Since Russia re-invaded Ukraine in late February, countless headlines have pointed out that the largest forced displacement crisis since the end of World War II is unfolding in Europe. Much has been made of the initial welcoming response to Ukrainian refugees able to flee the country, and for good reason. Borders remain open to those fleeing, and assistance is available to them upon arrival. But the real test of European goodwill will take place over the coming months and years. As the crisis continues, civilian needs will escalate, and initially welcoming communities will inevitably feel the strain on resources of hosting refugees. Even if the ongoing conflict stops in Ukraine, refugees will not be able to return immediately; Russian bombs have destroyed civilian infrastructure to the point where the country that many fled will not look and feel the same as the one to which they might eventually return.
In the near term, priorities should be to sustain ease of entry and quality of reception for those fleeing Ukraine and, to the degree possible, ensure humanitarian access through western Ukraine. In the longer- term, the European Union (EU) should support its Member States in providing resources and services related to the resettlement and integration of Ukrainians. Proactively addressing longer-term needs will allow Ukrainian refugees to live safe and productive lives while outside of their country, providing durable solutions to forcibly displaced people and the communities that host them.
Emergency and Near-Term Responses
Over 3.9 million women, children, and elderly civilians have already fled the country, and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that about 6.5 million more people are internally displaced within Ukraine.1 The eventual displacement figure will depend on the duration and destruction of the conflict. In all likelihood, the number of forcibly displaced Ukrainians will be much higher at the time of publication. Many have crossed into neighboring countries, including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, thus qualifying them for refugee status. European governments and civilians have demonstrated solidarity and hospitality for their neighbors, especially when compared to a more recent history punctuated by tightened borders, externalized migration controls, the rejection of refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East,2 and relatedly, the rise of populism and xenophobia in domestic politics.3
The most immediate need for Ukrainians and non-citizens of Ukraine fleeing the conflict is access to safe passages and reliable transportation away from some of the heaviest areas of violence. To this end, cease-fire negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have included discussions on the creation of humanitarian corridors.4 These attempts have been met with criticism due to their unreliability in protecting citizens and an emphasis by the Russian Federation on routing passages toward Russia and Belarus.5 Civilians in heavily besieged cities such as Mariupol not only face consistent lethal military attacks and a lack of access to food, water, and sanitation but also encounter great obstacles in reaching safety corridors, leaving them without the possibility of escape or relocation.6 A unified response with an emphasis on providing access to refugee evacuation routes is critical to ensuring the safety of refugees leaving Ukraine.
Those able to escape to a neighboring country have overwhelmingly ended up in EU Member States. The EU has adopted a three-pronged strategy to facilitate refugee intake in the short term, focusing on funding, border management, and legal status while abroad.
First, to meet immediate needs, the EU is providing €500 million in direct humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and its bordering countries and an additional €500 million for food producers to alleviate the impacts of the war on the global wheat industry.7 The United Nations and the United States have also allocated emergency funding for humanitarian assistance. On March 10, 2022, Vice President Kamala Harris announced nearly $53 million in new humanitarian assistance, building upon the nearly $54 million in aid announced two weeks prior.8 Since late February, the United States has allocated almost $293 million in humanitarian assistance to the crisis.9 Additionally, on March 26, 2022, President Biden said that the United States was "prepared to provide more than $1 billion… in humanitarian aid."10 The UN has similarly launched a coordinated emergency appeal for a combined $1.7 billion to deliver humanitarian support, including $1.1 billion to assist six million people inside Ukraine for an initial three months.11 Collectively, this emergency funding intends to meet immediate needs using cash and food assistance and addressing water and sanitation, healthcare, housing, and other necessities.
