The Volokh Conspiracy

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A Double Standard Between Ukrainian and Afghan Refugees?

Critics allege, with some justice, that the Biden Administration is treating the former more favorably than the latter. If so, the right solution is to increase openness to Afghans and others fleeing war and repression, not bar more Ukrainians.


A U.S. Air Force Airman plays the ukulele for children from Afghanistan during Operation Allies Refuge at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Aug. 24, 2021. (Lt. Col. William Powell/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom)


In April, the Biden Administration expanded opportunities for Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia's brutal invasion, to enter the United States. Most notably, it has offered Ukrainians a limited form of private refugee sponsorship, under which they can enter the US if sponsored by a private individual or organization. But critics, including refugee advocates and a group of Democratic senators, argue that this policy treats Ukrainian refugees better than similarly situated Afghan refugees, fleeing the brutal oppression of the Taliban, which retook the country in the wake of the US withdrawal last year:

A group of Democratic senators on Thursday called on the Biden administration to account for what they said was "disparate" treatment of Afghans who have sought to flee their country since the U.S. withdrawal compared with Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

President Biden's recent creation of a program to ease a pathway to the United States for Ukrainian war refugees cast the administration's more restrictive policy toward Afghans and others into "stark" relief, Democratic Sens. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) wrote in an open letter to Biden and the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday.

"While the U.S. response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has been admirable, it is unfortunate that this welcoming and accommodating model is not the standard for all humanitarian crises, wherever they occur, whether in Haiti, throughout Central America, in Africa, the Pacific, and elsewhere," the senators wrote….

The Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) program, created last month, allows Ukrainians to apply for temporary refuge, known as humanitarian parole, in the United States if they meet certain basic criteria, including that they lived in Ukraine at the time of the Russian invasion and that they have a U.S.-based sponsor to vouch for them. The Russia invasion of Ukraine began in February.

Since the U4U program launched last month, "nearly 22,000 Ukrainian nationals have been authorized to travel to the United States to apply for parole," said Angelo Fernández Hernández, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

While refugee advocates have applauded the program for its humanitarian breadth, it has also been criticized by several American veterans groups, refugee resettlement organizations, and Afghan advocates, who say the administration has simultaneously hindered tens of thousands of Afghans from seeking refuge the same way….

Administration officials say the comparison is unfair. The Biden administration last year brought more than 76,000 Afghan evacuees to the United States, most as humanitarian parolees, after a chaotic August withdrawal ushered in the collapse of the U.S.-backed government and the return of Taliban control.

Two thousand more Afghans have followed in the months since, and Operation Allies Welcome, as the government has called the mass resettlement effort, represents its own "separate pipeline to welcome our Afghans allies," said a senior official….

The U4U program is far from a general open door to Ukrainian refugees. It has a variety of limitations, including the need for a US sponsor, and the fact that it offers only temporary residency and employment rights.

Nonetheless, the critics have a point. Ukrainian refugees eligible for U4U do have some advantages that are not extended to similarly situated Afghans:

DHS says that since July [2021], a few weeks before the Afghan government's collapse, it has received 45,000 applications for humanitarian parole from those unable to evacuate on a U.S. military flight. Because there is no dedicated resource like Uniting for Ukraine to facilitate Afghans' applications, their requests have flooded the government's general humanitarian parole program. The associated fee is $575 per applicant — or, as critics note, more than what the World Bank estimates an average Afghan earned annually before the U.S. withdrawal.

This process also requires applicants to prove they are under direct threat, advocates say. "You basically have to show that you, as an individual human being, are being targeted somehow by the Taliban. And that's obviously a very difficult thing to establish — you know, unless the Taliban sends you a letter or something," [Adam] Bates said.

In principle, both Afghans and Ukrainians can apply for admission under the conventional refugee system. But in addition to requiring proof of being specifically targeted for persecution by the government or other forces controlling the region in question, the refugee system is almost completely dysfunctional, thanks to its near-gutting under the Trump Administration and Biden's failure (so far, at least) to fix it. The program admitted only a record-low of 11,411 refugees from all countries combined, in fiscal year 2021.

Afghans and Ukrainians, of course, are not the only ones fleeing war and severe oppression. The same can be said of Syrian refugees and many others. They too do not have access to programs like U4U.

Some may assume that the reason for these double standards is racial: most Ukrainian refugees are white, while most Afghans, Syrians, and Africans, are not. While racial and ethnic bigotry probably does play a role in similar double standards in Europe, in the US case, I think the main factors are 1) Ukrainian refugees are far more visibly in the news right now, and 2) the US is supporting Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression, while the Biden Administration (like Trump's before it) clearly wants to wash its hands of Afghanistan.

Still, there is a degree of unjust discrimination here, even if the motive for it isn't racial. It is even arguable that the US has an especially great obligation to Afghan refugees, because their plight is in large part a result of failures of US policy in Afghanistan. By contrast, the US government has far less moral responsibility for the situation in Ukraine.

But, as I have explained in previous writings on this topic, the right way to address any double standards is not to bar more Ukrainians, but to open our doors to others fleeing comparable war and oppression. We should end discrimination here by "leveling up," not "leveling down." Doing so would simultaneously promote justice, serve US strategic interests by "draining" human capital from our adversaries, and bolster our economy by expanding growth and scientific innovation.

Private refugee sponsorship of the sort now made available to Ukrainians can and should be applied to other groups. Immigration policy experts have long advocated that approach. President Biden even issued an executive order promoting private sponsorship, early in his administration, though the administration does not appear to have done much to implement it.