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The Dartmouth
May 30, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Lane: The United States Must Take in as Many Ukrainian Refugees as Possible

We must not repeat our embarrassing debacle of a response after Afghanistan.

This article is featured in the 2022 Commencement & Reunions special issue.

My point is very simple: The United States needs to take in as many refugees from Ukraine as possible. President Joe Biden announced with his Uniting for Ukraine plan that the United States is willing to take in up to 100,000, so the actual number will likely be less. I hope that was just his first step, because there are currently at least that many just in tiny Moldova, a country bordering Ukraine, where the United Nations reports refugees now make up almost one in every five residents. Moldova has a GDP per capita of about 1/14th the size of the United States’, according to the World Bank. The United States has immensely more resources to do something about this crisis than anyone else, and yet we have stood largely idly by when it comes to refugees. Europe needs our help. If the U.S. is to live up to its extensive commitments to human rights and our claims to be the leader of the free world, we must do much better than a half-hearted hundred thousand. We must do more.

Between 1990 and 1995, we let in an average of 116,000 refugees annually, large numbers of which came from the former USSR. The Soviet Union fell apart largely without armed struggle, and there was no major war driving those refugees out. If we could do that during peacetime, we ought to be taking in more now. Some may argue that admitting larger numbers of refugees would be expensive or otherwise difficult, and they are indeed right. But that doesn’t make it any less the right thing to do. We must be steadfast to what we know is just and give aid to those who need it. It’s not like these civilians chose to be uprooted from their homes. If the same were to somehow happen to us Americans, we would certainly hope that other countries would take us in.

Fortunately, there is already an established Ukrainian community in several parts of the United States. My own family has been going to a Ukrainian restaurant in Minneapolis to celebrate my Slovak grandfather’s birthday each fall for as long as I can remember. The restaurant was founded by refugees who came to America after the Second World War and is still owned by the same family. On the other side of the Atlantic, the British government has begun a host family program, which quickly saw tens of thousands of volunteers offering to host refugees. While this particular program has run into many rollout hiccups and is not working as intended, it shows that the necessary motivation to help is there. The Biden administration should partner with the Ukrainian communities already here, ask the American people to step up to the plate and provide a streamlined process for them to do so that learns from the U.K.’s failures. If they can do those 3 tasks, I’m certain they would have no shortage of volunteers. 

While most Ukrainian refugees will inevitably remain in Eastern Europe, an expanded refugee admission program can function as a key pressure valve to take stress off of the areas struggling the most. The Uniting for Ukraine plan does take some key steps towards that goal — but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. While it does streamline the application process for prospective host families slightly, many complain it is still quite cumbersome and that the plan doesn’t do anything to help connect refugees with those required host families. Neither does it provide any financial support to host families — something even the flawed program in the U.K. does. Nor does it direct government agencies to coordinate on an ongoing basis with eastern European countries on the frontlines to prioritize taking in refugees from the particular towns and cities that are most overloaded. As of the most recent numbers, only about 6,000 Ukrainians have been approved for resettlement in the U.S., which is frankly disappointing.

If there is ever a moment for this to happen, it’s now. We are grappling with a situation in which  we have accused Russia of perpetrating war crimes. There has been evidence of massacres of innocent civilians found in the town of Bucha, among other places and among other atrocities. The German intelligence service has been able to intercept radio communications from the Russian military, in which soldiers discuss their random killings of people passing by. In one conversation, a soldier discusses shooting a civilian on a bicycle. A body was later found in Bucha next to a bicycle. War crime trials are already ongoing in Kyiv, and several Russian soldiers have pleaded guilty to different crimes. While it’s true we don’t know all the details, at this point we do not need to know more. We must do more.

Why am I so adamant? We have a very bad record of doing what is right when it comes to refugees. After our withdrawal from Afghanistan, neighboring Pakistan became home to about 300,000 Afghan refugees on top of the over three million the Pakistani government estimates were already there. In contrast, we took in only about 75,000. Pakistan’s GDP per capita is about a mere quarter of Moldova’s. They had even less resources to deal with the influx, and few batted an eye. While I still believe that the United States still can (and should) take in more Afghan refugees – after all, we engaged in over 20 years of military operations there and should take ownership of the consequences — there is an extent to which that opportunity has passed. But, the opportunity to live up to our ideals with the catastrophe in Eastern Europe right now is alive and well. We must do more.

The choices we make right now are essential. We could measure that difference by how many lives we might save. But, as important as that is, how many lives saved is not the full picture. We need to consider everything we can save. By admitting more refugees, we can keep families together. We can ensure that little kids have as close to a normal childhood as possible. Our choices could mean elders get to live out their last years in peace and dignity instead of in misery. Some have already been denied those last years altogether, such as 96-year-old Holocaust survivor Boris Romanchenko, who was killed by a Russian shell hitting his apartment in Kharkiv. It could mean that young people like me — and our now-graduating Dartmouth Class of 2022 — get to celebrate the school graduations they’ve worked so hard for, albeit probably not from the school they originally anticipated. How many Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurs can we save this fall? How many family Christmas celebrations this winter? How many weddings and honeymoons? How many birthdays and anniversaries? How many first days of kindergarten? How many moms won’t have to give birth in hospital basements and bomb shelters? I could go on and on. Refugees need our help, and we must do more. I can’t think of anything else more worthy of our immediate efforts right now. 

Thomas Lane

Thomas Lane '24 is a former Opinion editor.