Second, the European Commission released operational guidelines for border management to facilitate safe flows of movement across borders. This included easing border controls through the humanitarian exception clause in the EU’s Schengen Borders Code Article 6(5c) for both Ukrainians and third-country nations and allowing displaced people to bring personal belonging without any customs duties. The EU has also deployed additional FRONTEX staff to Romania and Moldova.12
Third, European governments are ensuring that Ukrainians forced to leave their country have legal status while abroad. On March 4, 2022, the European Council unanimously activated a Temporary Protection Directive (TPD),13 which allows Ukrainians and their family members to enter Schengen countries without a visa and remain there for 90 days. Furthermore, it gives them the right to live and work in the EU for up to one year without applying for asylum or another form of residency, with the possibility of extension in six-month intervals for an additional year, at which point the European Council reassesses the individual case and may choose to extend the protection for a third year.14 In addition to granting legal status, other protections and rights include social welfare assistance, access to education and labor markets, and medical assistance. These provisions of temporary protection also apply to many third-country nationals fleeing the war, including those under international protection in Ukraine (e.g., Afghan refugees in Ukraine) who are unable to return safely to their country of origin, permanent residents of Ukraine, and the immediate family members of those who qualify for TPD protection.15 Third-country nationals who do not meet these criteria, such as students who were in Ukraine on temporary visas or those residing legally in Ukraine without permanent residency, would not qualify for the TPD, but would be granted physical entry into the EU and aided in procuring safe passage back to their home countries.16 The TPD may be extended to the aforementioned groups, on a case-by-case basis by individual EU Member States.17
The TPD, which was triggered for the first time since its adoption in 2001, is unprecedented in several ways. First, it allows both Ukrainian nationals and non-nationals to gain immediate protection without proving that they were personally at risk or persecuted, as is normally required under international refugee law. This lowers the threshold for being a beneficiary of the rights attached to temporary protection status. Second, those emigrating to the EU can carry their temporary protection rights to any member state, not just the first EU country they reach. This means that civilians are free to link up with family and friends across the continent. Third, the Directive includes an expanded definition of a family, which extends to close relatives and those dependent on the sponsor, rather than only spouses and children. Since men aged 18 to 60 are currently unable to leave Ukraine, this expansive approach importantly allows families to remain together as they seek safety.
Although the TPD is a positive first step in addressing the immediate and long-term needs of those fleeing violence, limitations and uncertainties persist. EU Member States still have discretion on whether these protections will apply to other residents of Ukraine who do not possess long-term residency permits or are under international protection.18 While it is likely that they will, this is not automatic. Additionally, there are not yet clear guidelines on whether there is a limitation on how many non-Ukrainians can access the rights granted by the TPD and under which conditions some will need to return to their countries of origin. Finally, while the TPD guarantees some baseline benefits, further measures will be necessary to extend security and protection into the future. Many of those fleeing are from vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, and third-country migrants, meaning that the EU will need thoughtful and deliberate policies to facilitate the integration and potential repatriation of those who have left Ukraine.
Implications of Longer-Term Displacement
The activation of the TPD is a landmark move to enable durable solutions for Ukrainians by streamlining access to vital integration services, including education and employment. Proactive policymaking that acknowledges and anticipates the challenges associated with the longer-term nature of the displacement crisis should be a parallel priority to humanitarian assistance. This is especially important as the scale of displacement continues to elevate. Though there are significant upfront costs—especially considering that economies are already managing pandemic recovery, supply chain shortages, and high inflation—it should be noted that forcibly displaced people typically play a net positive role in host country economies in the longer-term.19 To ensure appropriate support to Ukrainians and their host communities, European nations must address significant housing, healthcare, education, and labor market-related challenges, some of which are already acute concerns, all of which are on the horizon.
Housing. First, ensuring access to longer-term housing is a cornerstone in supporting social and economic inclusion.20 Even before February 24th, Ukrainians displaced internally after the 2014 Russian invasion identified a lack of their own housing as a pressing issue, especially considering they were allocating 78 percent and 57 percent of their monthly incomes to utility bills and housing rent payments, respectively.21 While the rapid mobilization of citizens, companies, and government to shelter refugees should be applauded, these are not longer-term solutions. The Czech Republic is already running out of emergency accommodations22 while rental prices in western Ukraine are increasing because of the internally displaced persons (IDP) influx. This will undoubtedly have knock-on effects further westward into the EU. The housing situation is acute in places like Warsaw where the number of Ukrainian refugees in Poland has already exceeded the current population of its capital city.23
As an initial measure, some countries have redirected people to peripheral cities and further west into the EU to disperse refugee flows and alleviate pressure on border cities.24 EU governments will have to scale up policies for accessing social housing and private accommodation while ensuring non-discriminatory treatment. Research on resettlement in European cities found that Syrian refugees experienced residential instability and center-periphery challenges, contributing to both social and physical isolation.25 Though experiences of Ukrainian refugees may differ because of socio-cultural similarities between the displaced and their host communities, national frameworks and their implementation shape the experience of all refugees, regardless of national background. Affordable, equitable housing is a critical precondition for the successful integration of people on the move.
