EU Nations Set to Give Ukrainian Refugees Asylum for Up to Three Years

Ukrainian refugees fleeing from the Russian invasion could seek asylum in the European Union for up to three years as part of an emergency plan to address the influx of refugees into neighboring countries.

The EU's plan would grant Ukrainian permanent residence and access to housing, work, health care and education for at least one year, The Guardian reported. If the conflict continues and it is deemed not safe for refugees to return to Ukraine, they could seek asylum for another two years.

The Russian military began its attacks against Ukraine less than a week ago, and already almost 875,000 people have left their homes to seek safety in neighboring countries, according to the United Nations' refugee agency. Up to 4 million people may flee Ukraine if the conflict does not subside.

Ukrainians have fled to seven countries bordering Ukraine. More than half, about 454,000, have entered Poland. Another 116,000 refugees have fled to Hungary, 67,000 to Slovakia, 44,500 to Romania and nearly 80,000 to the Republic of Moldova. An additional 43,000 Ukrainians have entered Russia, according to the refugee agency.

The new law would extend Ukrainian citizens' 90-day visa for the EU. The refugees would be able to stay longer after the initial period without going through the lengthy asylum process. The plan is expected to be approved on Thursday by the 27 member states of the EU.

"All those fleeing Putin's bombs are welcome in Europe. We will provide protection to those seeking shelter and we will help those looking for a safe way home," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement, referring to Russia's president.

However, people who don't have Ukrainian citizenship or the right to permanently reside in the EU, such as international students, will be unable to stay where they are, under the new law. Instead, countries will help people return to their home countries, The Guardian reported.

People trying to leave Ukraine are facing extensive wait times at the borders. For those planning to cross into Poland by car, the wait time could be three to 35 hours. For those crossing by foot, it could be up to 60 hours, CTV News reported.

The U.N. has requested a $1.7 billion emergency aid appeal to provide assistance to Ukraine and countries supporting the refugees. The U.N. estimated at least 12 million people inside Ukraine will need some kind of assistance and protection, while more than 4 million refugees may need it in the coming months.

"This is the darkest hour for the people of Ukraine," said Martin Griffiths, the U.N. humanitarian affairs chief.

More people are expected to cross into bordering countries as the Russian military continues to escalate its attacks on some of Ukraine's largest cities and residential areas. In Kharkiv, a city with a population of 1.5 million, a cruise missile hit the regional state administration in Freedom Square on Tuesday, killing at least 10 people and injuring several more.

"This is terror against the city. There was no military target on the square. Just as those in residential areas of Kharkiv, hit by rocket artillery," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video Tuesday. "The attack on Kharkiv is a war crime. This is state terrorism of the Russian Federation."

The U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday that 136 civilian deaths, 13 of which were children, have been recorded so far, but the death toll is likely much higher. Meanwhile, Ukraine's State Emergency Service puts the number closer to 2,000.

Update 03/02/22, 12:45 p.m. ET: This story was updated with additional information and background.

Ukrainians Flee War
Almost 875,000 refugees have fled Ukraine following Russia's invasion, United Nations figures show. Above, Ukrainians wait to file for Czech Republic residency permits at a police headquarters in Prague on Wednesday. Michal Cizek/ AFP/Getty Images