28th Feb 2024


How to get Ukraine refugees to return home, once war is over

  • In Germany, for example, 44 percent of all Ukrainian refugees currently residing there would opt to stay permanently or for an extended duration (Photo: Matt Brown)
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine forced millions of its citizens to flee their homes in search of salvation, including abroad. According to recent estimate, Europe took the majority of them — 5.8 million out of 6.2 recorded globally.

In that context, Germany's role can hardly be overestimated. The country has provided shelter for almost 1.1 million Ukrainians. Among EU countries only Poland can boast more — at 1.6 million.

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Despite Russia's ongoing attempt to occupy Ukraine, there is speculation that the country may experience an economic boom in the aftermath of the war.

This belief is held not only by the majority of Ukrainians but also by Kyiv's allies, who consider a new 'Marshall Plan' to rebuild the country's economy to be almost a done deal.

However, this positivity may encounter an unfavourable reality in terms of Ukraine's reconstruction. The main challenge here may be insufficient skilled labour necessary to rebuild the war-torn country.

The Ukraine ministry of economy estimates that in the coming years, Ukraine will need at least 4.5 million workers in various industries.

But even before the full-scale aggression, Ukraine was in a deep demographic decline: for many years, the mortality rate significantly exceeded the birth rate, and millions of Ukrainians left to live and work in other countries.

Considering that the country's population has decreased by 20 percent since 1991, reaching 42 million in 2022, it is difficult to express optimism regarding its prospects for sustainable socio-economic development.

The barbaric attack by the north-eastern neighbour has worsened the situation many times over, and one can only guess at the horrifying demographic hole in which Ukraine will find itself as a result of this war, having lost a part of the able-bodied and reproductive male population who died or were seriously wounded on the battlefields with the Russian invaders.

The case of women and children — the future of any country — fleeing and settling abroad is no less painful for Ukraine.

In fact, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has forced millions of its civilians to leave their homes and seek shelter beyond its borders. According to recent estimates, there are more than 6.2 refugees from Ukraine recorded globally. In the EU, Poland and Germany alone have sheltered over 2.7 million.

Ukraine's rapid depopulation leads to disappointing conclusions. The Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine predicts that the number of Ukrainians within the country may fluctuate between 26-35 million people by 2033.

In the opinion of the institute's director, Ella Libanova, that upper forecast of 35 million people, unfortunately, looks very optimistic.

That means, in the next few years Ukraine risks getting into a demographic crisis that no European country has ever seen before.

Given the above, precipitous population decline may threaten the prospects of Ukraine's recovery.

Once the hostilities are over, it is unlikely that there will be lots of foreign companies willing to invest in the reconstruction of the war-torn country, knowing that there is a catastrophic shortage of labour force in addition to all the other challenges existing in Ukrainian society (e.g. corruption, imperfect legislation, etc.)

That is why Ukraine must strive for every refugee to return — especially since many forced migrants do plan to return home one day.

For the return process to begin without delays and at a significant scale, the Ukrainian government must commence the development and implementation of robust repatriation programmes as soon as possible.

Land and homes

In my view, these programmes could comprise allotting refugees with land and housing upon their return, providing one-off and/or multiple repatriation payments, along with substantial support in executing diverse investment projects with the participation of returnees.

At the same time, it should be understood that the efficiency of these programmes may be significantly impeded by numerous factors. Firstly, the longer the war lasts and the longer Ukrainian forced migrants stay abroad, the greater the likelihood that they will be permanently displaced.

In Germany, for instance, 44 percent of all Ukrainian refugees currently residing here would opt to stay permanently or for an extended duration.

Secondly, host countries may have their own plans for Ukrainians who have fled the war.

In this context, the case of Germany is also illustrative. Having invested so much in all respects in the integration of refugees, it is unlikely that Germany will give up on them overnight.

Considering the favourable attributes of the Ukrainian labour force, namely their high qualifications, youthfulness, good health, willingness to work and active integration, it is evident that they make a valuable contribution to the domestic workforce.

This is also why the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has encouraged German companies to actively hire Ukrainian refugees who hold significant human capital.

Obviously, the post-war interests of Ukraine and Germany are somewhat different here.

Thirdly, issues surrounding the repatriation of Ukrainian refugees may arise from ill-considered national policies.

In particular, statements made by certain representatives of the Ukrainian authorities may hamper efforts to repatriate the forced migrants. Imposing a three-year travel ban on Ukrainian men after the war ends is likely to deter many from returning.

Equally damaging to the significant repatriation of Ukrainian men from abroad after the war are the persistent statements that Ukraine intends to penalise upon return those of them who illegally left the country during the announced mobilisation.

Thus, in addition to military objectives, the Ukrainian government faces the crucial goal of presenting persuasive arguments and effective measures to facilitate the repatriation of millions of refugees.

The Ukrainian economic miracle, we all hope for, will largely depend on how successfully the official Kyiv and its partners will cope with this extraordinary challenge.

Author bio

Taras Romashchenko is an associate professor of international economics at Bohdan Khmelnytsky National University of Cherkasy, Ukraine. He is a senior lecturer in international economic relations and migration, as well as a visiting professor at Bielefeld University (Germany) and a visiting research fellow at Danube University Krems (Austria).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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