WASHINGTON — The tidal wave of refugees trying to flee war-torn Ukraine is overwhelming the State Department’s ability to help them.
What do you want to know
- More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled their country since Russia attacked on February 24
- Some want to come to the United States, but face staggering wait times at US embassies and consulates in Central and Eastern Europe
- At the US Embassy in Chisinau, Moldova, the wait to apply for a visitor visa was 329 days, according to the US State Department.
More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled their country since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, the UN reported on Friday. Some of them apply for visas to come to the United States, but face staggering waits at American embassies and consulates in Central and Eastern Europe just to apply.
On Friday, the wait for an appointment at the US consulate in Krakow, Poland, to apply for a visitor visa was 100 days, according to the State Department.
The wait was 134 days at the US Embassy in Warsaw, 157 days at the US Consulate in Frankfurt, 170 days in Vienna and 329 days – almost 11 months – at the US Embassy in Chisinau, Moldova.
The U.S. embassies in Bucharest, Romania, and Budapest, Hungary, are so overwhelmed that they don’t even book appointments except for emergencies, defined as travel needs “to critical infrastructure support in the United States, or a life-and-death health emergency.”
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, many US consulates and embassies had long wait times for appointments due to the pandemic. The flood of refugees quickly compounded the delays.
“I think at the start of the crisis there were appointments available quite quickly, but now there’s just a big backlog,” said David Strashnoy, a Ukrainian-born immigration lawyer and former US consular officer. “It’s the perfect storm because now you have a crisis, a refugee crisis.
State Department officials told Spectrum News they are “working to ensure that our embassies and consulates in the region have sufficient staff resources” after the suspension of consular services in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. following the Russian invasion.
Department officials added that they “prioritize consular support to U.S. citizens and their immediate family members.”
Refugees able to obtain an appointment at the embassy or consulate then face another hurdle: proving their eligibility for a temporary visa. This requires applicants to demonstrate their intention to eventually return to their home country.
“Now you have a Ukrainian candidate who has to do this demonstration, he still has to overcome this burden, when your house is bombed, it could be a difficult thing to do,” Strashnoy said.
“Therein lies the challenge, not everyone will be approved for these types of visas,” he added.
One problem, Strashnoy said, is that “the rules haven’t changed — there’s no refugee visa in the United States. The tourist visa is not necessarily intended for refugees. It’s still for someone going to the United States for a short-term purpose.
Strashnoy and another Ukrainian-born immigration lawyer, Andrey Plaskin, said they have been inundated with frantic calls from people hoping to bring refugee friends and relatives from Ukraine to the United States.
“I work 12 hour days, seven days a week,” Plaskin said.
“I get a lot of phone calls from my family members, in a lot of different situations,” he added. “I have a mother that I work with who has two small children in Ukraine. She was able to get them out of the country, to Germany.
Plaskin said he believed the State Department was trying to do its best.
“I have received messages from the National Visa Center that all Ukrainian cases are being processed as a priority and basically they will come to us when they come to us,” he said. you know.”
It is not known how many Ukrainians want to enter the United States. Strashnoy and Plaskin said they would do everything possible to help Ukrainians navigate the process.
“I have done free consultations for all Ukrainians in this situation and will continue to do so,” Strashnoy said.
“People’s lives are the number one priority,” Plaskin said. “But in general, to see this is just unthinkable, it’s unimaginable.”