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Home / Blog / U.S. Should Spell Out How It Will Help Activists Needing to Flee Ukraine
February 27, 2022

U.S. Should Spell Out How It Will Help Activists Needing to Flee Ukraine

The U.S. State Department assures us that “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to putting human rights and democratic principles at the center of our foreign policy,” and it has issued new guidelines for how its officials support human rights defenders (HRDs).

It lists the things U.S. officials will do, including attending HRDs’ legal proceedings and issuing public statements. There is nothing in the guidance about what it will do to help HRDs trying to escape from an invading force. It’s far from clear to Ukrainian activists who might be forced to flee what help the United States is offering them.

Human Rights First has for many years, on research trips to Ukraine, documented human rights violations, worked closely with local activists, and produced a series of reports, Congressional briefings, and international media articles on the state of civil society there.

We are in constant communication with local HRDs in the country’s cities and countryside. All are weighing what to do in the face of the Russian advance. Some have fled the major cities to try and escape the bombing.

“I’m contemplating leaving if Russia takes over,” one human rights activist who is currently sheltering in the countryside told me. She has worked on particularly sensitive issues of human rights violations in Crimea, and in calling for sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“The fear is that we will be targeted or put in prison if Putin takes over Ukraine. We need to know what happens if we get to Poland and file our papers at the American embassy there as refugees – will we be welcome?”

Late Saturday night I spoke to Ukrainian Human Rights Defender Lyudmila Yankina of the ZMINA Human Rights Center. She was sheltering from rocket missiles and could hear the heavy fighting above her as we spoke.

“We‘ve known for a while that if Russia wins this battle for Kyiv they will target human rights activists, particularly those who work on LGBT issues and anti-corruption issues,” she said. “It’s already an apocalyptic situation and could get worse. The U.S. should forget all the bureaucracy and help human rights defenders escape if it comes to that. Just ask us to show our passports – we can’t get stuck in a long process needing lots of paperwork. We have literally run from our homes into shelters. We don’t have all our documents. But very soon activists might be asking the U.S. for visas for themselves and their families.”

If forced to flee Ukraine, most HRDs are likely to want to stay in neighboring countries, but some may want to reach the U.S. Some will have family ties there, or might want to advocate directly at the U.N. or with the U.S. government – or to get further away from potential targeting by Putin’s forces.

The U.S. government should make clear immediately what the plan is for HRDs who may, depending on how the situation develops, want to seek refuge in the United States. Washington should have learned plenty from its woeful failure to evacuate Afghan activists last year, and has to tell Ukrainian HRDs what they can - and can’t - expect from the United States

The Irish government last week publicly announced the lifting of all visa requirements between Ukraine and Ireland, a policy that will “apply to all Ukrainians.” Poland has opened reception centers for Ukrainians fleeing the war, providing food and accommodation. 

At the weekend, local reports suggested thousands of families were trying to leave Ukraine for Poland in sub-zero temperatures, with cars queuing for 30 miles to the border. This could get much worse.

Washington needs to spell out what its response is to Ukrainian HRDs who may want to seek safety in the United States.

Here are a few things the United States should be doing:

1. Uphold refugee law. The United States should be doing everything it can, through diplomacy and humanitarian assistance, to ensure that Ukraine’s neighbors uphold international refugee law and respect the right to seek asylum so that people fleeing the conflict and Russian persecution – including HRDs - can cross borders in search of refuge. Some reports indicate the U.S. State Department is taking steps in this direction.  (The Biden administration should also lead by example at home by upholding refugee law at its own borders and ending Trump-era policies that turn away people seeking asylum.) 

2. Issue visas. The U.S. State Department should issue visas to HRDs forced to flee, and their family members, so that they can travel to the United States and ensure these visas allow lengthy visit periods and renew them as needed. Some activists may – at least initially and depending on how the crisis evolves – prefer not to apply for asylum initially in the hope they can return to Ukraine, so the extension of visas and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the United States is also critical to address their situations.    

3. Offer asylum and resettlement. If HRDs leave Ukraine and can’t go back, they will need lasting refugee protection.  Those who are in the United States will be able to apply for asylum.  For those who are in other countries, the United States should ensure that HRDs are among the priorities for any U.S. resettlement or ideally expedited resettlement initiatives. But given the notoriously slow pace of resettlement and the importance of ensuring the safety and continued advocacy of HRDs, the United States will likely need to issue visas or humanitarian parole to bring HRDs and their families to the United States quickly.

Human Rights First is not telling any HRD in Ukraine what they should do, or that they should flee, or apply for refuge in the United States or anywhere else. But they should know what their options are as the dangers they face escalate. If the U.S. administration has human rights at the heart of its foreign policy, it has to immediately explain to HRDs in Ukraine what it is, and isn’t, offering them right now.