The Desperate Uncertainty of Ukranian Refugees

The Economist, 22.02.2023
A year after the invasion, some are anxious to return. Others are putting down new roots

On a clear day Bogdan Savchenko’s 21st-floor flat offers panoramic views over Kyiv. One landmark is a high-rise office building left scarred by a Russian drone attack on October 10th. That was the day a fresh wave of strikes opened a new chapter in the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine.

Last summer, when Kyiv was mostly quiet, Mr Savchenko’s wife and daughter returned from exile in Austria and Poland, where they had fled after Russia’s invasion in February. But the October attack sent the family fleeing for a second time, to Warsaw. (As a military-aged man, Mr Savchenko may not leave.) The family is desperate to be reunited in Kyiv. That has put their lives on hold: Mr Savchenko’s daughter is not enrolled in a local school, has no Polish friends and is not learning the language. But with Russian missile attacks coming every week or two, they do not know when it will be safe enough to return.

Their dilemma is not uncommon. Russia’s invasion has caused the biggest wave of refugees in Europe since the second world war. Up to 8m Ukrainians have scattered across the continent. Many have even gone to Russia, though not all voluntarily. In smaller countries, such as Estonia, they have markedly boosted the population (see chart). Hundreds of thousands have gone farther afield, to America, Canada, Israel and beyond. Millions more are displaced within Ukraine.

Europe has handled this influx much better than it did a similar, though smaller, wave of migrants in 2015-16. For the first time the eu has invoked the Temporary Protection Directive (tpd), which grants Ukrainians rights to residency and work for up to three years. The 4m or so who have registered under the tpd are almost all women and children. They are spared the process of claiming asylum, which helps relieve stretched asylum systems.

But a year after the invasion, governments are lifting their eyes from the immediate emergency and beginning to think about the longer term. The biggest question they face is how to manage the integration of people who may wish to return home as soon as possible, but cannot know when that will be. A survey in September found that 81% of Ukrainian refugees hoped to go back eventually.


Impossible choices

Talking to them, though, often reveals more complicated attitudes. An aspiration to return mingles with an acceptance that conditions in Ukraine may make it impossible. In the meantime new lives present their own demands, from finding work to seeking housing and schooling children. Some have decided to start anew in their countries of refuge. Others still plan to go back. (Millions have already done so.) Many remain caught between worlds, unwilling to contemplate a future in an unfamiliar land, but unable to return home.

Alla Teslia is from Kharkiv, a war-ravaged city in north-east Ukraine. She now lives in a repurposed hotel in west Berlin, along with 200-odd fellow Ukrainian Jews. After a Friday-night Shabbat dinner, she explains her dilemma. She has nothing but praise for the welcome offered by her German hosts. She uses her abundant free time to learn German and to care for her disabled husband. But Germany is not her home, she says, battling away tears: “I don’t see a future here.” And yet she cannot conceive of circumstances under which it would feel safe to go back.

Others manage double lives as they weigh their options. Aliona is a 32-year-old from Kyiv who fled to the Ukrainian countryside after the Russian invasion. In May she accepted her friends’ entreaties to move to Berlin after realising that “my life was going nowhere”. Like many refugees, she thought her stint abroad would last only a few weeks. But now she divides her time between the two capitals, her movements determined largely by the end of various rental contracts in Berlin’s erratic housing market. She accepts she is not really integrating. And yet Germany’s lively capital is starting to work its magic on her. “Every time I go back to Kyiv it’s hard to leave,” she says. “But when I’m [in Berlin] for more than a week I feel all these possibilities.”

How do people choose to stay or go back? Surveys suggest that conditions in Ukraine matter more than those where people have taken refuge. “When we win the war” was the most common answer when The Economist asked refugees under what conditions they would consider going home. But the definition of victory stretched from the confinement of fighting to Ukraine’s east to the dethroning of Vladimir Putin and even the dismemberment of the Russian Federation.

Calculations also change over time as new lives take on their own momentum. Lena is a television presenter from Mariupol, a city in south-east Ukraine now occupied by Russia. Last March, after spending two weeks in an underground bomb shelter, she and her family fled the city. Three days later, her apartment was levelled. They managed to reach Warsaw. Lena’s daughter, who had secured a university place in Kyiv, was desperate to attend. But eventually Lena persuaded her that it was unsafe, and she began her studies in Krakow instead. A younger son is now enrolled in a Polish school. Now Lena thinks her family’s future lies in Poland—at least for a while. “I don’t think we’ll go back in the next two years. We lost everything. There is nothing to go back to.”

