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Ukrainian refugee situation not just a crisis

Flood of refugees fleeing Russian invasion part of broader pattern of displacement, says UD’s Georgina Ramsay

“The 21st century is being defined by displacement. Much of that has to do with conflict and war. A lot of it has to do with climate change. Even more has to do with economic instability.”

That’s the assessment of Georgina Ramsay, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware. In a week that has seen at least 600,000  refugees escaping Ukraine in the face of a large-scale military invasion by Russia, a major escalation of a conflict that began in 2014. Ramsay is a political and legal anthropologist who has conducted extensive fieldwork with refugees and displaced people, studying resettlement in Australia and the United States, urban asylum and refugee camps in Uganda and internal displacement in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

UDaily checked in with Ramsay to discuss the exodus of refugees from Ukraine as Russian attacks on the country have intensified. 

Q: What’s your sense of how European nations, the U.S. and its other allies, are responding to the growing refugee crisis in Ukraine? Is enough being done?

Ramsay: I wouldn’t put the U.S. and Europe in the same category of response. We’re seeing the U.S. take quite a hands-off approach to the Ukrainian refugee crisis and I think there’s a reason for that.

What we’re seeing with the European response generally is an unprecedented opening up of their borders. In less than a week, more than 600,000 people moved across national borders to seek refuge within an overwhelmingly welcoming set of nations wanting to provide protection to them (at least temporarily). In that sense, Europe’s response has been very unusual in that they are allowing this movement and waiving legal requirements for border crossing, waiving COVID rules as well. In another unprecedented move, the European Union (EU) is meeting tomorrow (Thursday) to discuss a completely new legal approach to responding to the displacement of people from Ukraine, which would enable them to be settled in any EU country for three years without having to go through any legal asylum process. That is really interesting from many standpoints. It’s good in the sense that people need protection but it also raises questions about the kind of people that Europe offers protection to and the kind of people who, in contrast, have their mobility constrained.

Just for comparison, if you look at the response during the 2015 refugee crisis which saw hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking asylum—or even the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border just three months ago—many refugees who were attempting to cross borders into Europe were being stopped, put into detention centers, deported and just generally being used as political pawns. EU nations that were supposed to be celebrating the Schengen border approach of free movement were actually building walls, “fortressing” Europe, so to speak. We saw countries like Hungary, France and Austria actually putting up physical barriers to stop refugees crossing. What we’ve been seeing in the past week is the removal of legal and physical borders to enable what Filippo Grandi, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is saying is the biggest refugee crisis within Europe in the 21st century. 

Q: What’s behind the U.S. decision to take the hands-off response that you mentioned earlier?

Ramsay: I personally am deeply affected by the tragic situation unfolding in Ukraine, and I want to see extensive humanitarian responses to their protection needs shared across those nations with the resources to do so. However, the Biden administration hasn’t made any specific claims to provide protection to Ukrainian refugees as we speak, at least in terms of resettlement. That could change, of course. But I actually doubt it, because while the public is pressuring the administration to do something, the reality is the legalities of getting refugees through the resettlement process—to get from second country of asylum into the United States, Canada, wherever that might be—in ordinary circumstances, that takes years. 

Now you might think, “What about Afghanistan in 2021?” That was an absolute exception to the aforementioned process and I think the U.S. managed as well as they could in terms of providing refuge to thousands of people who were unexpectedly evacuated out of Afghanistan, basically overnight. But that was an evacuation of vulnerable people; it was not the standard process of refugee resettlement. It came with all of these complications because the people being evacuated had not, for the most part, been processed for resettlement prior to fleeing.  So the first thing that happened is that they got put into camps that were hastily set up in decommissioned military bases. And the public was asking, “Why are we doing that, aren’t they refugees?” Well, we have to get the clearances and organize placements that would ordinarily be part of the processing of refugees for resettlement. That was an extraordinary legal process set up to respond to the specific situation of the evacuation of Afghan nationals, not a standard or routine situation. That was at least 70,000 people and we actually only just got the last of those Afghan refugees out last week just as the first Ukrainian refugees began to flee. 

So, the U.S. is still reeling from the very rapid response to the Afghan evacuation. There’s a question of could we bring Ukrainians into these camps, do the same evacuation process? But do we want to be perpetuating this camp model? Those Afghans that were brought into the camps, many still don’t have officially recognized refugee status in the U.S. We call them refugees in the media, that’s the perception, but technically many of these people are legally termed “parolees” and many haven’t even been granted asylum in the U.S. yet. They are legally vulnerable. Right now, resettlement organizations in the U.S. are fighting to have the Biden administration create a legal process that would automatically transfer the parolee status of those evacuated Afghan people into asylum status. Because if they continue to be classified as parolees, technically, the U.S. government could still turn around, in say the next election cycle, and deport them. And the process of applying for asylum is exhausting and requires people to re-live their trauma. Moreover, resettlement organizations have been gutted by funding cuts from the previous administration and the economic impact of the pandemic. With all these complications, there is a question of whether the U.S. is equipped to manage another rapid refugee resettlement process. And with Europe stepping up, the Biden administration seems hesitant to even try.

