Jewish refugee aid group readies for possible humanitarian crisis in Ukraine

‘We’re extremely concerned’: HIAS, with its Ukrainian partner, prepares for potential millions of refugees fleeing Russian invasion, calls on European leaders to get ready

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

A man stands in a crater from an artillery shell in eastern Ukraine, on February 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A man stands in a crater from an artillery shell in eastern Ukraine, on February 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The Jewish-American refugee aid agency HIAS and its Ukrainian partner are readying for a potential humanitarian crisis should Russian troops invade eastern Europe.

A Russian incursion or occupation could cause a massive displacement of millions of civilians, who will need basic services and support after fleeing fighting for safety within Ukraine and in neighboring countries.

HIAS and its Ukrainian sister group, Right to Protection, have been preparing plans and aid for a potential war, using over two decades of experience in the country.

“We’re of course extremely concerned that any conflict that does escalate would lead to the displacement of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people,” said Rachel Levitan, HIAS’ vice president of international policy and relations.

According to US estimates, a Russian invasion could kill up to 50,000 civilians and cause a refugee flood of 1 to 5 million people.

On Thursday, NATO allies rejected Russian assertions it was pulling back troops from exercises that had fueled fears of an attack, rekindling fears of imminent warfare. Russia is believed to have built up some 150,000 military forces around Ukraine’s borders.

Concerns have escalated in the West over what exactly Russia is doing with those troops — including an estimated 60% of the overall Russian ground forces. The Kremlin insists it has no plans to invade, but it has long considered Ukraine part of its sphere of influence and NATO’s eastward expansion an existential threat.

HIAS has worked in Ukraine since 2001, first focusing on helping the country’s Jews. After most Ukrainian Jews who wanted to leave had moved to the US or Israel, HIAS began working with the small number of asylum seekers from elsewhere who had moved to Ukraine.

Its branch in Ukraine, Right to Protection, spun off to become an independent organization in 2013. The two groups still cooperate closely and share resources.

Russian army tanks are loaded onto railway platforms to move back to their permanent base after drills in Russia on Feb. 16, 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

During the fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014, HIAS and Right to Protection used their experience working with refugees to help internally displaced Ukrainians, primarily with legal assistance and humanitarian aid. Some 14,000 people have been killed in the fighting with Russian-backed separatists, which has simmered for nearly eight years.

The fighting has forcibly displaced over 2 million Ukrainians, and 3 million need humanitarian aid due to the conflict, according to the United Nations.

Last year, the UN said 734,000 people were considered internally displaced in Ukraine. There are also around 36,000 stateless people and close to 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Ukraine.

Even without an attack, the sustained Russian pressure on Ukraine has further hobbled its shaky economy and left an entire nation under constant strain.

Right to Protection has 10 offices around the country and employs 160 staffers, around half of whom are on the eastern border. Services they provide include helping people access government benefits, securing basic services in locations that were affected by the conflict and providing mental health support.

“We’re partnering with Right to Protection to make sure they’re positioned so that, should there be an escalation of violence that leads to displacement, they’re positioned to help respond to that. There are a number of different scenarios they’re planning for,” Levitan said.

Russian forces are stationed on several of Ukraine’s borders, meaning an invasion could come from multiple directions, so the organization is unable to direct resources to a specific area to prepare.

A Ukrainian border guard patrols the border with Russia in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, February 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

“If violence came to Kyiv, which has a population of more than 3 million people, then you could see people moving westward and potentially crossing into Poland or elsewhere,” Levitan said. “It will really depend on if, and then how, any kind of conflict manifests to determine what the response would be.”

People usually flee first to other areas of their country in conflicts, then cross borders if they have to. Those who are able to will take planes out of the country, and others will move in with family members in other areas. It all depends on what resources people have, what resources are available and the scale of the violence and threat, Levitan said.

Older people, people with disabilities, female-led households and children are especially vulnerable in the current crisis, HIAS said. The elderly can get cut off from government benefits in Ukraine if they move to a new area, so they often move in with family who can support them.

In a crisis, Right to Protection would deploy humanitarian assistance including cash, food and non-food items, transportation help, protection monitoring and legal counseling.

Levitan said the threat of war should be a call to action for European leaders, who should think through how they would respond to a refugee influx from Ukraine and other similar crises.

“This is one of many potential examples of conflict that will continue to drive displacement into Europe. It’s a situation that member states are going to continue to have to address,” she said.

HIAS said it was ready to partner with other international Jewish groups to help Jews in Ukraine if needed.

Ukraine borders the European Union member states of Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, and non-members Russia, Belarus and Moldova. Ukraine is not a member of the EU.

Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train close to Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Some of Ukraine’s neighbors have warned of a potential refugee crisis.

Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban said a Russian invasion could send hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing into his country.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country was readying for an influx of refugees.

“We must be prepared for the worst,” he said.

Local Polish officials near the border, including town mayors, and the Interior Ministry, have drawn up plans and made preparations for accepting refugees. The plans include housing refugees in hostels, dormitories, sports facilities and other venues.

Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have also discussed preparing for Ukrainian refugees.

Slovakian Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad said those fleeing a war would receive refugee status.

“From the European continent’s perspective, the current situation is the most dangerous since World War II,” Nad said.

European officials expect Russia and its allies to exploit a refugee crisis for political gain to sow divisions in Europe, US officials told NBC.

Israeli officials have repeatedly implored Israelis in Ukraine to leave the country, and have discussed evacuating non-Israeli Jewish Ukrainians.

Army Radio said Thursday 110 Ukrainian Jews are set to arrive in Israel on Sunday as new immigrants, half below the age of 35.

HIAS, founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was started in the US to offer resources and aid to waves of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Later, it worked to resettle Holocaust survivors and Soviet Jewish refugees.

In the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, HIAS shortened its name to the acronym and pivoted to resettling non-Jewish refugees and mobilizing the American Jewish community around advocating for immigrants and refugees.

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