Opinion | Program for resettlement of Ukrainian refugees faces a daunting challenge

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Faced with an unprecedented European refugee crisis since World War II, the Biden administration has unveiled a new program to allow Ukrainians to flee Russia’s attacks by allowing US citizens and groups to sponsor them financially here. The program, which would resettle and provide work permits to refugees for two years, is innovative and ambitious. It may also be inadequate.

It is difficult to overestimate the extent of emigration from Ukraine. Well over a quarter of the country’s population of 44 million people has been displaced from their homes – around 6.5 million displaced in the country alone during the first month of the war and a further 5 million refugees who have fled to nearby nations.

The United States’ allies in Eastern Europe are struggling under this influx, which has overwhelmed schools, housing and social services. President Biden, aware of Washington’s management burden, said a month ago that the United States would do its part by accepting up to 100,000 refugees in this country. In fact, the figure, presented as a ceiling, may need to be revised upwards.

The sponsorship program begins this week, but already about 15,000 Ukrainians have been admitted, most of whom have crossed from Mexico to the United States with a grant of humanitarian “parole”, meaning permission to stay and work in the country for a year or two. Another 18,000 were in an already existing refugee pipeline under a U.S. program that provides rapid resettlement to religious minorities in former Soviet republics, including Ukrainians. Those numbers count toward the 100,000 ceiling, U.S. officials said. This means that there are only 67,000 seats left.

They can go fast. In the United Kingdom, programs established in recent weeks to resettle Ukrainian refugees have already received more than 100,000 applicants and are struggling to keep up. In Canada, which has a large population of Ukrainian descent, more than 60,000 refugees applied for resettlement during the first five weeks of the war. More will certainly seek access; Canada has not imposed ceilings.

Most Ukrainians want to return home. In fact, it may take years before many are able to reconstruct life in a country whose economy has been decimated and major cities are pulverized. U.S. officials, who are aware of these scenarios, say they are ready to reassess the 100,000 ceiling depending on demand. They should also be ready to revisit the two-year limit of the program – the probability is that many Ukrainians may need refuge much longer.

Meanwhile, the administration is facing a critical test. In the first 15 months, it has deeply failed to resettle more than a relatively handful of refugees through normal channels justly decimated by the Trump administration. It is now preparing to try a new method, specially built for Ukrainians, in the light of a refugee influx that has grown by 2 million a month since Mr. Biden announced that the United States would open its doors.

For the new program to work, U.S. officials must quickly screen and examine U.S. sponsors as well as the Ukrainian refugees they agree to host, and grant travel permits without delay. The United Kingdom, which stumbled upon the launch of its programs, now says it aims to reduce processing time to 48 hours. U.S. officials should take note.

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