Ukraine’s Regional Displacement Crisis

As many as 1.5 million people were already internally displaced within Ukraine before this week, forced from their homes during the 2014 invasion and the ensuing prolonged conflict in eastern Ukraine. The February 24 attacks are already adding to those figures, with the UN refugee agency estimating that 100,000 people have already left their homes within Ukraine. U.S. officials estimate that as many as 5 million people could be forced from home, and the European Union is preparing to host up to 1 million refugees. Those with the means to do so have piled belongings and relatives into cars and buses, largely heading to the western reaches of Ukraine or international borders. Those without means remain in harm’s way. Traffic jams have been reported across the country, with long lines of vehicles inching along from Kyiv to Zhytomyr and onto Lviv and ultimately the Polish border. Since the attacks are coming primarily from three sides and targeting critical water infrastructure and educational facilities, vulnerable Ukrainian civilians could be forced to seek refuge outside of Ukraine in historic numbers.

For now, Ukraine’s neighbors are keeping borders open and preparing to receive refugees. In Poland, nearly 5,000 U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division have set up three new processing centers to add to the existing five. Polish officials have also set up a system to transport injured people to at least 120 hospitals across the country, ultimately preparing for the arrival of up to 1 million refugees in the coming days and weeks. The Polish border remains open, as do Ukraine’s borders with fellow EU members Slovakia and Romania. Even Hungary, long known for its hostile stance toward migrants and refugees, has signaled a willingness to provide humanitarian relief and refuge to Ukrainians. Moldova, a non-EU member state, has also vowed to keep its borders open to Ukrainians and provide them assistance upon arrival.

The number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) will undoubtedly rise, potentially into the millions. Many will hope to return home soon; however, prolonged displacement is more common globally than quick return. And while no one knows how or when the conflict in Ukraine will end, very few think it will end quickly. For IDPs, this means searching for food, shelter, and other assistance while considering more permanent relocation to Lviv or wherever they can find safety. For refugees outside of Ukraine, their stay becomes more complicated the longer it lasts. The initial welcome mat laid out by Ukraine’s neighbors should be applauded; the European Union and the United States should also ensure through bilateral and multilateral assistance (and resettlement to the United States and elsewhere when possible) that the burden of sheltering refugees does not fall entirely on the countries and communities that host them. They should also work with local authorities to make sure borders remain open to vulnerable Ukrainians. But as their time away from home lengthens, Ukrainian refugees will increasingly seek more durable solutions, including access to education for children, labor markets for adults, and mobility for families within a European Union that has been reticent to allow for such access in the past. Despite the longer-term challenges to come, every effort needs to be made to keep the welcome mats in place for vulnerable Ukrainians as long as they need them.

Erol Yayboke is director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program