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Refugee issue: how many Ukrainians will return after the war?

Refugee issue: how many Ukrainians will return after the war? Ella Libanova (Vitaliy Nosach, RBC-Ukraine)

What can make Ukrainians return home, how the perception of people abroad has changed, what industries should be developed after the war - all this in an interview with Ella Libanova, a demographer, academician and director of the Ptukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, by RBC-Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians fled to European countries during the war. According to various estimates, the number of people who have left reaches 5 million or more. The real statistics on our refugees may not be so sad though, says Ella Libanova, a demographer, academician and director of the Ptukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

In an interview with RBC-Ukraine, she explained why the number of people fleeing the war abroad may be lower than official estimates, how many of them will return home and why, and how the war has changed Ukrainians.

- Ella Marlenivna, there is a lot of talk now that the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees will not come back from abroad. What are your thoughts on it?

- No, definitely not the majority. First of all, I would not use the term "refugees". Refugees means people with a specific legal status that a person receives abroad. By the way, this is a lifetime status. However, the majority of Ukrainians apply for temporary protection abroad.

Temporary protection status allows you to move to another country within the EU without losing certain guarantees (the right to work, receive education and benefits - ed.). It gives you the opportunity to go to Ukraine for some time and back, it does not oblige you to live in a refugee camp, it basically gives you much more freedom than refugee status. That is why I would suggest addressing them as "war refugees". This will separate them from labor migrants who were abroad before February 24, 2022.

- What is the number of those who have left since the beginning of the full-scale war?

- There are huge discrepancies in statistics here. According to our border guards, from February 24 to April 3 of this year, 1,800,000 more people left the country than entered. This increase tells us about the number of people fleeing the war.

UN officials provide us with another figure. According to their data, there are 5 million Ukrainians fleeing the war in all countries except Russia and Belarus (according to the UN, 4.9 million refugees participate in national temporary protection programs - ed.) And 2.9 million are in Russia and Belarus. I won't talk about this second figure as I’ve got no data on how many people have gone there.
However, I have many doubts about the 5 million. First, I have data from our border guards. I acknowledge that a certain number of people left illegally. Especially in the first very difficult couple of weeks (after the Russian invasion of Ukraine - ed.). But I do not think it is millions of people.

Refugee issue: how many Ukrainians will return after the war?
Photo: Ella Libanova: 70% of women who went abroad have higher education (Vitaliy Nosach/RBK-Ukraine)

Instead, there is information that 480,000 Ukrainian school-age children were abroad as of September 1 last year. If this is true, the total number of 5 million does not add up. The proportion of children among those who fled the war is not 10% or 20%, it is higher. It is mostly mothers with 2 or 3 children who fled Ukraine. Some also took their siblings’ or other relatives’ children.

I also admit there may be double counting of those who apply for temporary protection status. Let's suppose a person moved from Poland to another EU country. If they did not get deregistered in Poland, they will then be included in the statistics twice. I would surely exclude double counting in countries like Germany. But it can easily happen in poor countries.

There are also cases of people from villages in Odesa region near the Moldovan border who are registered as war refugees in Moldova, but live at home and travel back and forth. And similar cases occur in other bordering countries as well.

- So, what is the estimate of war refugees who are currently abroad?

- I think about 2.5 million. Taking into account those who left before the war, there are 5 million Ukrainians there, but this is a separate issue and separate statistics.

- Does this mean the situation with Ukrainians leaving the country is not as catastrophic?

- It is catastrophic. Even if it is 2 million instead of 5. Let's say that one million of them are mostly adults, women. If the war lasts for a long time, I’m not sure where the families will be reuniting: in Poland or in Ukraine. I don't know who will go where.

First thing I must say, families will be reunited for sure. The big question is where exactly it’ll happen and how many husbands will go abroad to be with their wives when they are allowed to.

Secondly, I consider it a demographic catastrophe because it was mostly young women under the age of 40 with children who left. That way, the rather intense process of demographic aging that was already inherent in Ukraine is now significantly intensifying due to young people leaving. The burden on the working-age population has also increased in Ukraine.

Thirdly, 70% of women who have fled have higher education. During the worst period of the spring of 2022, it was mostly women from Kyiv and Kharkiv with higher education who left. Overall, up to 90% of those fleeing the war were urbanites. Villagers did not go out of the country. Considering those who left, we might be losing our educational potential.

It’s worth noting that women who are used to hiding behind their father or husband did not go abroad. It was active and self-sufficient, independent women who left. And we’re now losing them. These losses are proportional to the duration of active hostilities. The longer the war lasts, the more women and children adapt to life abroad. A huge number of Ukrainian women in Poland have already found jobs.
Refugee issue: how many Ukrainians will return after the war?
Photo: War refugees will return if there is housing and work at home (Getty Images)

- Many countries require children to attend local schools. Will this make the gap between those kids and Ukraine bigger?

- Yes, it will. They adapt to the living conditions in a new country. If a woman works there, she will most likely be able to rent an apartment she likes. She will be getting a salary that will more or less meet her needs. They adapt to life in another country more and more with each month. As I said before, it’s not just women who are used to being housewives, it’s also those who are used to relying on themselves and who are great specialists in one area or another.

