Afterthoughts: Ukraine and Dilemmas of Displacement

It’s understandable that so much attention during the State of the Union was devoted to discussing the war in Ukraine and that Biden foregrounded the issue to set the tone of his address. From a strategic perspective, Biden officials are undoubtedly aware that the situation offers somewhat of a second chance to show the U.S. public and allies overseas that the administration has some strengths on foreign policy after its widely criticized management of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. During Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, he not only pledged to restore America’s “respected leadership on the world stage” but also specifically promised to “fight back against Russia’s attacks on Western democracies.” Russia’s escalating invasion of Ukraine presents his administration with a direct test of that campaign rhetoric and provides Biden with an opportunity to claim he is rejuvenating U.S. leadership in the liberal world order—what he referred to as “the free world” during his speech.  

The loss of life and humanitarian consequences of the war have also captured public attention in ways that demanded a response during the speech. Biden focused heavily on U.S. work “inflicting pain on Russia” through sanctions, diplomacy, and the NATO alliance. Another dimension of the conflict, however, involves forced migration. Within the first few days of Russian troops pressing into the country, over 150,000 people fled across the border into neighboring European countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. As of now—roughly one week into the war – over 660,000 civilians have fled. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) anticipates over 5 million Ukrainians might become displaced if conditions continue to deteriorate.

Ukrainians seeking refuge in other countries are mostly women, elderly people, and children, as men of “fighting age” have been ordered to remain in the country. That aspect shapes the global politics of welcoming refugee groups. Research on gender norms and humanitarian protection has shown that portraits of women and children are more easily constructed as innocent, vulnerable, and deserving of rescue. There are already ample stories of governments around the world opening their doors and volunteering to host and house Ukrainian refugees. Some state and local officials here in the United States have also vocalized support for welcoming displaced Ukrainians into their jurisdictions. During his State of the Union, President Biden reinforced positive images of Ukrainians as courageous and proud people with an iron will. He spoke about the deep bond Americans share with Ukrainians. This kind of language enables members of the public to imagine Ukrainian refugees as “like us” and non-threatening.

On one level, this discourse and outpouring of support through offers of welcome appear to affirm notions of international solidarity around refugee responsibility-sharing. For those of us who research refugee and migration policy, it feels like a very rare moment in which global norms encouraging the protection of displaced people are aligning with public sentiments and government policies. Biden’s State of the Union emphasis on how much Ukrainians and Americans are alike, however, also raises more complex questions around when certain refugee groups are understood as deserving of protection.

In the United States, we can contrast current words of welcome for Ukrainians, for example, with the fierce opposition expressed several years ago towards Syrian refugees. In Europe, too, we can see a contrast between the receptive stances towards displaced Ukrainians and previous responses to people fleeing war and mass atrocity crimes in the Middle East and North Africa. Biden’s constructions of Ukrainians as deeply bonded with Americans during the State of the Union and insistence that “we stand with you” have ultimately left me with questions around who counts as worthy of protection and solidarity in U.S. foreign policy.

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