Disappointingly, the Biden administration has not committed to providing what’s called “Temporary Protection Status” to Ukrainians who are already in the U.S., which would be an easy and important move in terms of our protection responsibilities. If you’re a Ukrainian on a student visa or a work visa, there is currently no recognition of the fact that your country may be unsafe to return to when your visa runs out. The administration may revisit this in the future, but to not even step up to offer this basic protection right now: What is that telling us? [Editor's note: On March 3, the Biden administration announced it was granting Temporary Protection Status to those Ukrainians already in the U.S.]

One other thing to keep in mind is this Ukrainian crisis is so fast moving. Many Ukrainians aren’t necessarily sure what they want to do yet. Is this a permanent move for them? Will they ever be able to go back? If you put yourself in their shoes, if you’ve built this home and a life would you be ready to say in the space of a week, “I want to settle in another country?” Before we start saying let’s bring all these people here for protection, let’s try to get a sense of what the Ukrainians themselves want to do.  

Q: There have been charges that African students trying to leave Ukraine have faced racism and segregation at the border. Is this the kind of ugly circumstance we typically see in these chaotic, crisis situations?

Ramsay: That situation exemplifies how migrants are treated at EU borders more generally. Many countries in the EU practice implicit forms of border racialization that make the crossing of those who are seen as belonging much easier than the crossing of those who are seen as “others.” In this situation, we are seeing some people from African, Middle Eastern, South Asian and Asian backgrounds attempting to cross out of Ukraine having their movement treated differently, with suspicion and even hostility, than those who are assumed to be European or Ukrainian, ethnically. From what I understand, there are competing discourses about what happened at the border with certain racialized groups. Some Ukrainian officials claimed that the prevention of some groups from crossing the border was the result of a visa issue, not because of racism. But I have read other stories where it was pretty clear racism was at play, in the sense that people have described being beaten by border guards on the Ukrainian side when attempting to pass through, or were led to separate border gates where they were not allowed to cross. While I don’t know the specifics of the situation firsthand, it speaks to the broader issue of whose mobility is sanctioned and whose is controlled in the European context. 

Q: How do you see this refugee crisis playing out? You’ve had people make an initial decision to get out and it seems that will be intensified as people flee a war zone. 

Ramsay: At the end of 2020, the United Nations estimated there were 82.5 million displaced people worldwide. I always contextualize this number for my students: That’s the population of Germany, it’s three times the population of Australia, my home country. The 21st century is being defined by displacement. Much of that has to do with conflict and war. A lot of it has to do with climate change. Even more has to do with economic instability. With these displacement issues, we shouldn’t be using the term crisis anymore, this is becoming a predictable aspect of life in this century and we need to develop political, economic and social responses to deal with it in a longitudinal sense. 

While the Ukrainian situation is urgent, displacement — theirs and that of others — is not a temporary problem. At the moment, there’s considerable attention on Ukrainian refugees and the EU is responding accordingly, with a very humanitarian approach. But I would urge everyone to not lose steam. Will the response to displaced Ukrainians still be so humanitarian in six months? A year?  

When we think more broadly about refugees and the displacements we’re witnessing on a global scale, this cycling through of public attention — and not recognizing the double standards of how nations respond to flows of refugee migration — are real issues we have to address. 

In terms of displacement and refugees, we are still using the instruments that came out of World War II. Almost every nation continues to use the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) legal definition of a refugee, which was developed in the wake of that war. But we are facing entirely new conditions of mass displacement. That definition is based on personal persecution. You are only a refugee if you are an individual being persecuted for your political beliefs or you are a targeted group. What about the gray zones of war, such as in Ukraine, where people are fleeing the effects of violence but are not necessarily themselves being the targets of violence? What about the situation of the people who will flee the economic fallout of this and other wars? What about those fleeing rising sea levels, or extreme heat, or flood insecurity resulting from unstable weather patterns or general political instability? The UNHCR definition doesn’t apply to these situations. Being written in 1951, how could it?

I think we need a more long-term approach. We need to start developing different legal instruments and more robust responses to displacement that center the humanity of those fleeing situations that are unlivable. We need to remember that, when our attention to the immediate “crisis” wanes, there is every possibility that the legal instruments we have to protect these groups — Ukrainians right now, but also the millions of other refugees worldwide — will fail them and intensify their vulnerability. Continuing to educate ourselves on these situations and petitioning our politicians to shift our current approach is crucial to ensuring a more just world.

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