It’s been seven months since the Taliban swept through Afghanistan, taking the capital city Kabul and triggering a mass exodus of nearly 130,000 people.

Now another humanitarian crisis is unraveling as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, displacing millions, killing thousands and prompting Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to ask the Biden administration to accept Ukrainian refugees.

“Utah’s doors are wide open,” Cox said last week during his monthly press conference.

The Biden administration announced Thursday that the U.S. will be accepting 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, extending the “full range of legal pathways” to people fleeing the war.

That includes acceptance through the country’s refugee admissions program, which can lead to permanent residency, or issuing visas or humanitarian parole that eventually expire, but creates an immediate pathway out of Ukraine.

The White House also announced $1 billion in humanitarian assistance to help the millions of people impacted by the conflict, and an additional $320 million for “democracy and human rights funding to Ukraine and its neighbors.” 

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The latest report from the U.N. estimates at least 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries. As of Tuesday:

  • Poland received 2.1 million refugees.
  • Romania received 543,000.
  • Moldova received 368,000.
  • Hungary received 318,000.
  • Slovakia received 254,000.
  • Russia received 252,000.
  • Belarus received 4,000.

An additional 6.5 million people are thought to be internally displaced, the U.N. says, meaning they have been forced to flee their homes but are still in Ukraine.

Differences between refugee crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan

Even with the Biden administration expediting the process, Ukrainian refugees looking to be resettled in the U.S. still have a lengthy journey ahead of them defined by confusing policy, scores of interviews and red tape.

The evacuation of Kabul was unprecedented, with thousands of people resettled in lightning speed, compared to traditional refugee pathways. A staggering 74,000 Afghans now call the U.S. home, more than six times the number of refugees resettled in 2020 as the Trump administration brought admittance to historic lows. Over 900 Afghans were resettled in Utah.

Because U.S. forces are not actively evacuating people onto military bases like they did in Afghanistan, those refugees from Ukraine will likely stay in Eastern Europe for the foreseeable future.

“If the Biden administration were to do a similar evacuation to Afghanistan, then the federal government would be discussing what to do with resettlement agencies, because that would require a lot of planning,” said Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services in Utah.

A recent petition started by the Utah Ukrainian Association is asking the federal government to waive any visa requirements and grant refugee status to any Ukrainian nationals.

Visas, temporary protected status, humanitarian parole

Technically, the Afghans that were resettled in the U.S. after Kabul fell weren’t refugees. Although they relied on resettlement agencies and were vetted like refugees, most either had special immigrant visas or humanitarian parole status.

Those with a special immigrant visa likely worked alongside U.S. and allied forces, often as interpreters, translators or contractors.

Most of the Afghans resettled in Utah were humanitarian parolees, meaning they met the qualifications for a special immigrant visa, but the U.S. Embassy did not have time to process their paperwork during the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan.

The U.S. usually processes around 2,000 humanitarian parole applications annually. In 2021, it processed over 30,000, according to Axios.

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“The Afghanistan situation was different because we were pulling our troops out. And the U.S. felt they had a responsibility to take as many people who had been working with us so they wouldn’t be tortured or killed by the Taliban,” Batar said.

It’s likely many of the Ukrainian refugees that will opt into a resettlement program to the U.S. will apply for humanitarian parole, which is usually considered on a case-by-case basis. Vulnerable groups and people with family in the U.S. can apply, but it’s still unlikely large numbers would be resettled in the U.S. for several months.

Instead, most Ukrainians will probably go through the traditional process that takes 18 to 36 months. They’ll be screened by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and National Counterterrorism Center. They’ll be interviewed in person, subjected to fingerprinting, medical screenings, cultural training and more.

There will be exceptions, the most plausible being for anyone with family currently living in the U.S., Cox said.

“Family members of American citizens might be allowed a top priority or be able to waive some of those long-standing rules around processing refugees. That is something that I would support,” he said during the March press conference.

For those already living in the U.S., the Biden administration recently granted temporary protected status, meaning they can remain in the country and get work authorization without risking deportation.

Staying closer to home

Most Afghans who qualified for a special immigrant visa or humanitarian parole worked for or alongside U.S. and NATO forces, and many already had family living in the U.S. The Deseret News spoke to dozens of Afghans who said moving to America was an easy choice considering the situation.

And while there’s a robust Ukrainian and Eastern European community in Utah, many refugees will likely petition to stay in countries like Poland, Hungary or Romania where the cultural divide isn’t so vast.

“We expect many Ukrainians will choose to remain in Europe close to family and their homes in Ukraine,” the White House said in a news release Thursday.

“For refugees, it’s always important for their identity, culture and whatever they have in common to (minimize) the adjustments,” said Batar.

One month into the invasion, Batar said many Ukrainians are still holding onto hope that they can return home. That’s a stark contrast to the war in Afghanistan that dragged on for nearly 20 years.

Overwhelming Eastern Europe

Human rights groups warn the refugee crisis will likely worsen, and millions more could soon become displaced and flood neighboring countries.

“The ability of these border countries to care for 2.5, now probably pushing towards 3 million refugees is just impossible,” Cox said.

Some of that $1 billion announced by the Biden administration will go toward humanitarian efforts in neighboring countries, which comes as human rights groups warn the situation in Eastern Europe is becoming unsustainable as the number of displaced people continues to rise. People in Poland and Moldova have resorted to hosting refugee families, independent of government aid.

“That’s 10 million people we’re talking about,” Batar said, including the number of internally and externally displaced Ukrainians. “If they all flee, I don’t know if Poland can handle that many people. They will have to rely on the international community’s help.”

But right now, Batar says it’s a waiting game as the U.N. continues to assess the situation and appeal to different countries to resettle refugees.

“Definitely the U.S. may resettle some refugees down the road,” he said. “The European countries will take the majority, but we’ll have to wait and see.”