On 17 January 2023, almost 8 million Ukrainians—19% of the total population— were registered as refugees. Although the number of returners has been increasing—totalling around 38,000 per day by mid-January—polls show that many Ukrainian refugees would like to stay in their new communities permanently. According to a German government survey, around 37% of respondents would like to take up permanent residence in Germany, while 34% would like to stay in the country until the end of the war. According to a Ukrainian poll, 36% intend to return to Ukraine when their home districts become safe places to live in again, while 35% intend to wait until the war is completely over and a further 13% would prefer not to return until the situation in the country stabilises, following at least a year of peace.
However, the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive, which mandates that countries provide shelter and basic social benefits to displaced Ukrainians, is strictly time limited. The directive came into force as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine and, unless it is prolonged, will expire in February 2024, at which point the Ukrainians are supposed to return to their home country.
One million additional German residents would be a heavy burden on that country. Some countries are already relocating the refugees they have received. For instance, Estonia is sending newly arrived Ukrainians to Finland because of what Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets describes as “the burden placed on the education system, the health care system and the social care system as a whole.” Poland, the largest recipient of refugees, sheltering more than three million Ukrainians, has cancelled housing payments and some additional benefits, such as free use of public transport, for Ukrainian refugees.
Local populations, whose tax revenues are supporting the war effort and the care of refugees, vary in their attitudes towards the visitors. Almost half of all Romanians (49.2%) think that their country has no moral duty whatsoever to Ukrainian refugees or to Ukrainian sovereignty, while in Germany only a relatively narrow majority of 55.7% believe that the state has a slight duty. In Italy and Hungary, 23.4% and 21.9% respectively feel that their countries have a paramount duty to help Ukrainians.
Given the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, the burden that unemployed refugees represent for the European welfare states and the levels of doubt about or opposition to the policy of sheltering Ukrainians, it seems unlikely that most of those who want to stay in the EU permanently will be able to do so legally. In some ways, this may be a blessing, since returnees may play a central part in the post-war rebuilding of their country. Kemal Kirişci and Sophie Roehse have argued that their presence will be central to “both the physical restoration of Ukrainian infrastructure as well as the reform of governance structures and processes.”
Nevertheless, according to the UNHCR, war refugees, especially if they are young, tend to become increasingly reluctant to return as time passes. Since refugees are permitted to work in their host countries and their children can attend schools and universities there, many will eventually be fully integrated into their new societies if the war lasts for long enough. In addition, the cost of returning may increase enough to make staying in the EU a far more appealing prospect: whether legally, through an employment contract, or illegally. Of course, most Ukrainian refugees are married women and many of them may wish to return home to join their husbands, who have been forced to stay and fight. However, as soon as the war is over, conscription will be terminated, and the men will be free to leave and join their families in the EU. Furthermore, single Ukrainian women could marry EU citizens.
But will it create a problem if many Ukrainians stay in the EU after the war ends? EU countries could relax some of the regulations for obtaining permanent residency in the case of Ukrainian refugees who have found stable employment in their host countries. The EU could also institute special family reunification schemes for Ukrainians whose homes were destroyed or families killed during the war and for whom it would therefore be extremely difficult and traumatic to return. The EU could agree to allot a percentage of the tax revenues from working refugees to Ukraine, to contribute to the post-war reconstruction efforts. And, of course, remittances to family members back home would also help raise their standard of living and alleviate poverty in Ukraine.
But Ukraine will also need to restore its human capital to meet the expectations of foreign investors who will want to aid in rebuilding the country. It therefore seems prudent to create incentives to return. The EU countries might contribute to this by making it costly and onerous to obtain permanent residence. European companies might also be offered subsidies to set up subsidiaries in Ukraine or perhaps institute work-from-home schemes that would allow Ukrainian refugees to retain their jobs at EU companies when they return home. The EU and the UNHCR might also provide those refugees who have lost everything during the war with legal, financial and psychological assistance in returning to the motherland.
The end of the war will not mean the end of the challenges facing the EU and Ukraine in dealing with this situation. We must already start thinking about our post-war strategies and planning how to support Ukrainian refugees in such a way as to allow both Ukraine and the EU to recover from the horrors of Putin’s war as quickly as possible.