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“The 21st century
is being defined by displacement. Much of that has to do with conflict
and war. A lot of it has to do with climate change. Even more has to do
with economic instability.”
That’s the assessment of Georgina Ramsay, assistant professor of
anthropology at the University of Delaware. In a week that has seen at
least 600,000 refugees escaping Ukraine in the face of a large-scale
military invasion by Russia, a major escalation of a conflict that began
in 2014. Ramsay is a political and legal anthropologist who has
conducted extensive fieldwork with refugees and displaced people,
studying resettlement in Australia and the United States, urban asylum
and refugee camps in Uganda and internal displacement in the Democratic
Republic of Congo.
UDaily checked in with Ramsay to discuss the exodus of refugees from Ukraine as Russian attacks on the country have intensified.
Q: What’s your sense of how European nations, the U.S. and its
other allies, are responding to the growing refugee crisis in Ukraine?
Is enough being done?
Ramsay: I wouldn’t put the U.S. and Europe in the same
category of response. We’re seeing the U.S. take quite a hands-off
approach to the Ukrainian refugee crisis and I think there’s a reason
What we’re seeing with the European response generally is an
unprecedented opening up of their borders. In less than a week, more
than 600,000 people moved across national borders to seek refuge within
an overwhelmingly welcoming set of nations wanting to provide protection
to them (at least temporarily). In that sense, Europe’s response has
been very unusual in that they are allowing this movement and waiving
legal requirements for border crossing, waiving COVID rules as well. In
another unprecedented move, the European Union (EU) is meeting tomorrow
(Thursday) to discuss a completely new legal approach to responding to
the displacement of people from Ukraine, which would enable them to be
settled in any EU country for three years without having to go through
any legal asylum process. That is really interesting from many
standpoints. It’s good in the sense that people need protection but it
also raises questions about the kind of people that Europe offers
protection to and the kind of people who, in contrast, have their
Just for comparison, if you look at the response during the 2015
refugee crisis which saw hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking
asylum—or even the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border just three months
ago—many refugees who were attempting to cross borders into Europe were
being stopped, put into detention centers, deported and just generally
being used as political pawns. EU nations that were supposed to be
celebrating the Schengen border approach of free movement were actually
building walls, “fortressing” Europe, so to speak. We saw countries like
Hungary, France and Austria actually putting up physical barriers to
stop refugees crossing. What we’ve been seeing in the past week is the
removal of legal and physical borders to enable what Filippo Grandi, the
head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is saying is
the biggest refugee crisis within Europe in the 21st century.
Q: What’s behind the U.S. decision to take the hands-off response that you mentioned earlier?
Ramsay: I personally am deeply affected by the tragic
situation unfolding in Ukraine, and I want to see extensive humanitarian
responses to their protection needs shared across those nations with
the resources to do so. However, the Biden administration hasn’t made
any specific claims to provide protection to Ukrainian refugees as we
speak, at least in terms of resettlement. That could change, of course.
But I actually doubt it, because while the public is pressuring the
administration to do something, the reality is the legalities of getting
refugees through the resettlement process—to get from second country of
asylum into the United States, Canada, wherever that might be—in
ordinary circumstances, that takes years.
Now you might think, “What about Afghanistan in 2021?” That was an
absolute exception to the aforementioned process and I think the U.S.
managed as well as they could in terms of providing refuge to thousands
of people who were unexpectedly evacuated out of Afghanistan, basically
overnight. But that was an evacuation of vulnerable people; it was not
the standard process of refugee resettlement. It came with all of these
complications because the people being evacuated had not, for the most
part, been processed for resettlement prior to fleeing. So the first
thing that happened is that they got put into camps that were hastily
set up in decommissioned military bases. And the public was asking, “Why
are we doing that, aren’t they refugees?” Well, we have to get the
clearances and organize placements that would ordinarily be part of the
processing of refugees for resettlement. That was an extraordinary legal
process set up to respond to the specific situation of the evacuation
of Afghan nationals, not a standard or routine situation. That was at
least 70,000 people and we actually only just got the last of those
Afghan refugees out last week just as the first Ukrainian refugees began
So, the U.S. is still reeling from the very rapid response to the
Afghan evacuation. There’s a question of could we bring Ukrainians into
these camps, do the same evacuation process? But do we want to be
perpetuating this camp model? Those Afghans that were brought into the
camps, many still don’t have officially recognized refugee status in the
U.S. We call them refugees in the media, that’s the perception, but
technically many of these people are legally termed “parolees” and many
haven’t even been granted asylum in the U.S. yet. They are legally
vulnerable. Right now, resettlement organizations in the U.S. are
fighting to have the Biden administration create a legal process that
would automatically transfer the parolee status of those evacuated
Afghan people into asylum status. Because if they continue to be
classified as parolees, technically, the U.S. government could still
turn around, in say the next election cycle, and deport them. And the
process of applying for asylum is exhausting and requires people to
re-live their trauma. Moreover, resettlement organizations have been
gutted by funding cuts from the previous administration and the economic
impact of the pandemic. With all these complications, there is a
question of whether the U.S. is equipped to manage another rapid refugee
resettlement process. And with Europe stepping up, the Biden
administration seems hesitant to even try.
