There has been an outpouring of international support for Ukrainian refugees fleeing Vladimir Putin’s brutal war. Poland, Romania, Hungary, and other front-line countries have welcomed these refugees with open arms, and European Union countries are implementing policies to deal with the over 3 million (and counting) refugees who have fled thus far.
The United States has followed suit, quickly granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ukrainians already in the country and the Biden administration signaled its intent to expand humanitarian migration policies to allow more to come, including a commitment to resettle 100,000 refugees from the war—although concrete plans are still in the works. Polls indicate that accepting Ukrainian refugees has broad support among the American public — the nation’s generosity is on full display.
These steps are welcome and serve as a remarkable example of how the international refugee regime should work. Yet, it also stands in stark contrast to previous responses to migration crises. Not that long ago, European nations sought to increase barriers to entry for Syrian, Iraqi, and other Middle Eastern refugees. Even among those fleeing Ukraine, Africans, Indians, and other foreigners residing in the country have faced hardships trying to cross international boundaries.
Here in the U.S., 30 governors called for a moratorium on Syrian refugee admissions in 2015, and the Trump administration nearly ground refugee resettlement to halt. Asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America were forced to remain in Mexico, families were separated at the border, and children were put into inhumane detention facilities. Under court order, the Biden administration has continued the Trump-era “remain in Mexico” policy toward Central American asylum seekers, and last year Haitians arriving at the U.S. border were routinely turned away.
Why Ukraine is different
Several factors have facilitated broad public acceptance of Ukrainian refugees.
First, Russia is a clear aggressor, launching an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor and indiscriminately attacking civilians. Other conflict zones frequently feature a confusing mix of government forces, extremist groups, criminal organizations, and deep poverty, leading to a degree of ambiguity about why people are fleeing.
Second, there was a long history of Western nations accepting refugees fleeing the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries. Academic research demonstrates that countries are far more accepting of refugees fleeing enemy states, as strategic considerations in such cases are fully congruent with humanitarian responses. Russia is certainly a foreign rival and welcoming refugees fleeing Putin’s aggression is an easy case to make to the public.
Third, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian refugees are women, children, and the elderly, which fits neatly into common narratives about vulnerable groups in war.
Yet, we cannot understate the role of racism and discrimination. Ukrainians are European, white, and Christian, while previous waves of refugees and asylum seekers were not. A wealth of research indicates a strong ethnocentric bias at work in the acceptance of immigrants.
In 2015, Texas Senator Ted Cruz called for barring Syrian Muslim refugees while accepting Syrian Christians, a response that many Americans supported. Non-white refugees are often portrayed as security threats, criminals, or undeserving of care and support, although there is strong evidence that they fully integrate into American society and pursue citizenship at higher rates than other immigrants.
Several commentators have discussed this type of bias before, but a carefully conducted experiment can help to isolate key factors that influence support for refugees.
Research shows that identity matters
In a survey experiment with my co-authors Erin Kearns (University of Omaha) and Joe Young (American University), we examine if the religion of Salvadoran asylum seekers influences the way the American public views them. In particular, we were interested if evangelical Christians – a group which has been overwhelmingly opposed to refugee admissions – are more accepting of particular refugee groups.
In the experiment, we presented respondents with a vignette about a group of asylum seekers from El Salvador awaiting a hearing on their claims. In one experimental condition, we did not mention the religion of the migrants; in another, we indicated that they are from the growing evangelical community in Central America. If no religion is mentioned, evangelical Americans are slightly less likely to support admitting these asylum seekers than the rest of the public.
However, if we mention that the asylum seekers are co-religionists, support among the evangelical community increases a great deal, while hardly budging for other Americans. This comports with social identity theory, which holds that people tend to have more empathy toward groups that are similar to themselves, and can help explain generous responses toward the Ukraine crisis.
The strategic and moral rationale for accepting refugees
The U.S. should certainly extend a helping hand toward Ukrainians, and Biden’s commitment to resettle a significant number of refugees is welcome. It is the right thing to do and it helps ease the burden on our European allies, although a bureaucracy-laden refugee resettlement process has made even this difficult. But this should not obscure the fact that other groups are equally deserving of our protection. Consider the following examples:
- 44,000 Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole since last summer, yet only 200 have been approved, despite the brutal policies the Taliban regime has put in place since assuming power last year.
- The enormous backlog in immigration courts – over 1.6 million cases – has created uncertainty and anxiety for Venezuelans, Burmese, and other groups who were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
- Tens of thousands of asylum seekers – largely from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – have been waiting in Mexico for extended periods and face numerous threats to their safety while their claims are adjudicated.
- 13 million Syrians remain displaced 11 years after the war broke out, while the U.S. resettled fewer than 1,500 in FY 2022. There are far more in need as neighboring countries struggle to cope and aid agencies face severe budget shortfalls.
The U.S. public has historically been ambivalent toward accepting refugees. While America has a long tradition of admitting people fleeing war and persecution, each successive wave of immigrants and refugees has been seen as unwelcome by certain segments of the US population. We cannot allow such biases to influence sound policies. That is why strong, bipartisan leadership is needed to strengthen humanitarian migration programs, and leaders on both sides of the aisle are needed to make the case to their constituents.
During the first 40 years of the refugee resettlement program, it enjoyed widespread support on Capitol Hill, and from both Republican and Democratic presidents. The crisis in Ukraine underscores why refugee admissions is a critical component of a holistic foreign policy strategy, deserving the full support of policy makers. It helps our allies and friends in the region, discredits violent despots such as Putin, and casts a favorable light on the U.S. as a beacon of freedom. More importantly, it helps vulnerable people fleeing for their lives.
These moral and foreign policy imperatives are not unique to Europe or Ukraine; we cannot pick and choose which human beings deserve our care and generosity. From Syria to Venezuela to Myanmar, forced migration presents a challenge to the world and to the United States. Refugees fleeing to NATO allies in Europe may provide an extra rationale to help, although we cannot ignore other volatile and strategically important regions.
A robust, generous – and even-handed – approach to dealing with refugee crises is needed to secure a future in which all people are given an opportunity to live in safety and dignity.