By Stephan Müller
Roma in Ukraine are equally affected by the Russian aggression as all citizens of the Ukraine. Thousands of Roma have joined the Ukrainian forces defending the country, other Roma are involved in humanitarian work supporting vulnerable people – Roma and non-Roma alike.
Roma were forced to leave their homes in the eastern part of Ukraine due to the bombings and Russian atrocities. Many are living now in the western parts of Ukraine as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), joining the Romani IDP who were forced to leave their homes in Eastern Ukraine already in 2014.
Many others, probably a few ten thousand, found refuge in Moldova and in Member States of the European Union. Many of those perceived as Roma experience unequal treatment and discrimination by authorities and volunteers.
In many countries, civil society organisations have observed cases of discrimination: private persons or hotels refused to take in persons considered Roma; drivers refused to transport persons considered Roma; in other cases, they were segregated from other refugees or brought to remote places.
In the first weeks of the war, primarily civil society organisations, individual volunteers or church organisations provided assistance to the refugees, including Romani refugees. With official structures taking over the reception and provision of assistance to refugees, incidents of discrimination have not stopped, but are now in the responsibility of the authorities.
Based on the available information we cannot talk of a systemic discrimination of persons considered Roma. At the same time, there are indications of antigypsyism and of structural discrimination.
In particular, certain politicians and media outlets have begun to single out Roma as purely “economic migrants” who “abuse the refugee system” and break the rules. These irresponsible racist statements apparently aim at paving the ground for getting rid of the Romani refugees again.
Background: Roma in Ukraine
Roma have lived on the territory of what is now Ukraine since the 15th century. During the last census in 2001, 47,600 persons were registered as Roma. However, their actual number is assessed to be up to 400,000.
The Roma in Ukraine are a very diverse community. There are several sub-groups based on the main language or dialect of Romanes spoken, traditions, traditional professions, religion, or the region of Ukraine they live in.
The largest number can be found in the Transcarpathian region, a region that also houses a large Hungarian community. Many of the Roma in this region speak Hungarian and consider themselves as part of the Hungarian community and its culture.
In 2018-2019, several violent attacks were committed against Roma by right-wing extremists in which one young Romani man, David Popp was killed. Overall, discrimination and social exclusion of Roma was as wide-spread as in all other countries in Europe.
Since the onset of the war, some cases of violence and of discrimination against Roma took place, in particular in western Ukraine. There is only limited information about the situation of the Roma in the occupied areas. According to NGOs active in the area, the representative of the Roma community in Izyum was killed by Russian forces after he refused to cooperate with them.
According to European Roma Right Centre (ERRC) up to 20% of the Roma do not possess IDs which created problems for leaving Ukraine or for being accepted as a refugee under the Temporary Protection System of the European Union.
Despite these incidents of violence and the general discrimination of persons considered Roma in Ukraine, the overwhelming majority of the Roma are now defending Ukraine.
Internally Displaced Persons
A few ten thousand Roma were forced to leave their homes in eastern Ukraine and found temporary refuge in central or western Ukraine. Overall they face similar problems as other IDP, which are compounded by specific problems such as discrimination when they are looking for transport, accommodation or humanitarian assistance. Their plight is further exacerbated by the fact that they cannot afford private accommodation and have to rely on other forms of temporary accommodation.
Roma from Ukraine as Refugees
It is difficult to determine the exact number of Romani refugees from Ukraine, but we can assume that several ten thousand, primarily women and children have left Ukraine.
In May 2022, Ukrainian authorities regulated that only persons from war zones or in close proximity to war zones can leave the country without documents.
In March 2022, the European Union activated the Temporary Protection Directive that allows for access to accommodation and the labour market to persons from Ukraine. Ukrainian refugees do not have to enter asylum procedures. However, it seems that it depends on the individual country if it extends Temporary Protection also to persons from Ukraine entering without any documents. While Slovakia announced that also persons without documents are eligible for Temporary Protection after an identity check, Germany has not clarified this issue as of yet.