Disappointingly, the Biden administration has not committed to
providing what’s called “Temporary Protection Status” to Ukrainians who
are already in the U.S., which would be an easy and important move in
terms of our protection responsibilities. If you’re a Ukrainian on a
student visa or a work visa, there is currently no recognition of the
fact that your country may be unsafe to return to when your visa runs
out. The administration may revisit this in the future, but to not even
step up to offer this basic protection right now: What is that telling
us? [Editor's note: On March 3, the Biden administration
announced it was granting Temporary Protection Status to those
Ukrainians already in the U.S.]
One other thing to keep in mind is this Ukrainian crisis is so fast
moving. Many Ukrainians aren’t necessarily sure what they want to do
yet. Is this a permanent move for them? Will they ever be able to go
back? If you put yourself in their shoes, if you’ve built this home and a
life would you be ready to say in the space of a week, “I want to
settle in another country?” Before we start saying let’s bring all these
people here for protection, let’s try to get a sense of what the
Ukrainians themselves want to do.
Q: There have been charges that African students trying to leave
Ukraine have faced racism and segregation at the border. Is this the
kind of ugly circumstance we typically see in these chaotic, crisis
Ramsay: That situation exemplifies how migrants are treated at
EU borders more generally. Many countries in the EU practice implicit
forms of border racialization that make the crossing of those who are
seen as belonging much easier than the crossing of those who are seen as
“others.” In this situation, we are seeing some people from African,
Middle Eastern, South Asian and Asian backgrounds attempting to cross
out of Ukraine having their movement treated differently, with suspicion
and even hostility, than those who are assumed to be European or
Ukrainian, ethnically. From what I understand, there are competing
discourses about what happened at the border with certain racialized
groups. Some Ukrainian officials claimed that the prevention of some
groups from crossing the border was the result of a visa issue, not
because of racism. But I have read other stories where it was pretty
clear racism was at play, in the sense that people have described being
beaten by border guards on the Ukrainian side when attempting to pass
through, or were led to separate border gates where they were not
allowed to cross. While I don’t know the specifics of the situation
firsthand, it speaks to the broader issue of whose mobility is
sanctioned and whose is controlled in the European context.
Q: How do you see this refugee crisis playing out? You’ve had
people make an initial decision to get out and it seems that will be
intensified as people flee a war zone.
Ramsay: At the end of 2020, the United Nations estimated there
were 82.5 million displaced people worldwide. I always contextualize
this number for my students: That’s the population of Germany, it’s
three times the population of Australia, my home country. The 21st
century is being defined by displacement. Much of that has to do with
conflict and war. A lot of it has to do with climate change. Even more
has to do with economic instability. With these displacement issues, we
shouldn’t be using the term crisis anymore, this is becoming a
predictable aspect of life in this century and we need to develop
political, economic and social responses to deal with it in a
While the Ukrainian situation is urgent, displacement — theirs and
that of others — is not a temporary problem. At the moment, there’s
considerable attention on Ukrainian refugees and the EU is responding
accordingly, with a very humanitarian approach. But I would urge
everyone to not lose steam. Will the response to displaced Ukrainians
still be so humanitarian in six months? A year?
When we think more broadly about refugees and the displacements we’re
witnessing on a global scale, this cycling through of public attention —
and not recognizing the double standards of how nations respond to
flows of refugee migration — are real issues we have to address.
In terms of displacement and refugees, we are still using the
instruments that came out of World War II. Almost every nation continues
to use the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) legal definition
of a refugee, which was developed in the wake of that war. But we are
facing entirely new conditions of mass displacement. That definition is
based on personal persecution. You are only a refugee if you are an
individual being persecuted for your political beliefs or you are a
targeted group. What about the gray zones of war, such as in Ukraine,
where people are fleeing the effects of violence but are not necessarily
themselves being the targets of violence? What about the situation of
the people who will flee the economic fallout of this and other wars?
What about those fleeing rising sea levels, or extreme heat, or flood
insecurity resulting from unstable weather patterns or general political
instability? The UNHCR definition doesn’t apply to these situations.
Being written in 1951, how could it?
I think we need a more long-term approach. We need to start
developing different legal instruments and more robust responses to
displacement that center the humanity of those fleeing situations that
are unlivable. We need to remember that, when our attention to the
immediate “crisis” wanes, there is every possibility that the legal
instruments we have to protect these groups — Ukrainians right now, but
also the millions of other refugees worldwide — will fail them and
intensify their vulnerability. Continuing to educate ourselves on these
situations and petitioning our politicians to shift our current approach
is crucial to ensuring a more just world.
Article by Peter Kerwin
Published March 4, 2022
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