Following President Biden’s historic announcement that the United States will welcome 100,000 displaced Ukrainians, now is a good time to reconsider the global refugee crisis. Biden’s decision is a result of the fact that Russia’s invasion has led to the greatest movement of refugees in Europe since the Second World War. Four million Ukrainians have already fled Moscow’s onslaught. Six million more are displaced and sleeping in bomb shelters. With Mariupol and other cities in ruins, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into Russian war crimes. Analysts are predicting even greater destruction and displacement is yet to come.
Analysts are predicting even greater destruction and displacement is yet to come.”
During the first weeks of the war, Poland welcomed more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees – offering aid to new arrivals and even handing out teddy bears to displaced children. Romania, Slovakia and other countries have also opened their borders and their hearts. Some have argued that this magnificent humanitarian gesture is a result of most Ukrainians being white and Christian, and that Syrians or Afghans were never given the same welcoming embrace. There are numerous examples of Black people – including the 16,000 African students who study in Ukraine – being met with racist hostility at border crossings.
That is a sad reality. But it is not the whole story. Ukraine is under attack and the vast majority of Europeans and Americans want to help the war’s refugees. We should harness that sentiment and export it to other frontiers. Like Tucson, Arizona, where the men outside Casa Alitas look depleted.
The men have come from as far away as Uzbekistan, but most are from Central America. They arrive on an ICE bus with their feet and hands in shackles. There are no laces in their shoes and they have no belts. ICE tell them it is to stop them from hanging themselves or harming one another. But it looks and feels like a petty humiliation.
After they are unchained, the men are greeted by a staff member from Casa Alitas, a shelter for asylum seekers into which they now walk, unrestrained, carrying their few worldly possessions in a clear plastic garbage bag. Many have had no contact with their families since their exodus began. One of the first things they do is look for somewhere to charge their phone and let their loved ones know they are alive.
Many have had no contact with their families since their exodus began. One of the first things they do is look for somewhere to charge their phone and let their loved ones know they are alive.”
These men are asylum seekers who turned up at the U.S. border and declared themselves in need of sanctuary. Many have spent more than ten weeks in an ICE detention facility, while their claim of a credible threat to their life is scrutinized. Now they have been released, albeit with a tracking device fastened to their ankles, pending a final decision by a U.S. judge. But for now, they can take a warm shower and breathe freely.
Later, more ICE busses arrive at Casa Alitas, carrying entire families and pushing the daily total to almost 250 new arrivals. Under President Trump, almost all these asylum seekers would have been pushed into Mexico or seen their families deliberately split up. The Biden administration’s policy is less intentionally cruel, but they also fear that an excess of compassion might cost them at the November elections. The crisis on the Southern border has corroded Washington’s moral authority and distracted it from a larger global crisis – beyond Ukraine – that desperately needs U.S. leadership.
There are currently over 84 million people in the world displaced by persecution, conflict and atrocities – the highest number since the Second World War. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has argued that based on the current trajectory, “the question is no longer if forced displacement will exceed 100 million people – but rather when.”
This is not just a humanitarian catastrophe, it is also a human rights crisis. A 2015 study by our team at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) found that up to 44 percent of all refugees living in the United States were survivors of torture. They come from places like Syria, Myanmar, Cameroon or Venezuela, where 6 million people have abandoned their homeland since 2014 due to economic ruin and fierce repression.
Now, a new wave of Ukrainian refugees will come, along with Russian human rights defenders fleeing Putin’s crackdown. His security forces have already detained over 15,000 Russian anti-war protestors, subjecting many to torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
U.S. leadership can make a decisive difference to how the world responds. The Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, has argued that Ukraine is not just defending its territory, but also the “multilateral order based on rules and rights that we have painstakingly built up” since 1945. What Putin and his corrupt acolytes in Belarus, Syria and elsewhere fear the most is adherence to universal human rights and international law. Their impunity depends, in part, upon global indifference to the suffering they create.
One of best ways to confront Putin is not just to send anti-tank missiles to Kyiv, but for the Biden administration to rescind Title 42 – a medically dubious and morally reprehensible policy that used the COVID19 pandemic as grounds for expelling asylum seekers. Over the last two years, the group Human Rights First has tracked more than 9,886 reports of kidnapping, rape, torture and violence against migrants and asylum seekers forced back from the U.S. border. More than 300 civil society organizations, including CVT, recently wrote to President Biden to argue that Title 42 violates both U.S. domestic law and its international treaty obligations.
Denying people the legal right to apply for asylum also pushes them into the arms of the cartels and coyotes. Last year more than 650 people died trying to cross the U.S. border, a new record. Meanwhile, with an aging population, surging inflation and labor scarcity caused by “the great resignation,” political debates over immigration ignore the undeniable benefit offered by tax-paying, job-creating grateful Ukrainians and other refugees.
As they enter Casa Alitas in Tucson, all asylum seekers are greeted by a Latina version of the Statue of Liberty – a human-sized papier-mache replica of her copper sister in New York – who welcomes them to a new life of healing and hope in the United States. For people who have lost everything, symbolism matters.
U.S. presidents are fond of quoting from the lofty poem at the base of the real Statue of Liberty, reminding Americans of how their country has provided sanctuary to generations of persecuted people, “yearning to breathe free.” Now is the time for President Biden to not just welcome desperate Ukrainians, but to repair the United States’ broken system for asylum and refugee resettlement. Not just because it differentiates the White House from its strategic foe in the Kremlin, but because it is the right thing to do.