Another general problem seems to be that many Roma from the Transcarpathian region have a dual Ukrainian and Hungarian citizenship. In recent years, the Hungarian government has allegedly issued around one million citizenships to persons from neighbouring countries, such as Serbia, Romania or Ukraine. Just like ethnic Hungarians or ethnic Ukrainians, many Roma from Transcarpathia availed themselves of this opportunity to enter the labour market in the European Union by means of a Hungarian passport.
Yet, persons with a dual citizenship, in particular Roma, now face serious problems in countries such as the Czech Republic and Germany, since they are considered as citizens of the European Union and access to both the temporary protection system and asylum procedure are denied to them. A similar situation seems to exist in Austria.
The public discussion in the Czech Republic and to a lesser extent in Germany on refugees with dual citizenship focuses on Roma and ignores the fact that they constitute only a part of the Romani refugees from Ukraine.
The following sketches give an impression of the situation of the Roma in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany:
President Milos Zeman stated that the Roma are not war refugees, but solely economic migrants. When Roma refugees from Ukraine slept rough in front of the train station of Brno, the Deputy Mayor Ms. Marketa Vankova claimed that Roma refugees had applied for financial assistance in several countries but failed to provide proof for her statement when questioned by journalists.
In Prague, a few hundred Roma are spending the nights at the central train station. The city government plans to build a “tent town” only for Roma who have fled Ukraine. The mayor specifically referred to Roma with a dual citizenship.
On 19 May 2022, the Czech government modified the legislation governing the situation of the refugees from Ukraine. In the light of the ongoing public discussion before, a number of amendments to the law were introduced to target the Roma in particular. It was stipulated that the provision of humanitarian assistance to refugees at the main train station will stop at the end of May. The overwhelming majority of the refugees at the main train station are Roma. The civil society organisations working with the refugees were not consulted when the amendments were discussed.
The Czech Minister of Internal Affairs, Vít Rakušan, talked with his Ukrainian counterpart requesting that persons with dual citizenship should not be allowed to travel to the Czech Republic. He also contacted the Hungarian authorities and allegedly reached an agreement that Hungary will shorten the turnaround time for vetting new arrivals to the Czech Republic for a Hungarian citizenship.
In Hungary, there exists a considerable discrepancy between the number of Ukrainian refugees who arrived there and the actual number of refugees who registered in order to be eligible for health insurance and material assistance.
On May 12th, the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that ca. 578,531 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Hungary. Other government data vary between 700,000 and one million persons. These figures also include persons who came from Ukraine to Hungary via Romania. By contrast, only 21,320 persons requested temporary protection and 11.467 persons received the status by May 13th. In Slovakia, by comparison, 75,000 out of 425,000 refugees received temporary protection. In Poland, this was the case for one million persons out 3.6 million.
We can assume that a large number of the refugees who entered Hungary did not request protection and travelled on to other countries.
There exists conflicting information regarding the situation of the refugees with a dual citizenship. Between 2011 and early 2015, a total of 94,000 Ukrainians received Hungarian passports.
According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, all refugees from Ukraine with double citizenship are not eligible for asylum status, but they enjoy the rights granted to refugees from Ukraine under the temporary protection system, including access to temporary accommodation, access to health care, monthly financial support, etc .
The website of the National Directorate for Aliens Policing states that persons who have a dual citizenship enjoy the same rights and obligations as Hungarian citizens. Yet, there are reports from Hungary that Romani refugees receive unequal treatment. During the first weeks of the war, members of civil society or churches primarily took care of the arriving refugees and organised transport, accommodation or provision with food or hygienic articles. Due to discriminatory practices, it fell to Romani civil society organisations to arrange transport and accommodation for Romani refugees, to provide food or hygienic articles for them and an to assist them in their communication with the authorities.