Healthcare. Second, access to healthcare for Ukrainian refugees throughout the EU is another key implication of longer-term displacement, particularly in responding to the complex and shifting needs of civilians. The vast majority of those entering the EU are elderly, children, and women, including pregnant women. Each of these demographics may require specific primary and secondary health care as they relocate and resettle. Before the current conflict, it was estimated that 2.7 million Ukrainians had some form of disability, and older people from eastern Ukraine have faced increasing risks of mental health issues, chronic illness, and mobility challenges in recent years.26 Ensuring access to mental health services for all ages is also critical given the recurring and nascent trauma of war and family separation. Evidence shows that despite all EU Member States recognizing individuals' right to the highest attainable standard of health, the variation in different countries’ healthcare systems leads to differing health outcomes between migrants and non-migrants. Some structural challenges for health care include financial barriers and legal restrictions, while interpersonal challenges include language barriers, perceptions of illness and stigma, and the lack of knowledge of the healthcare system—including healthcare professionals’ awareness of migrants’ rights to access.27 While these barriers pertain to primary care and migrants (not refugees per se), they are likely to be particularly acute for those fleeing Ukraine who will require mental health care, preventive and maternal care, and more.
Education. Third, the conflict in Ukraine has disrupted access to education for millions, both by forcing students to flee and destroying learning spaces. UNICEF reports that over 1.5 million children have fled the country, with millions more unable to attend school within Ukraine due to ongoing conflict.28 In the short term, the arrival of school-age children from Ukraine may stretch the institutional capacity of schools, especially those in cities where refugees are more likely to settle. In the longer-term, while almost all EU countries provide language learning support to migrant and refugee children, other forms of educational support, such as homework help or parent-teacher meetings, are not systematic either across EU countries or within them.29 Throughout their displacement and, for some, eventual resettlement, children will also require support in transitioning to a new school and its curriculum, coping with trauma, and overcoming language barriers. Guidance from government ministries, civil society organizations, and multilateral institutions like UNICEF should help schools adopt a conflict-sensitive approach to teaching Ukrainian children.
While there is general support for school-age refugees and migrants across the European continent, these measures do not extend to higher education. The European Commission found that there are only occasional targeted measures to encourage and promote access to higher education across EU countries.30 This lack of support for students pursuing higher education has led to persistent underemployment and limited economic mobility.31 Additionally, students who were completing their degrees in Ukraine during the outbreak of conflict may face barriers to having their foreign qualifications and course credits recognized if universities do not make their administrative processes more flexible.
Labor market integration. Finally, labor market access and integration is another key consideration in longer-term displacement scenarios. The challenge of steady employment is visible both within Ukraine and across Europe. At the end of 2020, the employment rate of IDPs in Ukraine was lower (60 percent) compared to the general population in the same 20-64 age group (65 percent).32 Similarly, from 2010 to 2020, the EU unemployment rate for native-born populations was consistently lower than the unemployment rate for migrant labor. In 2020, the EU unemployment rate for people aged 20 to 64 years was 13.9 percent for those born outside the EU, 8.1 percent for those born in another EU Member State, and 6.1 percent for the native-born population.33 This trend may be particularly challenging for Ukrainian refugees to overcome due to their demographic makeup; the elderly, women, and children may not have been active in the labor market before being forced from home.