On the other hand, the longer the war lasts, the more Ukrainian infrastructure is being destroyed. And many people will have nowhere to return to. No place to live. Let alone the fact that industrial and production infrastructure is also being destroyed. This means no work. We often hear now, "Let's bring women home," and I personally do not support this. No need to bring them back right now. After the war is over, yes, but not now. We won't be able to offer most of them jobs now. Or are we going to pay women with the money that Western supporters give us? I don't think so.

I’d look at it all from a different perspective. Within the first two weeks after February 24, 2022, 200,000 men who had lived abroad for years returned to Ukraine. They came back, realizing they would not be able to leave again, because at that time the presidential decree had already come into force. They came back to defend their homeland and help their loved ones. All this to say, there is a sense of Ukrainianness and patriotism among our people.

And this is what we should try to build our policy on, even on a personal level. Every employer whose employees have left should communicate with them from time to time. We are in contact with all our colleagues who are now abroad. We involve them in some projects. Even if we can't pay them, they do not just fall out of our team.

This will probably not be the decisive factor for their return. But it can be the grain that can tip the scales in our favor. This also applies to schools: every classroom teacher who is a patriot of Ukraine should communicate with kids who have fled. This may not play a big role, or it may. So it is better to do so if we can.

- How are Ukrainians changing Europe? At the everyday level? It is easier for us than for refugees from the Middle East to settle in Poland, Germany, Sweden. Do we bring our culture and peculiarities of everyday life or do we try to adapt to the European way of living?

- In order to change Europe, we need to have way more of our people there. There is a joke: the next mayor of Warsaw will be a Ukrainian. There are many of Ukrainians, but not in all countries. We had made a big difference in Portugal before the war. However, it is absolutely true that the perception of Ukrainians abroad has changed a lot.

How were we perceived before? A migrant worker goes to Europe for a short time, agrees to work in any conditions just to make any kind of money. Other people have gone to Europe now. And this has radically changed the attitude to Ukrainians. Both university professors and school teachers are absolutely shocked by the level of education of our youth. They did not expect it. Our education turns out to be at a pretty decent level.
Refugee issue: how many Ukrainians will return after the war?
Photo: During the war, the image of Ukrainians abroad has changed dramatically, a demographer believes (Vitaliy Nosach/RBK-Ukraine)

If we were to compare our educational programs, I only have a complaint about history. It is taught by countries, not by periods. So, as a result, we know what happened in Poland in the 18th century, but we don't understand what was happening in other European countries at that same time. Otherwise, we would understand what resulted in which events, what influence it, and so on. We know that there was a Magna Carta. But what was happening at that time here? Or in France? If history was taught by periods, we would understand the role of Britain and Anglo-Saxon civilization in shaping the modern world and worldview.

But Ukrainians are seen as very educated people who are capable of learning. Our defenders added a lot to this image. Not many believed our military would master Western weapons so quickly.

- Have Ukrainians themselves changed abroad? Will they come back home different?

- Yes, they have. Even the migrant workers who left for a short time and came back before the war. Even those who only came to Ukraine for the Easter holidays. They managed to influence their surroundings in one way or another. For example, they asked other Ukrainians not to throw trash on the street, not to sing songs loudly at night, and to clean up after a picnic. Or even just to smile more.

There’s one more thing about those who are returning today. They no longer see foreign countries through rose-colored glasses. Tourism is one thing. Standing in line for a bus at 6 a.m. and having to get to work on time is another. As well as waiting for several months to get to see a specialist if you get sick. Doctors do not come to see you at home. In extreme cases, an ambulance is your last resort.

There’s no place like home. Yes, things should be getting to a higher level there, but it is not as bad as we think. Our education is not so bad, nor is our healthcare. Even our public services which are far ahead of a lot of European ones. God willing, the war will end this year. Because every month of war plays against us.

- Money or benefits alone won't bring people back, even after the war is over?

- I will never forget one moment. For a certain period of time, Greece was a region a large number of people went abroad from. The country was a major labor donor. And they had a slogan at the airports: "Greek, come back, your homeland is waiting for you." And these things have a great impact on people’s consciousness. It’s not just about money.

I will never believe that all those who left did so because of the benefits. They left to escape the horrors of war. I do not exclude that some left, seizing the opportunity. And, frankly, if they did so - thank God, let them go.

- Ukrainians in Europe often complain about local bureaucracy and the need to wait six months or more for a doctor's appointment. Will this become one of the factors for Ukrainians to want to go back home?

- When sociologists at the border here and in the EU asked Ukrainians if they would return, 90% said they would. I didn't believe it then, I don't believe it now. The experience of the Balkan wars shows that only a third returns. I think we can expect 50, maybe 60%. I put my hopes in our sense of Ukrainianness and patriotism.
Refugee issue: how many Ukrainians will return after the war?
Photo: The longer the war lasts, the more actively Ukrainian women integrate into life in other countries and find work there (Getty Images)

Ukraine is a large country compared to the Balkans. And if there is a full-fledged "Marshall Plan" here, and I believe there is, then we’ll have money and a lot of opportunities. Not only Ukrainians who are not satisfied with things abroad, especially medicine, will return. Europeans will also come if we can offer decent salaries and opportunities for growth.

