Forcedly displaced Ukrainians: lessons from Syria and beyond

Omer Karasapan

In May 2022, when about 15 million Ukrainians left their homes, the number of forcibly displaced people around the world passed the 100 million mark for the first time. This is equivalent to the world’s 14th largest country, with 53 percent internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 47 percent refugees fleeing their countries. Before that, in 2010 there were 41.1 million refugees.71 million in 2018 (led by the Syrian war in 2012-2015), and 89 million in 2021with conflicts in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and other places that caused a surge (table 1).

Table 1. Global forced displacement by years *

Year Forcibly displaced population
June (2022) 100,000,000
2021 89 000 000
2020 82 400 000
2019 79 500 000
2018 70 800 000
2017 68 500 000
2016 65 500 000
2015 65 100 000
2014 59 200 000
2013 51 200 000
2012 42,700,000
2011 38 500 000
2010 41 100 000

Source: UNHCR.

Of the forcibly displaced Ukrainians, about 8 million are IDPs and 7 million are refugees, making this the fastest and largest single increase in the number of forcibly displaced people since World War II. Some 2.2 million returnees, including civilians, are returning to cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv as men return to fight, and a cessation of violence is unlikely anytime soon.

Poland was the point of entry for the majority of Ukrainian refugees (3.7 million), including hundreds of thousands who moved further west, and another 1.5 million who have since returned home. As of June 2022 there were also over a million refugees in Russia, 700,000 in Hungary., 600,000 in Romania (283,000 returns) and about 500,000 in Moldova (110,000 returns) and Slovakia (196,000 returns). According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in addition to these neighboring countries, the top three Ukrainian refugees are accepted by Germany (780,000), the Czech Republic (366,000) and Turkey (145,000).

The reception and resources provided to Ukrainian refugees are unprecedented. In accordance with the EU Temporary Protection Directive, Ukrainians receive the right to work and access to health care, education, housing and other services for up to three years. Before the war, Ukrainians could enter the EU without a visa for up to three months, and a million worked legally, and the rest unofficially. This diaspora played an important role in the reception of Ukrainian refugees.

Reception is very different from what asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and non-European refugees from Ukraine faced. Poland continues to prevent non-European migrants from Belarus from entering the country, while welcoming Ukrainians. The UK is trying to send asylum seekers from non-European countries to Rwanda to process applications, and Denmark is likely to follow suit.

This “whole EU” approach to the Ukrainian refugee crisis contrasts with the influx of refugees in 2015, which prompted many EU member states to close their borders to refugees. However, the former includes useful lessons, although they are unlikely to be extended to non-Europeans anytime soon. While each example of refugee flows is unique, there are some important lessons to be learned. For example, we know that refugees tend to remain displaced for long periods of timefrom 10 to 26 years. According to the Vice-President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas, up to 3 million Ukrainians will remain in Europe, a boon for a continent in demographic decline.

But over time, the original greeting disappears. In Turkey, 72 percent support for Syrian refugees in 2016 changed to more than 80 percent support for their repatriation, largely due to the economic downturn. Lebanon, already wary of mostly Sunni Syrians in a country with a sectarian political balance, lashed out at refugees after the economy slowed down in 2014. Russia’s war with Ukraine has turned life upside down there, but there remains cause for concern in Poland over pre-war anti-Ukrainian hostility (Polish human rights ombudsman wrote 44,000 hate crimes against Ukraine in southern Poland in 2017). Although extremists are a small minority, over time they can play a huge role. Turkish “Victory Party”, which has less than 2 percent of the votecan still dominate the news cycle with artfully filmed videos that mimic the replacement theory of the European far right supporting the fact that the Syrians – roughly 3 percent of the population – are slowly taking over the country. This dynamic is not new; in 1956, when 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria from the Soviet invasion, initial acceptance soon waned, and Austria asked others to accept more than 90 percent of the refugees.

Center for Global Development estimates the cost of accommodating Ukrainian refugees at $30 billion in the first year. Warsaw’s population has increased by 15 percent, which has put pressure on services such as housing as rents have increased by 40 percent. Other cities saw sharper population growth, such as Krakow (23 percent) and Gdansk (34 percent). More importantly, around 600,000 refugees are hosted by Polish families, which is unsustainable in the long run even with host family scholarships available, especially in a country with saturated rental markets. Fault lines can also emerge within the refugee community and at home, which can exacerbate their situation.

Furthermore, while 72 per cent of Syrian refugees are women and children, this number is 90 percent for Ukrainian refugees. In order to protect the nation, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving Ukraine, making refugee women and children, who are already at risk, even more vulnerable. From trafficking in human beings to child care for working women to education problems for children, measures to support women and children need to be deployed and maintained. Long separation for families portends new trials.

Gender matters to others too. In 2015-2016, the exodus to Europe of more than a million asylum seekers, mostly Syrians, was 72 percent male, of which 43 percent were between the ages of 18 and 34. male refugees were seen as more threatening, prone to crime or radicalization. Many were assumed to have come from non-conflict countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and were subsequently portrayed as opportunists unwilling to fight for their countries. All these assumptions fuel alarmist nativist narratives.

We also know what is important that host communities – often more vulnerable in society and without proper access to good jobs, housing and other services – are being supported. This will reduce potential resentment and also help prevent false tales of privileged treatment. An effective integration policy needed, from facilitating employment and access to schooling, health care, education, housing and support in learning host languages. The EU is relatively well positioned to help here, less so for other host communities.

The longer the conflict continues, especially as the number of refugee crises grows, the question of the return of refugees will arise. Haroon Ander of the World Bank notes in detailed study of Syrian refugees and the dynamics of their return that the best conditions in the countries of origin refugees are almost always encouraged to return as conflicts ease and human and property rights improve. It is important to note that adverse conditions in host countries do not automatically lead to increased returns to home countries. However, as the Syrian experience shows, improved conditions in host countries can also lead to more returnees, as significant return costs become more affordable. The dynamics of the return of Ukrainian refugees will be influenced by the large number of separated nuclear families and measures to promote reunification.