Since Russia’s brutal invasion on Feb. 24, more than a million Ukrainians have left to seek safety in neighboring countries, and about a hundred thousand have been displaced within Ukraine. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, up to four million refugees could be forced to leave Ukraine if the situation escalates.
How do you pack for an escape? My family knows, having lived through this experience twice. I have heard my parents’ story so many times that I can see it unfold in my mind.
It is December 1978 and I am less than a year old. I am swaddled tightly in my parents’ arms as we travel by train. The weather is frigid and so is our train car. My parents take pieces of clothing from a suitcase and cover me with them to try to keep me warm. I am hungry and crying. My parents have brought me on the most momentous trip of their lives. We are leaving Bulgaria, and the Iron Curtain, behind.
Years later, in June 1989, we are living in a tiny village in Turkey. My dad is the only physician there. Patients knock on our door every night, waking us up. Usually, we fall right back asleep, but that night we are all awake, staring out a window. Soon our guests arrive, ending their long journey from Bulgaria. That night, I meet my uncles, aunts, and cousins for the first time. They carry with them basic necessities (food, blankets, documents) and their most cherished possessions (photo albums, kids’ favorite toys, family heirlooms), leaving behind their apartments, pieces of furniture they collected piece by piece through government rationing schemes, and most of their savings. They are not the only ones making this trip. Over the course of the next few weeks, more than a quarter-million ethnic Turks are forced out of their homes by the communist regime in Bulgaria. They seek refuge in Turkey, their ancestral land.
My family’s experience pales in comparison to the suffering people of Ukrainians on the move, or the plight of nearly 27 million refugees worldwide.
We found a welcoming home in Turkey, an immediate path to citizenship, and opportunities for education and work. This is not the case for most refugees today: more than 6.6 million refugees live in camps; a reported 4.3 million remain stateless. In 2020, only 250,000 people among the existing refugee population have returned home; about 34,000 have been resettled and just about 34,000 have been naturalized in a new country. The pace of our solutions as a global community cannot keep up with the massive global humanitarian need.
Why refugees suffer
The current refugee protocol is based on the principles established in the 1967 Geneva Convention. When the protocol was first adopted, relatively few people reached affluent democratic states as refugees or asylum-seekers. But this situation changed in recent years with the violent conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia. Over the past decade, the refugee population in the world has more than doubled. In 2015 alone, European countries received a record 1.3 million asylum applications.
In response to increasing numbers, many Western countries have found ways of evading the spirit of the refugee protocol. For example, nations insisted that asylum claims be filed in the first country of arrival, which is often a neighboring country since refugees typically travel over land. This strategy ensures that refugees remain away from affluent countries that do not border refugee-generating regions and unfairly shifts the burden to developing nations. As a result, today, 85% of refugees live in poor and middle-income countries, and 73% of them are in countries that neighbor the conflict from which refugees are fleeing. This is problematic because refugees end up in places that are already low in resources. It is also ironic because developing countries, often criticized on human rights issues, welcome millions of refugees while rich democracies spend their efforts on keeping refugees out.
“Developing countries, often criticized on human rights issues, welcome millions of refugees while rich democracies spend their efforts on keeping refugees out.”
Recent strategies to repel refugees included bilateral agreements, such as those between Mexico and the United States and the European Union and Turkey. In 2016, the European Union offered Turkey 6 billion euros to assist the 3.7 million Syrian refugees who had reached its territory fleeing the destruction perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military interventions. In return for the funds, Turkey was to take steps to stop refugees from crossing into Europe. Any refugees who made it to Greece could now be returned to Turkey. This agreement was recently renewed with an additional 3 billion euros in funding. This leaves refugees with no option other than to stay in Turkey, a country currently dealing with a severe economic crisis. It also gives them only temporary relief until the EU funds run out.
‘No home to return to’
So far, the initial reception of Ukrainian refugees seems more positive compared with the obstacles erected for Syrian refugees. Poland and Hungary, two countries with nationalist governments that have shied away from admitting refugees in the past, have already welcomed thousands of Ukrainians. The fact that Ukrainians, who are largely white, are accepted into these nations, while most Black refugees from Africa have been denied entrance, has caused some to raise concerns about racism.
But we are still in the early days. The sympathy that pours out easily in the beginning of a conflict can slowly die down. We become numb to numbers and our compassion fades. Consider the Syrian case. Four years into the conflict, despite the rising death toll and number of displaced people, researchers found little public engagement and trickling donations to aid campaigns. The photographs of a Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, brought the attention back, but only for a brief period.
We cannot afford to make the same mistake again. We cannot look away. The horrific situation in Ukraine should remind us of our moral responsibility to support those seeking safety and stability everywhere. Short-term needs of refugees are already apparent: We need to expand reception centers in neighboring states. We need to take steps to address the specific vulnerabilities of women and children, who make up the majority of initial refugees as men remain behind to fight. But we also need to think about the long term. All nations should accept refugee resettlement as a formal duty rather than a discretionary option. All nations should be open to accepting refugees even if their border is not the first one refugees reach.
I saw firsthand how cruel an unchecked regime can be. Soon after my family was expelled, the communist rule collapsed in Bulgaria. But it was already too late for us to return. “There is no home to return to,” my aunt would say. But the idea of that home never vanished. Today, the most cherished object in my mother’s home is a chipped blue vase that she packed before leaving for Turkey. Its missing piece must be somewhere in her hometown in Bulgaria.
We cannot let that happen to the Ukrainian people. We need to unite not just in providing relief to those on the move, but also in supporting those resisting the invasion and putting their lives at stake to protect the homes that refugees long to return to.
Filiz Garip is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. She is the author of “On the Move: Changing Mechanisms of Mexico-U.S. Migration.” She was a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She’s discussing the global impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on Friday, March 4 at noon. Watch here.