In Germany, a few cases of discrimination have been reported and several biased media reports on Roma from Ukraine have been published. These reports merely concern the wrong doings of some individuals, but never present the situation of the overwhelming majority of the Roma. There were no reports at all about Romani lawyers and students. There was no mention of women and children arriving in a country whose language they do not speak. These women were discriminated at home and continue to be discriminated now while their husbands and fathers are fighting at the frontline.
Though being aware of it, the relevant German authorities such as the Ministry of Interior, or the Commissioner for Integration have not clarified the status of refugees from Ukraine who never possessed any documents.
With regard to the situation of Roma with a dual Ukrainian and Hungarian citizenship, it seems that the German authorities tend to share the position of the Czech Government and deny them access to temporary protection and asylum. The German authorities have not issued an official statement regarding this question so far.
For the German authorities, the Hungarian citizenship takes priority over the Ukrainian citizenship. In some cases, Roma with a dual citizenship were offered train tickets to Hungary, though they might have never lived in Hungary.
Since Hungary never signed the European Convention on Social and Medical Assistance, refugees considered as Hungarian citizens would also not be eligible for receiving health insurance or any kind of social assistance in Germany.
Persons considered Roma by the majority population have only received a similar welcome as other refugees from Ukraine in a few cases. It was very often up to the Romani civil society to assist them and we can identify from the very beginning a difference between Ukrainian refugees considered Roma and white Ukrainian refugees.
In countries such as the Czech Republic and Germany, the authorities and politicians tend not to consider and accept Roma as “war refugees” on a par with all other refugees from Ukraine. Although Roma constitute only a part of the Ukrainians with a dual Ukrainian-Hungarian citizenship, the public discussion in both countries focuses solely on the Roma. Further, in the Czech Republic, the authorities allegedly only check persons considered as Roma if they have a dual citizenship.
This raises the question of what the situation of the Romani refugees will be like in the near future. No one can predict how the Russian war against the Ukraine will develop, but we can assume that for a large part of the Roma a return to their pre-war homes will not be possible in the foreseeable future.
The receiving countries cannot exclude all Roma refugees from humanitarian assistance or inclusion measures. The example of attitude of the Czech Republic shows, however, that certain governments try to limit the number of Roma refugees in their country or to exclude them from the kinds of assistance other Ukrainian refugees receive.
Among the refugees, there are primarily women with children. Looking at socio-demographic data for Roma in Ukraine, we can assume that many women have only basic school education which creates challenges for their participation in inclusion measures such as accessing the labour market.
In addition, persons considered Roma by the majority and the authorities will face more severe obstacles to inclusion, primarily due to antigypsyism and the rejection by the majority population and authorities.
Experiences from other wars or post-war situations (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo or Syria) show that persons considered Roma also face serious obstacles or even resistance when they return to their home countries – either to their home towns or to other parts of their home countries.
Due to non-existing systematic monitoring and the dynamic situation, it is a challenge producing a comprehensive overview of the situation of Romani refugees from Ukraine in other European countries. This document is therefore less an analysis of their situation than a description based on available reports from media, humanitarian organisations and activists.
Situation in Ukraine
Situation in Neighbouring Countries
Situation in Germany
by Sylivia Koberwa
Humanitarianism is defined by several principles: humanity, the belief that all humans are equal and have inalienable rights; impartiality, the insistence that we help those who are most in need and that we do not play favourites; neutrality, the commitment to action that does not intentionally benefit or hurt one side or another; and independence, the attempt to ensure that the action is not connected to parties who have a stake in the political outcome of the emergency (Barnett, 2014, p.2). This text analyses the relationship between African refugee mothers, their survival dynamics and humanitarianism in Rio de Janeiro during the Covid-19 pandemic.
