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10 February 2022updated 06 Mar 2023 1:08pm

Will Ukraine be the source of Europe’s next migrant crisis?

Up to 1.5 million Ukrainians were internally displaced by Russia’s 2014 invasion of the country.

By Ido Vock and Nicu Calcea

BERLIN – One of the consequences of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, such as the one Kremlin has threatened for months, would likely be a massive displacement of civilians.

In recent weeks, some European officials have worried about the potential for a new migrant crisis in the event of wide-scale war in Ukraine. The Czech defence minister, Jana Černochová, has said her country may have to “bring in crowds of refugees from Ukraine”. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former president of Estonia, has estimated that up to four million Ukrainians might flee a Russian advance.

Such a movement of populations has precedent in the 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russia. The conflict caused up to a third of the population of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts (districts) to be registered as internally displaced last year. Across Ukraine, around 1.5 million remain internally displaced as a result of the conflict, a phenomenon that would likely be replicated if fresh fighting breaks out in other parts of the country.

Many displaced people would go to western Ukraine, to areas less likely to be invaded by Russia. Others would leave Ukraine. Some might go to Russia and its ally Belarus, although the attractiveness of those countries might be lessened by an invasion that Moscow had ordered. Others may attempt to reach the EU.

Again, there is precedent from 2014. That year, migration to members of the OECD, the club of mostly Western rich countries, rose sharply. By 2019, it had more than quadrupled relative to its prewar level. Although patchy, data from Rosstat, the Russian statistics agency, suggests that migration to Russia from Ukraine also picked up significantly.

Whether migrants are internally displaced within Ukraine or go further afield will depend on several factors, including the extent of a Russian invasion and the duration of a military occupation. A prolonged occupation, though viewed as an unlikely prospect by most analysts, would likely mean more pro-Ukrainian citizens fleeing.

Millions have already left Ukraine for the EU, the majority settling in eastern European countries that are geographically and culturally close to their homeland. Proportionally, the highest numbers live in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the Czech Republic. Around 270,000 live in neighbouring Poland, though hundreds of thousands more travel to the country for seasonal work. The Czech Republic is seen as especially attractive because of a liberal migration policy towards unskilled migrants.

A relatively high number of migrants have also travelled to Hungary. Some of these movements may be explained by the presence of a large ethnic Hungarian minority in Ukraine, for whom the Hungarian government has facilitated naturalisation procedures. Ukrainian policy, including a military draft, is also likely playing a role in encouraging emigration, according to a paper by researchers at the Geographical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Ukrainian citizens enjoy a visa-free regime for travel to the Schengen Area of the EU. If significant numbers were to attempt to head west to flee a Russian advance, many would likely use that right to enter the EU, potentially representing a significant humanitarian and logistical challenge for countries bordering Ukraine.

European officials worry about the potential for “hybrid measures” against the EU, of which the movement of Ukrainians could be one. The regime of Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, already instrumentalised the migration of thousands last summer as retaliation for European sanctions on his regime.

[See also: Serhii Plokhy: it’s impossible for states to be “both democratic and pro-Russian”]

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