NYCFPA: The United States should explain how it will assist activists fleeing Ukraine

The United States State Department promises us that “the Biden-Harris Administration is dedicated to putting human rights and democratic ideals at the forefront of our foreign policy,” and it has established new guidelines for how its employees should help human rights defenders (HRDs). 

It outlines the actions that US authorities will take, including as attending HRDs’ judicial processes and releasing public remarks. The guidance says nothing about what it will do to assist HRDs fleeing an invading army. It’s unclear what assistance the US is providing Ukrainian activists who may be compelled to flee.

The US government should make it clear right away what the strategy is for HRDs who may wish to seek sanctuary in the US, depending on how the situation unfolds. Washington should have learnt a lot from its disastrous failure to remove Afghan activists last year, and it is now up to Ukrainian HRDs to warn them what they can – and cannot – expect from the US. 

Last Monday, the Irish government declared officially that all visa requirements between Ukraine and Ireland will be lifted, a measure that would “apply to all Ukrainians.” Poland has set up receiving facilities for Ukrainians escaping the conflict, supplying food and accommodation.

At the weekend, local media reported that thousands of families were attempting to flee Ukraine for Poland in subzero weather, with automobiles forming a 30-mile line to the border. This situation has the potential to deteriorate significantly. 

Washington must state its position on Ukrainian HRDs who may choose to seek asylum in the United States.

Here are a few examples of what the United States should be doing: 

  • Through diplomacy and humanitarian assistance, the US should do everything possible to ensure that Ukraine’s neighbors uphold international refugee law and respect the right to seek asylum, allowing people fleeing the conflict and Russian persecution – including HRDs – to cross borders in search of safety. According to certain accounts, the US State Department is taking measures in this approach. (The Biden administration could also set a good example at home by enforcing refugee law at its borders and repealing Trump-era measures that turn away asylum seekers.)

  • Issue visas. The US State Department should give visas to HRDs who have been forced to escape, as well as their family members, so that they can come to the US, and ensuring that these visas allow for extended stay durations and that they can be renewed as needed. Some activists may decide not to seek for asylum at first in the expectation of being able to return to Ukraine, therefore the extension of visas and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the United States is equally vital to handle their problems.

  • Provide sanctuary and resettlement If HRDs leave Ukraine and are unable to return, they will require long-term refugee status. Those who are already in the US will be eligible to seek for asylum. For individuals who are already in other nations, the United States should make HRDs a priority in any U.S. resettlement or, preferably, accelerated resettlement programs. However, given the historically lengthy process of resettlement and the significance of insuring the safety and ongoing advocacy of HRDs, the US will very certainly need to provide visas or humanitarian parole to send HRDs and their families to the US as soon as possible. 

NYCFPA is not directing any HRD in Ukraine what to do, or that they should escape or seek asylum in the United States or elsewhere. They should, however, be aware of their alternatives as the dangers they confront worsen. If the United States places human rights at the center of its foreign policy, it must explain to HRDs in Ukraine what it is and isn’t providing them right now.

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