My choice of approach arises from the stereotype that mothers and children are “mere victims.” Equally, Barbara Harrell Bond (2002, p. 52) argues that humanitarianism is about defending, advocating and securing the enjoyment of human rights. It also implies a shift from seeing beneficiaries of humanitarian aid as “victims” to be pitied, to survivors of adversity - who often demonstrate unimaginable strength and dignity in the most adverse circumstance”. The research methodology is inspired by my own ethnographic participant observation as an asylum seeker in Rio de Janeiro and observations from some African refugee mothers and their children living in Rio de Janeiro.
Dawn Chatty (2014, p. 80) mentions that anthropology's unique contribution to the field of refugee and forced migration studies includes carefully documenting what happens to people, their culture and society when they are forcibly displaced and wrenched from their territorial moorings, or indeed, when they are dispossessed through processes of forced sedentarisation and involuntary immobility. I, therefore, intercalate personal reflection and engagement with the forced migration literature to achieve this goal. The idea is to directly merge my first-hand experience of exile with the literature on forced migration to give an image of how African refugee mothers obtain humanitarian aid and survive in Rio de Janeiro and how COVID-19 has affected their struggle.
Experiences before the Pandemic
In 2018, I had to bite the bullet, MOVE to Brazil and make a fresh start with my 18-month old daughter after the brutal murder of my late husband in Uganda. We were hosted in Rio de Janeiro by Sheila, a Brazilian lady who was a friend to my late husband and later guided me to a humanitarian organisation and the federal police, where I sought asylum.
I visited the humanitarian organisation to ask about my daughter joining a public daycare so that I would look for a job. The social worker asked me what help I needed precisely, even after explaining. I was astonished, but I told her that I needed a recommendation letter to take to daycare schools. In my mind, I thought that everything would be a walkover, but I needed to follow the “protocol” of applying to the Education secretary like any other native.
I got this information from the three schools we visited with Sheila, which left me wondering why the social worker would not give me the correct information. I questioned if she knew the proper procedures for putting a refugee child into a public school. First, one needs to identify the schools in their residence, choose five options, and access the Rio de Janeiro municipal council’s website. Not forgetting internet access is key to completing the task. Then, fill in the child and school’s information. A registration number is generated at the end of the process for future use.
I waited for six months before receiving a phone call from the daycare school where my daughter started school.
There existed no formal procedure for ushering in refugees at this organisation about essential information and public services like the “CPF,”[i] an eleven-digit number that serves as an identification of taxpayers in the Income Tax and enables access to services and the “SUS”[ii] card that guarantees public health to the population in Brazil. A simple brochure in different languages like Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, and Arabic would be far better; for Harrell-Bond states that until refugees have access to effective legal remedies, humanitarian assistance will continue to be inhumanely delivered to refugees. (Harrell-Bond, 2002, p. 52).
I went back to the social worker to seek jobs information after a long haul of waiting for their contact. Shockingly, she told me that only private or institutional cleaner jobs could be available, though she was unsure because I did not speak Portuguese. She said she did not guarantee anything, despite sending my curriculum vitae to the organisation’s email address after requesting it. A volunteer translator enabled this meeting.
The undermining view of refugees is critical in understanding that the social worker did not think of asking me about my professional abilities and skills. Although she was aware that I had a higher education degree, fluency in English, and professional experience in banking, she had my CV at hand. This clearly shows that the mothers’ academic backgrounds and professional experiences before the displacement and integration processes are not considered by humanitarian sectors regarding professional insertion. This strongly contributes to the reproduction of the trope that refugees are “mere victims.” Moreover, this aligns with Harrell-Bond's seminal work (1986), in which she argued that refugees are not a priori dependent and passive, but rather that humanitarian institutions and political structures have created and even demanded the dependency of forced migrants upon donors and providers of assistance.