- So, programs and incentives for people to come back will make sense after the war is over?

- Yes, there is a lot to do after the war. In particular, help with starting a business and rebuilding everything. People will come back if they have a place to live and if there is work. Kindergarten and school will not be a decisive factor. Yes, there will probably be 40 children in a class. Yes, they might study in two shifts. But parents need to have jobs and housing.

We also need programs for economic revival. I do not think we have to revive the "old" economy. We should rather be talking about the revival of the Ukrainian economy, not its recovery. And we need to understand which industries can be locomotives and drivers of this revival.

- What industries?

- Construction, of course. We will need to rebuild a lot. Moreover, one job in construction entails the creation of 6-7 new jobs in related industries.

The agricultural sector should also become a driver of the economy. Specifically, the food industry. I heard a suggestion recently that we should stop exporting grain and instead sell flour or pasta. Although it’s not that easy. In the countries to which we want to gain market access, durum wheat flour is in demand, not to mention pasta. It's a lot of competition and demands.

I was in Prague not long ago. I went to a store there and found that there were no high-quality greens, no vegetables, no quality meat like in Ukraine. The only thing I found was celery stalks from Italy. This is where we can offer our services. And we have something to offer. We have herbs: cilantro, coriander, parsley, lettuce. We can also export melons and watermelons.

We can compete with a lot of countries in the light industry. I personally bought things made in Ukraine in Washington and New York. We can develop the aviation industry in association with other countries. Yes, there are Boeings on the market, but we have small airplanes that can fill a certain niche, too.

Refugee issue: how many Ukrainians will return after the war?
Photo: Construction, agriculture and light industry could become the leading industries in Ukraine after the war (RBC-Ukraine/Vitaliy Nosach)

My favorite thing to think about is that Ukraine can totally become a great medical hub. It's no coincidence that people from the US, the Netherlands, and Britain used to come to Ukraine for dental treatment.

Unfortunately, I have little faith in tourism. I don't see where you can travel in Ukraine nowadays. Thermal springs in Zakarpattia - there are not so many of them, but that area has a lot of potential. There will be great opportunities for tourism development in Crimea when we recapture it. The tourist season in Sardinia lasts as long as in Crimea. But Sardinia is considered a world resort. We need to wait until we liberate Crimea and develop tourism there. We have a very good climate, not too hot and not too cold.

We will need to think on how to develop the territories bordering Russia when the war is over. The border is huge, the threat will not go away. That's why I'm not convinced that it's worth rebuilding tank plants in Kharkiv. On the other hand, I am skeptical about the idea of moving military infrastructure to western Ukraine. This sounds good from a logistical point of view, but there is the concept of the ecological capacity of the territory as well. Where would we build military facilities in Transcarpathia, Volyn or Bukovyna? This is why we should look at the potential of the central regions for this issue - Kirovohrad, Cherkasy, Poltava, and the south of Sumy. The Kharkiv region will surely develop because Kharkiv is an industrial center itself.

We have all the right to dream. Maybe somehow it’ll be possible to make sure there are no troops in the 100-kilometer zone bordering Russia.

- How did the war change Ukrainians, both those who left and those who stayed? How have their values and life views changed?

- The war has changed our priorities, not people. I used to try to buy a dress every spring. And now I think, why? I don’t need more than two skirts and three sweaters for the whole winter. We stopped spending money on unnecessary things and switched to what’s most necessary. On the one hand, it's because of the drop in income, as no one knows what tomorrow will bring. On the other hand, it all just doesn't seem important anymore.

We have become more open. Ukrainians are a rather reserved nation. If our closest relatives and friends need help, we help them. This has changed. We help strangers. My heart melts when people send their last thousand hryvnias to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Keep in mind that people stayed in bomb shelters together for two or three days. They shared food, water and medicine with each other, and this means a lot.

Refugee issue: how many Ukrainians will return after the war?
Photo: My heart melts when people send their last thousand hryvnias to the Ukrainian Armed Forces - Ella Libanova (Vitaliy Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

What am I afraid of now? The fact that there is already a certain division about the role of people during the war. Have you been abroad? Have you been in the territorial defense or in the ranks of the Armed Forces? I don't think there will be segregation and a strong split in society. But there’s a certain level of division already. I think society should do something about it. Those who stayed need to understand that those who left went abroad not to go to the beach, but to take their children away from the war, and it's not easy for them there at all.

- How do people see our victory? After a year of war, do they think that it will drag on for longer?

- I can only speak for myself. We know Ben Hodges (retired US Army officer, used to be the commander of the US Army in Europe - ed.) The rumor has it that almost 100% of his predictions come true. At the end of last year, he said that the war would end in mid-2023. I personally believe in Ben Hodges' prediction. I am not a military expert. But I surely hope that the war will be over at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year.