The United States will take in up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, the White House has announced, as more than 3.5 million people have fled the country amid Russia’s continuing bombardment.
In a statement on Thursday, the White House said the Biden administration also would provide more than $1bn in humanitarian assistance, as well as $320m to bolster democracy and human rights in Ukraine and neighbouring nations.
The humanitarian aid will go towards food, shelter, clean water, medical supplies and other assistance, the statement said.
Many of the Ukrainian refugees will be admitted under US law providing for “humanitarian parole”, an avenue used to bring in thousands of Afghans following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.
“This is not something that Poland, or Romania, or Germany should carry on their own,” US President Joe Biden later told reporters in Brussels, where he had joined emergency meetings with European, NATO and G7 leaders to coordinate their response to the crisis.
“This is an international responsibility and the United States as the leader – one of the leaders in the international community – has an obligation to be engaged,” said Biden, adding that he hoped to be able to visit with refugees when he travels to Poland later in the week.
“I’m not supposed to say where I’m going. But anyway, I hope I get to see a lot of people,” he said.
While it has not been announced by the White House, Biden is likely to visit a refugee camp on the Ukrainian border, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett reported from the Belgian capital. “This was not on the president’s schedule, although there had been quite a bit of speculation about it,” she said.
The US and its allies in Europe have imposed a series of sweeping curbs on Russia since the country launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24, targeting the profitable Russian oil-and-gas sector, as well as government officials and wealthy backers of Putin.
But the Biden administration, which earlier this month extended temporary protected status to shield Ukrainians already in the US from deportation, has been under pressure to do more to help Ukrainian refugees.
While Biden had pledged to welcome Ukrainians fleeing war, administration officials have said they believe most will want to stay in Europe, where they can travel visa-free and be with family and friends.
The United Nations has estimated that more than 10 million people have been displaced in the month since Russia’s invasion began, straining support systems inside Ukraine and in neighbouring European countries.
Eastern European countries, most notably Poland, have received a large proportion of the refugees escaping the Russian shelling of cities and towns across Ukraine. Those countries want additional assistance from other nations to take in refugees, with the European Union set to discuss “fair burden sharing”.
In its statement on Thursday, the White House said among the first Ukrainian refugees coming to the US will be those who already have family in the country. US efforts also will focus on helping refugees who are considered particularly vulnerable following the Russian invasion, including LGBTQ people, those with medical needs, journalists and dissidents.
The White House said it would use “the full range of legal pathways”, including the refugee resettlement programme, for Ukrainians seeking to come to the US.
Meanwhile, the US said part of the newly announced $320m to bolster democracy and human rights in Ukraine and neighbouring countries will go towards documenting alleged war crimes.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration had determined that Russian troops had committed war crimes in Ukraine. Last week, Biden himself said he believed Putin was a “war criminal”.
That comment drew immediate rebuke from Russia, which has denied deliberately targeting civilians in Ukraine, and a warning from the Russian foreign ministry that ties between Washington and Moscow were nearing “rupture”.
The UN’s human rights office (OHCHR) said on Thursday that it confirmed at least 1,035 civilians have been killed in Ukraine and 1,650 others wounded since Russia started its offensive – although the true figures are believed to be considerably higher due to delays in reporting from areas with intense hostilities.
“Most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes,” it said.
The White House said the US has deployed a 25-person emergency response team to the region to coordinate the delivery of aid with the UN, NGOs, and the Ukrainian government, while the UN’s World Food Programme is trying to deliver food and supplies to 3.1 million people inside Ukraine.
The US Congress earlier this month passed a $13.6bn aid package for Ukraine, giving the Biden administration ample funding to support both military and humanitarian initiatives.