The majority of the refugees entering the labor force will likely be working-age Ukrainian women. Despite a decade of domestic reform policies, Ukrainian women faced pay-gap discrimination34 and the segmentation of career opportunities based on perceived cultural norms for "male" and "female" occupations. This disparity has been further exacerbated by drastic recent drops in female employment rates for Ukrainian women.35 Successful integration into high-skilled sectors in the EU will be particularly challenging. Women in the Ukrainian labor force generally made up half of the working population. However, they lacked access to managerial and high-level positions across the board, and specifically in STEM and other industries traditionally associated with male leadership, despite showing a higher performance on mathematical skills tests.36 Additionally, a European Commission analysis found that targeted training based on the assessment and validation of skills and qualifications is not widely available across EU countries and that there is also often a mismatch between the migrants’ skills and the local job market needs.37 These factors underscore the need to adopt specialized measures, including cooperation with civil society and private sector partners, to promote employment that targets the specific demographics of refugees fleeing Ukraine.
Nonetheless, there will be opportunities for Ukrainian women refugees to find jobs in Europe. Women in the Ukrainian labor force dominated the healthcare and education fields, which are the top third and fourth industries of employment in Europe, respectively.38 Several countries across Europe have aging populations that could benefit from trained Ukrainian nurses, home health aides, and other healthcare professionals. Ukrainian women were the primary workforce in the childcare industry; their skills will become increasingly in demand as working parents transition away from remote working conditions. Across the EU, COVID-19-related labor market shortages continue, with an estimated 300,000 jobs remaining unfilled in Germany alone.39 Moreover, EU countries such as Portugal are responding to structural barriers to labor market absorption, including language differences, by offering immediate access to language training and education,40 demonstrating a shift to longer-term integration and resettlement policies.
These conditions may also present a unique opportunity for Ukrainian women to pursue careers in industries to which they previously lacked access, such as in STEM. The EU should utilize this new surge in labor to creatively fill gaps in its own in-demand industries. Immediate measures aimed at workforce pipelining and language training can make the transition to longer-term employment and integration more successful; Such measures are already actively being implemented. The participation of Ukrainian refugee women in the European labor market, with potentially greater access to "non-traditional" sectors and management roles, can have positive longer-term implications both for refugee-receiving countries and for Ukraine’s labor market if and when returning home becomes possible.
It is difficult to predict the exact challenges presented by the longer-term displacement of Ukrainians throughout Europe, though the general contours presented above are likely to be present in most countries to which refugees are fleeing. Moreover, as the conflict intensifies, more refugees are bound to flee Ukraine in the coming weeks and months. The longer the conflict lasts, the longer those people will be unable to return home; the longer they stay in displacement, the less likely it is that they will one day return home. New employment and educational opportunities and strengthened family and friend networks will make the return to Ukraine post-conflict one of many options for refugees.
However, with pandemic-related inflation and public spending stretching economies, the challenge will be preventing and managing potential political and social backlash after the generous early welcome. While countries, such as Germany, have more proactive policies and systems tailored towards refugees fleeing violent conflict, others, including those in Ukraine’s immediate neighborhood, do not have the same capacity to integrate an influx of refugees. For example, the non-EU country of Moldova is already having to manage the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians while having one of Europe’s lowest gross domestic products per capita and a population of just over three million people.41 Furthermore, the current forced displacement crisis is testing the strength and cohesion of the current international system. As the Russian invasion continues to wear on, the U.S. and EU governments must establish comprehensive, durable provisions to protect every individual fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. Despite ongoing peace talks and calls for a cessation of hostilities from world leaders, Russia continues to target civilian infrastructure and cities in Ukraine.
Themes of democracy, freedom, and independence underlie Ukrainians' resistance to the Russian invasion and will likely shape their decisions to stay in European countries, where these ideas are more fully realized, or return to Ukraine. Reunification with husbands, fathers, and brothers will either take place abroad or back in Ukraine. The decision to stay abroad or return home—like the decision to flee in the first place which, in many cases, was likely not a decision at all—will be shaped by the duration and destruction of the conflict and by the types and level of support they receive abroad. Some people may discover a new sense of identity in the countries in which they resettle, while others will wait to translate their experiences of Western European democracy back to Ukraine. European countries hosting refugees would be well-served to think about the conflict-related forced displacement in the longer-term, because even if Ukrainians have a desire to go home, they may not be able to do so for quite some time.