Many things weigh on refugees’ decisions. Schooling is one. Most adults have come with their children. Parents must consider the timing of school years, in the host country as well as Ukraine. Many send their children to local schools during the day while home-schooling them in the evening with the Ukrainian curriculum. That is no small task for what, in most cases, are single-parent households.

And laws in host countries vary. In Germany Ukrainian children must attend local schools. But in Poland they can opt out of them in favour of online lessons with Ukrainian ones. That is a relief to parents with an eye on return who are keen to ensure their children do not lose touch with the Ukrainian curriculum—and to Ukrainian leaders, who fear losing a generation to what some have called “Polonisation”.

Perhaps they need not worry. By one estimate, just 31% of Ukrainian refugee children in Poland attend local schools. The government prepared 400,000 extra places for Ukrainian children in September. But pupil numbers have actually fallen since then. Perhaps 200,000 children are unaccounted for, says Jedrzej Witkowski, an analyst at the Centre for Citizenship Education, and “no one is interested in knowing” how many of them are following Ukrainian lessons online. He fears the emergence in Poland of a generation of Ukrainian “neets” (young people not in education, employment or training).

A second factor is local labour markets. Reliable cross-country data are scant. But the oecd, a rich-country think-tank, says that Ukrainian refugees seem to be finding work more quickly than previous groups. In Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands, more than half of Ukrainian women have found work less than a year after fleeing. The typical refugee cohort can take ten years to reach that point.

In part, that reflects the sorts of people that have arrived from Ukraine. Around two-thirds have some tertiary education, higher than the average in both the eu and Ukraine. Many have taken advantage of existing networks of expatriate Ukrainians, especially in Poland. Geographical and cultural proximity also helps. And “the willingness to work among refugees has been extraordinary,” says Henri Viswat, who runs the Polish office of Randstad, an employment agency. Sympathetic employers in countries like Poland and Romania have tried to accommodate the new arrivals with perks such as free child care.

Refugees have also found themselves in drum-tight labour markets. Unemployment in Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic—which account for over half of Ukrainian refugees in the eu—is below 3%. Poland’s fast-growing economy has long sucked in Ukrainian workers. Around 1.3m, mostly men, were there before the war began. And although many of Europe’s economies are slowing, Mr Viswat says plenty of demand remains in sectors like manufacturing and logistics. Soon after Russia’s invasion, representatives from Tönnies, a German meatpacking company, were spotted trying to recruit refugees at the Ukraine-Poland border. (After being accused of insensitivity the firm apologised, saying it was just trying to help.)

Still, many skilled refugees end up underemployed. Language is one barrier: nearly half of the Ukrainians that arrived in Poland last spring spoke no Polish at all. (Many are now learning, and the languages are closely related.) Others have found jobs where fluency matters less, often including off-the-books, cash-in-hand work. A lack of child care is a frequent issue. Qualifications earned abroad may not transfer easily. Some regulated professions, such as pharmacy or architecture, seem likely to resist the idea of relaxing entry requirements for those who trained abroad.

Yet underemployment need not be a big problem for now, says Jean-Christophe Dumont, a migration expert at the OECD. Refugees can work below their skill levels as they find their feet. Take Olena from Marhanets, an industrial town on the Dnieper river close to the front line in southern Ukraine. After qualifying as an engineer she began technical work in a factory at home. But after fleeing to Warsaw last summer she took a job in a logistics warehouse, packing clothes and bags for export.

She is highly overqualified. But she takes great pride in her work, describing her satisfaction in presenting things beautifully and the sense of camaraderie among her (mainly Ukrainian) colleagues. Warsaw, with its diversified economy and high standard of living, has “changed my mentality,” she says. When the war is over and she can return home, she hopes to apply the lessons she has picked up in Poland.

A third crucial issue is housing. The arrival of refugees sent rents rocketing in places like Warsaw and Wroclaw. It is nearly impossible for those without local family or friends to find accommodation in popular cities like Berlin. The warm welcome received by Ukrainians is fraying in places. “Us renters understand, but we’re not happy,” says Kamil, a Warsaw local. “We hope that when the war is over [the Ukrainians] will leave and the prices will drop again.” Some who gamely invited refugees into their homes last year are wondering how long their welcome must last.