Then, in January 2020, I participated in the selection process at Abraço Cultural in Rio de Janeiro, the English course that Maimuna, an African refugee mother and former English teacher, had recommended to me. Maimuna played a significant role in getting to know the course, realising my potential to teach English professionally in Brazil, and feeling welcome in this country. I was approved as an English teacher. This course is significant in my life because it offers employment opportunities to persons in refugee situations. Even though I spoke some Portuguese, I didn’t feel integrated into Brazilian society. When I started to teach English in this course with centrality to the Global South, I developed a sense of purpose and belonging.
This work gives visibility to the agency of refugees because it allows us to deconstruct the idea of an opposition between refugees and hosts, who are considered agents (supporters, hosts, donors). Refugees are also their hosts and supporters. This experience allows problematising monolithic views, such as that refugees are not agents in this process. Several authors have recognised this problematisation as necessary (MALKI, 1995; HARRELL-BOND, 2002; PACITTO and FIDDIAN-QASMIYEH, 2013). Many mothers help each other through referrals and recommendations about jobs, public schools, hospitals, work permits and general survival ideas by themselves. As was the case between Maimuna and me.
For the first time, the image of an asylum seeker was optimistic as I started teaching my Ugandan culture to the natives at this course and could afford a small apartment for my daughter and me.
Patricia Hill Collins has pointed out that while motherhood is a contradictory institution that is experienced in diverse ways by black women, it can be empowering: “[m]otherhood can serve as a site where Black women express and learn the power of self-definition, the importance of valuing and respecting ourselves, the necessity of self-reliance and independence, and a belief in Black women’s empowerment” (Collins, 2007, p. 108). Similarly, these mothers strive daily to break stereotypes and barriers they face in society, even though their potential is generally belittled.
Life during the pandemic
In March 2020, I started to teach and just after moving to my apartment, the Covid-19 pandemic set in. Everything almost came to a stand-still. We entered into the quarantine period. I was in a state of panic as the course stopped classes. I was cut off from my friends and had no physical help. Then there was the worry about my daughter's well-being and the new bills I had just acquired.
From the several interactions with the mothers, our main goal was to be able to support ourselves and children independently and try to live a normal every-day life. By the same token, Karen Jacobsen (2014, p. 99) argues correctly, “Millions of forcibly displaced people living in and outside camps seek to support themselves and their families often with minimal humanitarian assistance and in the face of active resistance by governments and citizens of host countries.”
In November 2020, I received an unexpected call for the first time from the organisation to pick up resources with a humble request not to inform any other refugees.
Indeed, “the world of humanitarianism tends to elude critical analysis” (Fassin 2011, 35). Why would the humanitarian organisation ask me not to inform any other refugees about the resources they were offering? Furthermore, Hamid (2012), Bauer-Amin (2017) and Souza and Manfrinato (2020) question the image of refugee people as “bodies that need to be saved,” the stereotypical imagery propagated by the media, as completely helpless and miserable. As Bauer-Amin (2017, p. 128) shows, refugees “even though they are victims of persecution, violence and more, they prefer to be recognised as active agents of their own lives”. Thus, as Jacobsen (2014, p.101) states, for refugees, losses incurred during the journey combined with a lack of access to assets in the host country means they are deeply disempowered and constrained in their ability to act and challenge rules and power structures. The strategies which refugees utilise to overcome such disempowerment are therefore of great interest, as they point the way to empowering other marginalised groups.
Agreeing with the authors above, I firmly believe that the establishment of a more sustainable system that promotes social-emotional, economic and political development is vital. It is therefore crucial that these mothers are supported to construct their lives beyond “the daily bread” and the “handouts” that humanitarian sectors give them. They have a wide range of knowledge, skills and abilities and are highly trainable. However, vainly, the aid givers continue treating them as wholly helpless and miserable.
Harrell-Bond, Barbara. ‘Can humanitarian work with refugees be humane?’, Human Rights Quarterly 24(1), p. 51–85, 2002.
