The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis: Consequences for Europe

Jan Grzymski (Centre of Migration Research, University of Warsaw)

The Russian aggression against Ukraine has caused the greatest emergency mobility of the civilian population since the end of World War II. Within one month, more than 3,5 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine and 6,5 million have had to relocate within Ukraine itself. This war, first and the foremost, is above all a tragedy for the people of Ukraine, who are being targeted with brutal determination by Russian aggressors; and to the Ukrainian cities, which are being razed to the ground. These events are deeply shocking and have not been seen in Europe since World War II. However, for many European states and their societies – inside and outside the EU – this war has created a great social and humanitarian challenge, stemming from the accompanying unprecedented – together in scale and its nature – movement of people. This contribution briefly investigates this mobility and its consequences for Europe.

Firstly, the European societies have genuinely and wholeheartedly expressed their unconditional support for Ukraine. Similarly, the political elites – especially within the European Union – are more than ever unanimous in terms of supporting Ukraine politically, economically and with providing military equipment assistance. Nevertheless, migration as such was a principal cause of contention across Europe before the war. The rise of a populist wave has been predominantly associated with political and social discontent over migration, as illustrated most starkly by the rise of Brexit, France’s Le Pen, Italy’s Salvini and Hungary’s Orban. Back in 2015, with so-called ‘migration crisis’, much attention was paid to definitions: whether people coming – mostly to Western European countries – were ‘refugees’ (considered as genuinely in need of protection) or ‘migrants’ (being portrayed by populist as imposters), even if most of them fled from countries at war like Syria or escaped various internal military conflicts in Middle East or Africa. So far, the Ukrainian migration has induced predominantly a reaction of sincere empathy: no one questions the refugee status of Ukrainians. 

This is of paramount relevance, as Putin might have had hoped that Ukrainian refugees could have played a dividing role, both on political and social levels. Thus far no political force in Europe has played internally ‘the Ukrainian card’ against the migrants, even openly pro-Russian politicians like Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen. In this respect, Poland’s reaction to the inflow of refugees is also telling. Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party persistently demonised migrants from the Middle East and Africa back in 2015-2016 and more recently during the crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border in late 2021. By contrast, Poland welcomed more than 2 million Ukrainians within the first four weeks since the outbreak of the war. Nearly all of them are being hosted within Polish families or among the numerous Ukrainians who were already living in Poland before the war. All this could be explained by the cultural, linguistic and social proximity of Poles and Ukrainians, not to neglect their mutually robust anti-Russian stance. There are also no refugee camps for Ukrainians in Poland, which – considering the scale of this mobility – is extraordinary. 

Secondly, the dismal prospects for a possible political outcome of the war in the near future indicates that refugees might not return to Ukraine quickly. This is for several reasons. The chances of a complete withdrawal of the Russians beyond the pre-war borders of Ukraine are slim, hence chances of returning to the pre-war normality are similarly thin. And this return to normality might be a precondition for a massive return of the refugees to Ukraine. Certainly, some would come back to rebuild Ukraine, but others would need some sort of promise of stability and this is unlikely in the foreseeable future. In addition, for the moment Ukraine is very effective in its defensive resistance. By contrast the Russians turned out to be too weak to conquer all strategic cities in Ukraine, including Kyiv, and have surprisingly presented very low morale, shortages in supplies and ineffective logistics. At the same time, the Ukrainian army might not be strong enough to entirely reclaim the sites already taken by Russia. On top of that, any permanent peace treaty seems also very unlikely as long as Russia is ruled by Putin, as his demands for recognition of the annexation of Crimea or the independence of the so-called the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are virtually unacceptable to the President of Ukraine. Hence, it is very likely that Ukraine will remain in an unstable situation with some sort of volatile ceasefire and with the partly occupied territory. This would be discouraging for many Ukrainian refugees in their decision to return.

Moreover, it is not known where it will even be possible for refugees to return. Kharkov, Mariupol and many other cities are being purposefully  destroyed by the Russian aggressors. This includes not only the critical urban infrastructure such as water supplies, sanitary and energy systems, but also the basic social infrastructure – such as hospitals, schools or shops. It means that many Ukrainian cities will have to be rebuilt in significant proportions. The Russians are deliberately destroying Ukraine’s potential. This is part of Putin’s plan to make Ukraine a fallen and territorially divided state, like they had done previously in Transnistria in Moldova or Abkhazia and Ossetia in Georgia. This means that even when the war activities end, most likely in the form of a ceasefire, many refugees will still be unable to come back to their previous place of residence.

The other factor which may hinder the returns of refugees is the character of this mobility, consisting mostly of mothers with children and elderly people. Men aged 18-60 cannot leave Ukraine. This means that many refugees are likely to stay in their new places for longer with deeper integration, as – for instance – children need to attend schools. Hence, they will likely get rooted and it would not be easy for them to come back, in particular with the unlikely prospect of stability in Ukraine. The crucial question is whether Ukrainian fathers and husbands will be reunited with their families outside Ukraine, or mothers and children will come back to Ukraine after the warfare ceases. This remains unknown for now. Moreover, the pre-war migration of Ukrainians mostly to Poland was of a circular character. It meant that Ukrainians were coming to Poland to work or students to study and periodically they were returning to Ukraine. This created a huge social network of contacts in Poland, which at the outbreak of the war allowed many Ukrainians to quickly relocate to Poland. But, similarly, this network might also lead to more permanent displacement.


Dr Jan Grzymski is a political scientist, Assistant Professor at the Centre of Migration Research, University of Warsaw, co-convenor of UACES Research Network ‘Limits of EUrope’, member of New Europeans, creator of the innovative political boardgame ‘How to Win Brexit?’

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the BRIDGE Network Blog.

Image Credit: By, CC BY 4.0,, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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