E.g., 02/23/2024
E.g., 02/23/2024
Prolonged Ukrainian Displacement: An Uneasy Marriage of Reception, Integration, and Return Policies
Commentaries
February 2023

Prolonged Ukrainian Displacement: An Uneasy Marriage of Reception, Integration, and Return Policies

Photo of a teacher from Ukraine organizing activities for refugee children in Moldova
© UNICEF/Vitalie Orehov

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine reaching its one-year milestone on February 24, many of the millions of Ukrainians who fled their homes and crossed into EU territory will have spent a year of their lives as refugees in all but name. Increasingly, policymakers and service providers in and outside of government in the European Union are having to confront the likelihood of prolonged stay for at least 5 million Ukrainians as well as the prospect of new displacement. The concerns of future movements from Ukraine were first raised in the wake of Russia’s winter attacks on the Ukrainian energy infrastructure; while vast cross-border movements did not materialize, the persistent attacks on civilians and expected major new offensive could catalyze more arrivals. Looming over the integration conversation is the fact that policymakers also know that the task of rebuilding war-torn Ukraine and preparing for the eventual return of millions of its citizens cannot be postponed.

EU, national, and subnational leaders in and out of government are having to juggle work in three domains in parallel: fostering the integration of Ukrainians who will stay long(er), organizing first-reception services for future arrivals, and preparing the departure of those who intend to return and play a role in rebuilding Ukraine. This is no easy endeavor. First, each domain comes with its own set of tasks, ranging from speeding up and improving the labor market integration of those whose stay is prolonged, to swiftly registering newcomers, and facilitating social and economic reintegration for those who want to return. Secondly, responsibilities for first-reception, integration, and return policies often lie with different government entities and executive agencies—whose coordination track record may be limited or marred by challenges. And finally, the very objectives underpinning these activities are conceptually different and may at times even be at odds.

Dual Tracking in an Uncertain Policy Environment to Serve Multiple Goals

With unlimited funds, all three policy objectives could be fully addressed. With drastic pressures on public and private budgets from the pandemic, the energy crisis, and inflation in many host societies, prioritization will be inevitable. But what does prioritization translate to in the event another 1 million Ukrainians arrive due to increased Russian attacks? And how would investment decisions differ if protracted war unfolds and one-third of Ukrainian refugees remain permanently? In the weeks and months ahead, state and non-state actors engaged in the Ukrainian response will have to confront these and other crucial questions.

Assessing the myriad possible scenarios of how the war may evolve and the potential implications for Ukrainians, host societies, and Ukraine itself will constitute a first crucial step in starting to formulate this much-needed analysis. A second important step will be to devise or invest in services and programs that embrace the uncertainty of prolonged stay and/or eventual return and seek to serve multiple goals. Think of programs that stir Ukrainians’ interest in learning the host-country language, contributing to the local economy, and developing new social ties while also exploring with them how their new networks, work experience, and languages may benefit them and the Ukrainian reconstruction project if and when they return. Emerging programs, such as dual-intent integration that aims to cater to integration and reintegration, offer inspiration on how to address the present uneasy, at times disconnected, coexistence of policy objectives geared towards Ukrainian refugees.

Questions about How Much to Engage

This tension between reception, integration, and return as well as the resulting challenges have materialized in several ways.

In the run-up to the first school day early after the Russian invasion, for example, the Polish Ministry of Education and heads of school faced a conundrum addressing education for the 450,000 Ukrainian children and youth resident in Poland. Many of these students had continued to participate in the Ukrainian education system via online offerings developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Uncertainty about the duration of the war, as well as the assumption shared by displaced Ukrainians and host societies alike that the stay would be short-natured, made attractive the option of online schooling in the Ukrainian education system. Remote learning was relatively easy and straightforward to implement. Plus, distance learning removed some of the immediate pressure on a Polish education system already struggling with an acute shortage of teachers, classrooms, and interpreters—a situation common across many EU countries. In short, tapping into the Ukrainian learning system permitted education for displaced children and youth, while having a lighter footprint on the host society’s educational infrastructure and catering to the wish prevalent among many Ukrainians in Poland to eventually leave.

But as a new school year began last September, the option of moving Ukrainian children into the Polish system was put on the table again for school administrators and parents alike. Would this not facilitate friendships for the Ukrainian newcomers with local children, reducing the risk of social isolation or loneliness that online education harbors? Would it not foster their Polish language proficiency, in turn enabling them to participate in the broader community? To that effect, UNICEF and others had offered summer camps to teach Ukrainian children Polish and ease their path into the Polish education system.

Ukrainian adults of working age, overwhelmingly female, likewise faced similar questions about engagement with Polish systems, in this case the labor market. The objectives that drove the emergency and reception phase were to enable Ukrainians to practice their right to work under the EU Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) to cover their living costs and to give a sense of structure and meaning to their days. An additional benefit? The employment of Ukrainians has helped reduce the financial pressures that the arrival of such a large humanitarian population placed on government coffers. But within this framework of emergency response and temporary safekeeping, the quality of the job itself was of secondary importance to the newcomers. Available employment data in several European countries and related analyses indicate that the jobs taken by Ukrainians have been disproportionally below their skills or qualification level, of a short-term or precarious nature, and part-time (often to accommodate caring for children or the elderly).

When the context shifts to that of longer stay, the question of optimal utilization of the available workforce—especially with pressing and structural labor shortages in many European countries—takes greater priority. Indeed, as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have calculated, by the end of 2022 the European labor force was expected to have grown by 0.5 to 0.6 percent due to the Ukrainian influx. In Poland, this percentage rose to 2.7 percent. Government officials and businesses are increasingly keen to mobilize the skills of this recent workforce as a small, but still significant, antidote to worker shortages in various European sectors. Fully leveraging the skills of this new workforce and equipping it for a post-war future will be a central focus and challenge for many national, regional, and local governments. These officials and other stakeholders (including employers) will need support and ideas on how to swiftly shift gears and repoint the package of policies, programs, and practices that European countries have devised to date to address the Ukrainian displacement. This support will need to be comprised of:

  • Forecasting and scenario-building exercises regarding the war and its impact on the size, direction, and duration of Ukrainian displacement, as well as the implications for host societies
  • Strategic investment calculations to explore the potential impacts from investment in emergency and first reception, integration, and reconstruction and reintegration programs and services, singly and in combination
  • Consultation of key stakeholders including Ukrainian refugees themselves, in determining the preferred responses.

The time is ripe to devise a range of approaches that can serve the interests of displaced Ukrainians, host societies, and Ukraine alike. The Ukrainian government already has expressed concerns that the deeper integration of its citizens in EU countries could hinder its ability to fully mobilize the country’s resources and assets to (eventually) reconstruct Ukraine. Concerns regarding brain drain, for example, have been exhibited with the Ukrainian government’s request that Polish universities not hire Ukrainian academics for fear that better salaries and living conditions may ultimately dissuade them from returning to Ukraine post-war.

Dual-intent integration policies that are aimed both at boosting newcomers’ integration and success upon their eventual return could help dispel some of the tensions. Policymakers could take inspiration for such multipronged approaches from fast-track programs used in Sweden and Germany that mix services ranging from qualifications assessments and language training to mentorship and vocational guidance based on individual needs and interests (including the desire to return to Ukraine and contribute to its reconstruction). Such bridging programs quicken the integration process for new arrivals while also honing skills that can be useful upon return.

With more than 8 million Ukrainians having sought refuge outside their home country and little clarity as to when the brutal war may end, embracing policies and programs that can meet multiple mandates will be crucial to maintaining the sense of solidarity that has characterized the response to the Ukrainian displacement in the last year.