Will Ukrainian refugees go back? It depends


Orysia Hrudka

September 29, 2023
In English
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New survey reveals the real deal with Ukraine’s war exodus, shedding insights on brain drain, labor migration, and worsening attitudes in host countries

The recent research “Refugees from Ukraine: Intentions to Return, Impact on the Ukrainian Economy, and Policy Recommendations,” commissioned by the Center for Economic Strategy, estimates the number of Ukrainians who have left Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion, profiles these individuals, predicts the potential return rate to Ukraine, and assesses the economic implications if not all of them return. The analysis is based on data from sociological surveys conducted in late 2022 and mid-2023 by the research agency Info Sapiens, as well as information from open sources.

According to Info Sapiens research, around 5.6-6.7 million Ukrainians left the country because of the war as of June 2023. The majority of those who left the country are women and children. Around 18% of all refugees are women aged 35-49. Furthermore, children under 18 comprise over 50% of European Ukrainian refugees.

In the initial months of the invasion, most Ukrainians fled to neighboring Poland, which was the easiest country to reach. Poland hosted over 1.3 million refugees at its peak in March 2022. However, by May 2023, the number in Poland declined substantially to around 990,000 as some of them returned to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Germany has now emerged as the top hosting country with around 1.1 million Ukrainians as of May 2023. The number relocating to Germany continuously increased as it provides more generous social support.

Other major hosting countries are the Czech Republic (340,000), Italy (158,000) and Spain (178,000).

Variations in assistance and employment

All Ukrainian refugees are entitled to temporary protection status in the European Union. But the conditions and benefits provided vary significantly across countries.

In Poland, only around 16% of Ukrainian refugees surveyed received housing help. Cash assistance is low or non-existent. Ukrainian refugees also reported that rental housing is difficult to find, especially in big cities.

Germany offers substantial financial assistance, with over 70% of Ukrainians surveyed reporting full or partial housing compensation from the government.Attendance in state-sponsored German language courses is mandatory in Germany, reflecting the country’s commitment to integrating Ukrainian refugees. This has raised concerns among Ukrainian society and officials who emphasize the importance of Ukrainian citizens returning to contribute to Ukraine’s recovery.

Regarding employment, around 40% of Ukrainian refugees surveyed in November 2022 reported having a job in Poland. But the percentage was lower in Western Europe – 12% in Italy and 15% in Germany.

Ukrainians are integrating into European labor markets faster than previous refugee waves. By November 2022, 34% of working-age refugees had jobs. High education levels and temporary protection status enabling immediate work rights aid hiring.

They have found employment mostly in hospitality, retail, manufacturing and construction. However, many end up in jobs below their skill level. With time, more get credential recognition to work in their profession.

Profiles of Ukrainian refugees

The analysis identified four main profiles of Ukrainian refugees in Europe, highlighting that not all people who left Ukraine because of the war are “classic refugees.” Interestingly, one of the largest groups is “quasi-labor migrants”.

  1. Classic refugees (around 25% of all refugees surveyed). Mostly middle-aged women with children who fled mainly to Poland. Many (41%) had never travelled abroad before.
  2. Quasi-labor migrants (around 29% of refugees surveyed). Fled not only because of war but also for work opportunities. They were the most integrated into life abroad as 25% already had work experience abroad. This group was most likely to be older, previously retired, or homemakers. Many were in Italy.
  3. Professionals (around 29% of refugees surveyed). More likely to work in their area of expertise. if employed. Had relatively comfortable conditions abroad and more ties to Ukraine. More dispersed around Europe compared to other groups.
  4. People from war zones (around 16% of refugees surveyed). Suffered the most losses from the war. Willing to move to safer regions of Ukraine if the return to their home region remains dangerous. However, they are also willing to take steps to find work abroad. This group was younger on average. Most inclined to be in Germany currently.

While refugees initially report overwhelmingly positive treatment by locals, some perceive worsening attitudes over time. Competition for jobs, inflationary pressures, and fatigue with the war may be turning local opinion. Refugees in the Czech Republic report the greatest deterioration.

Many Ukrainian refugees experienced a substantial drop in income after leaving Ukraine. Before the invasion, 27.8% said they could afford food, clothing, and expensive items if they saved up. But as of November 2022, only 6% could still do so, while 24.6% now said they had enough just for food.

Will displaced Ukrainians return? Refugee intentions versus the reality of staying abroad

Most intend to return to Ukraine when it’s safe. But the longer they stay abroad, the more likely integration and reluctance to go back, the report concluded. The Ukrainian economy could shrink 2.7-6.9% annually if 1-3 million refugees don’t return, per research estimates.

Despite the desire to return expressed by many refugees, factors like finding jobs abroad, enrollment of children in local schools, and rebuilding challenges could impede large-scale return. Some with high incomes abroad may opt to permanently settle in new countries.

Given the large number of children among the refugees, their preferences will impact return rates. Many Ukrainian parents say their kids would rather remain abroad. This is especially true for high school-age youth who may seek university admission in their current host country.

There are risks of a “brain drain” if more educated, skilled Ukrainians remain abroad long-term. Younger cohorts are more reluctant to return. Combined with losses of housing and infrastructure, this may hamper Ukraine’s postwar recovery.

Factors like the end of the war, rebuilding, and finding employment would motivate return for many refugees, according to research results. However, Europe’s labor shortages may lead some countries to encourage Ukrainians to stay long-term, causing additional challenges to Ukraine’s recovery.

The Ukrainian situation will test whether European attitudes have shifted on migration that is perceived as seasonal or temporary in nature, as most displaced Ukrainians express the intent to eventually go back.