How to Help Ukrainian Refugees | Opinion

Like so many refugees before them, Ukrainian refugees have been driven from their homes by violence. Following the Russian invasion, more than 5 million—the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II—have fled to Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary and Germany. They need shelter, food, health care and a way to resume aspects of normal life, including education for their children. The vast majority would like nothing more than to be able to return to a Ukraine at peace. They need help.

Ukrainian refugees are also different than other refugees before them. They are not predominantly intact families or individual young men. Instead, as military-aged men between the ages of 18 and 60 years old are not allowed to leave Ukraine, 30 percent are older adults and the overwhelming majority—around 90 percent—are women and children. Despite Europe's generous offer of access to employment, they are not good candidates for employment ... unless the mothers can obtain childcare assistance.

Significantly, the war in Ukraine is defined by the fact that most Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homes are still in Ukraine. At this point in time 7.1 million Ukrainians are "internally displaced persons" (IDPs), and thus people who have fled their homes but remained within Ukraine—fleeing from eastern Ukraine to western Ukraine. Supporting them in Ukraine so that they do not need to flee the country is as important as assisting the refugees who have fled.

Average international displacements last 10 years, with many refugees having been displaced for well over 20 years. There was and is no likely outcome that lets those who fled the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan or Bashar al-Assad's victory in Syria return to their homes in safety. They require local integration in their places of refuge or resettlement. The time frame for Ukrainian refugees looks different as is the prospect of return to Ukraine.

No one knows for sure whether Ukraine will be able to successfully defend itself from Russian President Vladimir Putin's onslaught. But assuming Russia withdraws from an attempt to conquer western Ukraine and NATO continues to supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself, Ukraine will survive and likely be unwilling to cede the eastern provinces that Russia can be expected to seize and hold. If that scenario comes to be, not peace but an armistice—an agreement to stop fighting—might be the most likely outcome.

To prepare for this scenario, steps should be taken now to support IDPs in western Ukraine and to plan for a refugee displacement of a few years, rather than decades, until Ukrainian refugees return to an independent "Western Ukraine."

Two steps should be taken for this. First, NATO and the European Union (EU) need a concerted effort to address the housing, food and services needs of the internally displaced persons in western Ukraine. This can be a civilian effort, not involving troops on the ground, even though military forces are often the best equipped to help. It needs to follow Ukrainian direction but be fully supported by the EU and U.S. both financially and logistically.

Ukrainian refugees get their luggage
Ukrainian refugees get their luggage after they arrive from Moldova at the international airport of Bordeaux in Merignac on April 21, 2022. PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Second, the Ukrainian refugees in Europe need support. Current proposals at €1,000 per refugee are essential and adequate in the very short term, but the estimated annual cost of a refugee in Europe is €10,000 per year. The current sources for EU funding for Ukrainian refugees are five programs which were all expired, but temporarily extended due to recent Russian aggression. The EU plan for responsibility sharing, the Common European Asylum System, is not yet fully operational—and needs to be.

But this is not just an EU responsibility. The U.S. needs to bear its fair share of the costs, both offering resettlement places—like the current 100,000 Ukrainians it is willing to take—and more financial support for the refugees currently in protection in Europe and the IDPs still in Ukraine—in addition to the humanitarian assistance already in place.

To successfully respond to Ukrainian displacement, the U.S. and the Europeans need to coordinate across the Atlantic, integrate refugee and IDP assistance, focus on the short to medium term and bridge across many organizations and agencies with varying, incomplete mandates. President Joe Biden should appoint a humanitarian coordinator, in parallel with his recently appointed military coordinator, to ensure that U.S. government agencies are working together and in cooperation with Ukraine and the EU.

Given Putin's articulated aims to dominate Eastern Europe, Ukrainians are defending not just themselves, but all of Europe. Ukrainians have acted on the expectation that neither the U.S. nor the Europeans would abandon them. It is time to supplement the military assistance they have received with the support displaced Ukrainians both inside and outside Ukraine need.

Michael Doyle is a professor at Columbia University and director of the Model International Mobility Convention project at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Dorothea Koehn is a masters of international affairs candidate at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and works as a research fellow at Carnegie Council.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.