Reluctance among Ukrainian refugees to return home


In the wake of the conflict in Ukraine that erupted last year, millions of Ukrainians sought refuge in various countries across Europe and beyond. A unique feature of this refugee flow, however, is its striking gender distribution, with the majority of arrivals being women. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had imposed restrictions on men aged eighteen to sixty, preventing them from leaving the country to ensure their availability for military service. Consequently, in most host countries, the proportion of women among adult Ukrainian refugees hovers around 70 percent.

This gender imbalance contrasts with other refugee flows. For instance, during the 2015-17 refugee crisis in Europe, women constituted only 30 percent of all asylum applications. Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also reveals that in 2022, women accounted for just under half of all individuals protected and/or assisted by the refugee agency.

The phenomenon can be termed a “feminization” of Ukrainian refugees. The term “feminization of migration” originally referred not so much to an increase in the proportion or numbers of female migrants but to the emergence of a new form of female migration in the early 1980s. Women began migrating independently in search of jobs abroad, rather than accompanying their husbands, and became the primary breadwinners for their families.

Ukrainian refugee women who left without their husbands now face new challenges. They must navigate life alone, secure employment, and care for dependent family members who accompanied them, including children, elderly individuals, and, in some cases, people with special needs. They are also often responsible for supporting family members who remained in Ukraine. These challenges can be overwhelming, prompting some to choose to return home, forsaking safety abroad for the familiarity of their homeland.

According to the International Organization for Migration, approximately ten percent of Ukrainian refugees who fled following the Russian attack in February 2022 have returned home from abroad.

While welcoming Ukrainian women refugees in Europe or the United States and providing them access to the labor market is a positive step, it does not necessarily ensure their economic integration. Various challenges, such as family breakdown, limited access to affordable childcare, social isolation, mismatched employment and education, overqualification or lack of qualifications, unrecognized degrees, and more, can hinder the success of these women in their host countries.

Ukrainian nationals who fled their country were granted immediate access to the labor market in Europe and the United States. To expedite protection rights and prevent overwhelming the standard asylum system, the European Commission introduced “temporary protection” status for Ukrainian nationals, providing them with residence permits and access to employment, housing, social welfare, medical care, and education. Similarly, the US government launched the “Uniting for Ukraine” program, offering Ukrainians a chance to come to the United States outside the regular refugee resettlement program under “humanitarian parole” for an initial period of two years.

Ukrainian parolees in the United States are eligible for employment authorization, Social Security numbers, federal assistance, and refugee resettlement benefits. These benefits are also available to those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which was recently extended to a larger number of Ukrainians in the United States.

This parallelism between the European Union and the United States in offering expedited protection modes to Ukrainian nationals outside the regular refugee system highlights the shortcomings of the current refugee system. Oxford professors Alexander Betts and Paul Collier have extensively discussed the inadequacies of the existing refugee system and called for its transformation to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. They emphasize the importance of providing refugees with opportunities for self-sufficiency, including employment and training, rather than keeping them reliant on humanitarian aid. These employment opportunities and newly acquired skills can empower refugees to contribute to the reconstruction of their home countries, a return that is strongly encouraged by the Ukrainian government, which is offering grants to businesses to stimulate job creation and rebuild the workforce.

However, despite some Ukrainians choosing to return, permanent repatriation does not appear to be the primary intention for most of them. The notion that “all Ukrainians want to return home” is not supported by data on migration intentions. Even before the Russian invasion in 2022, one in four adults in Ukraine expressed a desire to migrate, with the European Union being the preferred destination, followed by non-EU countries such as the United States and Canada. Furthermore, research on re-migration patterns suggests that “women and children have a relatively low probability of returning, especially the longer the conflict persists, as children establish roots in their new schools”. This demographic composition closely aligns with Ukrainian refugees.

As the Ukrainian crisis continues, it is imperative to shift from crisis management and short-term measures to long-term policies and support. With this in mind, the US government has established a new public-private initiative and signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the “Tent Partnership for Refugees” to support employment opportunities and economic integration for refugees in general. “Tent” is a coalition of over 300 multinational companies dedicated to supporting refugees through hiring, training, and mentorship.

This partnership aims to mobilize US and international businesses to connect refugees, including Ukrainians, with employment opportunities in the United States and other host countries. It underscores the importance of shared responsibility, a core principle of the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees.

Over time, Europe’s capacity for integration, including job markets, education, and housing, may reach its limits. Beyond those who opt to return home, many Ukrainians will seek further migration to access better opportunities or reunite with family members dispersed worldwide.

Diasporas have a magnetic effect on onward migration, and with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in the United States—both long-term residents and recent arrivals—more Ukrainians are likely to aspire to join them.

Approximately 355,000 Ukrainian immigrants were residing in the United States as of 2019, and at least 300,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the last eighteen months.

It is crucial to monitor the effectiveness of key measures designed to help refugees become self-sufficient. The feminization of Ukrainian refugees necessitates additional initiatives to ensure the social and economic integration of this specific group, particularly focusing on Ukrainian women facing numerous challenges on their own. Is the MOU initiated by the Biden administration yielding positive results? Is it specifically targeting Ukrainian women grappling with various difficulties? Is the international community ensuring that the newly acquired skills acquired through vocational training can be reinvested by these women when they return to Ukraine and participate in its reconstruction?

To succeed in their host countries or upon their return home, these women require more than just open borders and job markets; they need comprehensive support.


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