As the war in Ukraine approaches its first anniversary, attention has turned to plans for reconstruction. Among the array of policy briefs, commentaries, and political summits, one critical piece appears to be missing. How does the future of the nearly 8 million refugees who have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion relate to the reconstruction debate? Any comprehensive and effective reconstruction effort will inevitably have to address this question. During this time of uncertainty, the international community and hosting countries, together with the Ukrainian government, should start to think about how to integrate refugees in reconstruction strategies. They will ultimately form a vital part of any successful Ukrainian recovery.
Within Ukraine, the fate of an additional 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) remains uncertain. Ensuring their safety and considering their role in recovery efforts will be just as critical for Ukraine. Absent a strategy to incorporate refugees in reconstruction, many Ukrainians — especially young people — will stay abroad or become internally displaced upon return, placing an additional strain on a government struggling to rebuild its country and consolidate peace.
REFUGEES AND THE RECONSTRUCTION DEBATE
At the “Standing with the Ukrainian People” conference in December, co-hosted by the French and Ukrainian governments, participants made a pledge of over one billion euros of new aid to assist immediate needs over the winter resulting from Russian missile attacks.
Predicting that this war may well continue for months — if not years — discussions in the policy community have also shifted to finding ways to support Ukrainian resilience and eventual reconstruction in the medium to long term. Beyond military and arms support, establishing and ensuring reliable access to energy, water, and food — safeguarding civil society — constitute top priorities. Ukraine also faces a serious economic crisis, with GDP expected to shrink by 35% and poverty projected to rise to 60% in 2022, compared to 18% in 2021. Many have thus called for a type of “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine to mobilize and coordinate financial assistance to help rebuild the country and promote recovery in the future. Across the board, supporters stress proper oversight to avoid corruption. This “new start” is portrayed as an opportunity to establish strong institutions that will advance Ukraine’s status as a democracy and eventually pave the way to EU membership.
For both the physical restoration of Ukrainian infrastructure as well as the reform of governance structures and processes, the human capital of the displaced millions will be essential for any national recovery to succeed.
Their significance is all the greater when one takes into account Ukraine’s shrinking population, even before the war, due to aging, emigration, and low fertility rates. At almost one-fifth of the pre-war population, the return of Ukrainian refugees — overwhelmingly women and children — thus also has serious implications for the country’s population, national security, and geopolitical weight.
THE SITUATION OF UKRAINIAN REFUGEES IN EUROPE
The mass exodus of Ukrainians fleeing the war has considerably emptied out the country. Winter weather and extensive Russian bombing campaigns risk pushing more people out. According to the EU director general for migration and home affairs, the EU is currently drafting contingency plans for another four million refugees to arrive over the next months. With the activation of a temporary protection directive (TPD) on March 3, 2022, the bloc has responded remarkably effectively to this displacement crisis. The directive — which has been extended to offer protection through March 2024 — grants Ukrainians and non-nationals under international protection in Ukraine immediate legal status in EU member states. Without having to pass through formal asylum procedures, the measure offers a safe haven for those fleeing the conflict zone. Beyond residency, the TPD also ensures rights to access housing, education, employment, and social and medical assistance, in accordance with national guidelines in host countries.
As of January 3, UNHCR has documented almost eight million refugees from Ukraine across Europe, of whom almost five million have registered for temporary protection schemes.
WHAT IS THE OUTLOOK FOR THEIR EVENTUAL RETURN?
Even though a UNHCR survey of Ukrainian refugees across 43 host countries indicates 81% hope to return home one day, history points in a different direction. According to UNHCR and the Syrians Barometer, for instance, the share of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey expressing a reluctance to go back home increased significantly over the years. Experience shows that as displacement becomes protracted, the likelihood of return diminishes, especially for young people.