Seeking to spread the burden, the German government encourages refugees to move to small towns or villages. In some cases eligibility for benefits is linked to a willingness to move. But while that may alleviate pressure on urban housing markets and public services, it is less helpful in integrating refugees. Towns and villages tend to have fewer amenities, language courses and, often, job opportunities.

Many areas are struggling to accommodate the newcomers. Migration from Ukraine to Germany was nearly 1m last year, on top of almost 220,000 other people who applied for asylum, the highest number since 2016. The strain is beginning to tell. Some German cities refuse to accept any more refugees. One state minister has warned that the public mood “threatens to tip over”. The Polish government is about to start charging refugees living in state-provided shelters, in the hope of nudging more into jobs (and private housing).

One crucial question is how many Ukrainian men will choose to join their families once they are permitted to leave. Having lost a sizeable chunk of its working-age female population to its European neighbours, Ukraine will be loth to shed its men too. But any patriotic commitment among Ukrainians to rebuild their shattered land may be more than countered by the lure of better professional and financial conditions in the eu—especially when that means joining wives and children who have begun to integrate.

Pawel Kaczmarczyk, director of the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw, speculates that the end of the war could see a second great migration when the extent of the damage is laid bare and Ukraine struggles to manage reconstruction. That would further deepen Ukraine’s demographic woes, which were serious even before the war. By one estimate, the country’s population shrank by 16% in the three decades after 1991.


What the future holds

But predictions have foundered before. Several eu governments braced for a fresh wave of refugees when Russia began bombing Ukrainian power stations in October. It never came, although many existing refugees heeded their government’s warning to postpone a return—or even lost hopes of one. “It started with security, then came the power outages and the extension of the attacks—there’s no safe place any more,” says Tatyiana, who fled to Gdansk in northern Poland, from where she maintains her job with a multinational technology company. She had never planned to leave Kyiv, she says, but “that life is over for me now.” If the fighting intensifies again in the spring, many more refugees may come to similar conclusions.

That complicates how host countries decide how to plan for the future. “It has dawned upon national and local governments that people are going to stay for much longer than originally conceived”, says Hanne Beirens of the Migration Policy Institute Europe in Brussels. Should governments invest in Ukrainian-language teaching, or oblige children to attend local schools, when they do not know how many will stay, and for how long? How much should they spend on language courses or retraining to help adults into work that matches their skills? When should they encourage refugees to seek asylum—or even full residency rights? Some private landlords are reluctant to let to tenants unable to commit to long-term contracts. Employers may not want to invest in workers who cannot promise to stick around.

Trying to help with integration without influencing decisions on whether to stay or go is “a very fine line to walk,” says Mr Dumont. France and Sweden have hesitated to offer Ukrainians full integration. Germany, by contrast, aggressively seeks to integrate Ukrainians, placing them in the same unemployment-benefit system as German citizens. Poland is starting to struggle, partly because, unlike most western European countries, the government has no formal immigration policy to guide decisions. Local governments, schools and ngos have been left to improvise, usually on shoestring budgets.

In many cases, the distinction between Ukrainian labour migrants and refugees is blurred. Even before the invasion, networks of Ukrainians in Poland and elsewhere had established strong cross-border flows of labour, capital and remittances. The post-February arrivals have been helped by this diaspora and will contribute to it in turn. Plenty of Ukrainian migrant families include both (pre-invasion) workers and (post-invasion) refugees. And as the eu integrates Ukraine further into its single market, as seems inevitable, it will become yet easier for people, money and goods to travel across borders.

Not yet, though. In 2014 Anna was forced to flee the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, when Russia sparked an insurgency there. Her family settled in Dnipro, in central Ukraine. But then, on February 24th, a Russian rocket blew Anna out of her bed. Forced to flee for a second time, she and her daughters have now settled in Wroclaw. Anna has been astonished by the generosity of the Polish welcome, and yet, she says, life is not easy. She has struggled to set up a beauty-salon business, and desperately misses her husband. She hopes to reunite the family one day. But she does not know where, when or how. “Maybe on the Moon,” she shrugs.

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