, hearteningly, there has already been a show of solidarity from Ukraine’s border states and other European countries.

Even notoriously anti-immigrant leaders in Hungary have said they are standing by to receive Ukrainian refugees. Perhaps that’s because the Ukrainians are mostly White Christians, unlike the predominantly Muslim Syrian refugees in 2015.

“The question is, what happens when the wave of solidarity begins to wane?” asked Meghan Benton, director of international research for the Migration Policy Institute. “You can get some hospitality fatigue if the numbers start to grow or if this is not a short-lived conflict.”

Which is why the United States must immediately contribute to the cause and help our allies prepare for possible strains on their economies and infrastructure. We can do this first and foremost by providing more direct financial support for humanitarian efforts, both for Ukraine’s neighbors and inside the besieged country itself (where more than 1 million people are already internally displaced, due to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea).

We can also offer our technical expertise to local officials. Already we have sent troops to Poland to help set up processing centers, a welcome start.

The West failed to contain the madman now commandeering Russia. The safety of his victims must not be an afterthought, as it has been in so many refugee crises past.