The practice emerging from the implementation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees foresees three durable solutions in the form of voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration. Voluntary return is by far the most preferred solution. When asked, refugees in general stress their desire to go back home. However, around the world more and more refugees find themselves in protracted situations. In 2021, this applied to almost three-quarters of the global refugee population — an estimated 15.9 million people. Only 429,300 individuals were able to return to their homes that year. Between 2010 and 2019, refugee returns numbered only 3.7 million, compared to almost 9.6 million between 2000 and 2009 and 15.3 million in the 1990s. Formal local integration in the form of citizenship has been a rarity, as has resettlement, falling well short of UNHCR’s traditional goal of finding resettlement spots for at least 1% of the world’s refugee population.
Ukrainian refugees — perceived in host societies as fellow Europeans — may be much more fortunate, especially if the TPD is discontinued and they are given the choice of permanent local integration. The war has disproportionately driven out women and children. As they access their rights under temporary protection to enroll in local schools and find employment, they plant roots that will only grow deeper the longer the fighting lasts. Through specialty classroom programs and language courses, refugees in many countries are also learning the local tongue. European countries facing labor shortages and demographic decline may welcome the additional human capital, especially considering Ukrainians’ overall high academic qualifications and skill levels as compared to other groups of migrants. When the war ends and husbands can leave a razed country to join their families abroad, would there not be a need to think about incentives for refugees to come back?
Some argue that local integration, through education and work, allows a pathway for Ukrainians to contribute to national recovery from abroad by sending remittances and acquiring knowledge and economic capital for a possible later return. Nonetheless, once the fighting ends, the presence of returnees will not only be invaluable in an economic sense, but also fundamental to rebuild robust democratic institutions, establish a resilient and culturally vibrant civil society, and provide a pool of new recruits for national defense. A hollowed-out Ukrainian state will only magnify the economic, demographic, and military asymmetries with its aggressive Russian neighbor, threatening the country’s long-term stability. To ensure this outcome, proactive thinking will be needed.
CREATING A PATH FORWARD
Policymakers and reconstruction advocates need to start now to craft a refugee-aware reconstruction strategy for Ukraine. The following suggestions are in no way conclusive, but offer starting points for including displaced Ukrainians in recovery efforts.
At the multilateral level:
- Establish a coordination structure of host governments, the Ukrainian government, and other funding partners involved in post-war reconstruction planning to streamline efforts. Include encouraging and facilitating voluntary returns as a key component in discussions and cooperate with UNHCR and refugee rights groups to develop concrete strategies. Ukraine holds ultimate authority on which programs to adopt.
- Plan for a phased return of refugees from abroad to smooth local reintegration and mitigate pressures on public services, encouraging those able to rejoin family to come first.
- Prioritize reestablishment of social infrastructure. Reopen kindergartens and schools to ensure child education and development and allow parents time to work and contribute to economic recovery. Secure access to medical care and social assistance to foster societal stability and resilience. Offer housing grants to allow people to rebuild homes and avoid risk of internal displacement.
- Develop a range of return assistance programs, from travel and transportation aid to ongoing financial, logistical and psychological support in local return communities.
- Stress the centrality of transparent governance, respect for the rule of law, and political rights in recovery funding and national redevelopment.
In host countries:
- Emphasize the desirability of Ukrainian cultural and linguistic preservation, particularly for children, to ease quick, successful reintegration upon return.
- Acknowledge the inevitability of local integration by pursuing a strategy of “dual intent” as long as the war continues, safeguarding fundamental rights and adequate protection during displacement while maximizing “pull factors” for return.
The question of whether and how refugees will return to Ukraine after the war ends requires concrete solutions. Conscious efforts are needed to integrate refugees into multilateral reconstruction debates and funding discussions for Ukraine. Otherwise, history suggests many are likely to settle in their respective locations, due to ongoing challenges and instability in countries of origin. The international community has a responsibility to consider the role of Ukrainian refugees in consolidating peace and ensuring Ukraine’s successful recovery as a democratic state.