Harrell-Bond, Barbara. Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance for Refugees. Oxford University Press, 400 pp. 1986
Barnett, Michael. Refugees and Humanitarianism. In: The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Chatty, Dawn. Anthropology and forced migration. In: The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 1-9.
Collins, Patricia Hill. The meaning of motherhood in Black culture and Black mother-daughter relationships. In: Maternal Theory: Essential Readings. Edited by Andrea O Reilly. Toronto, Demeter Press, 2007, pp. 274-289.
Jacobsen, Karen. Livelihoods and Forced Migration. In: The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Bauer-Amim, Sabine. Resisting the current “refugee” discourse: between victimisation and reclaiming agency. In: Kohlbacher, Josef and Schiocchet, Leonardo. From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2017, pp. 127-146.
Malkki, Liisa. Refugees and Exile: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to the National Order of Things. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, p. 495-523, 1995.
Pacitto, J. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. Writing the 'Other' into humanitarian discourse: framing theory and practice in South-South humanitarian responses to forced displacement, August 2013, Working Paper Series No. 93, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/55c9f5344.html [accessed 19 April 2021]
Souza, Mirian Alves and Manfrinato, Helena de Moraes. Refugees of the Syrian conflict and the struggle for housing in Brazil. In: Leonardo Schiocchet, Monika Mokre, Christine Nölle-Karimi (eds.), Agency and Tutelage in Forced Migration. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2020. pp. 119-125.
[i] Cadastro de Pessoa Física (Personal Registration Record).
[ii] Sistema Único de Saúde (Unified Health System).
Sylivia Koberwa is a Master’s student in Justice and Security at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She is a refugee from Uganda and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and Social Administration from Kampala International University in Uganda. She is also an English teacher at Abraço Cultural in Rio de Janeiro. Her academic interests comprise motherhood, children, humanitarianism, human rights and social services in the context of forced migration.
By Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Adèle Garnier
* Originally published on March 4, 2022 by Refugee Law Initiative – School of advanced Study, University of London at https://rli.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2022/03/04/forced-displacement-from-ukraine-notes-on-humanitarian-protection-and-durable-solutions/. We would like to thank Greta Uehling for her careful reading and encouragement to publish this blog.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine February 24 2022 marks the start of a new displacement crisis. In a statement on February 24, Filippo Grandi, the High Commissioner for Refugees, emphasized that ‘The humanitarian consequences on civilian populations will be devastating. There are no winners in war, but countless lives will be torn apart. We have already seen reports of casualties and people starting to flee their homes to seek safety’. UN officials estimate up to 4 million people could leave Ukraine if the situation deteriorates. As of March 4, 1.2 million people had fled Ukraine to other countries in the region.
Ukraine was one of 15 republics of the Soviet Union and became an independent state in 1991. Ukraine is a 2002 signatory to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. As of January 2022, it had a population of approximately 43 million. The country is bordered by Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. To contribute to the understanding of the evolving displacement context and the implications for the international protection regime and durable solutions, this blog provides a set of initial reflections. We draw on our backgrounds in refugee and migration studies to do four things:
1. A tentative state of the art
As part of this reflection, we have surveyed a set of key (English language) journals in refugee, migration and humanitarian studies to map out existing scholarship on displacement and the Ukrainian context. We are aware these are Global West publications and reflect what is visible in these areas of research, rather than a comprehensive overview of existing knowledge. In doing this work, we have also observed that there are important contributions published in law, area studies, history and cultural studies. Note that we mostly bracket Holodomor studies (see here and here) in this exercise.
Journals such as Refugee Survey Quarterly and the International Journal of Refugee Law have not published on Ukrainian displacement. In the Journal of Refugee Studies, there are a few contributions on internal displacement and elections (Woroniecka-Krzyzanowska and Palaguta 2017); and politicization of religious actors as humanitarian providers and state failure (Leustean 2021). Forced Migration Review has published shorter interventions on asylum seekers in Poland (Szczepanik and Tylec 2016) and shelter (Dean 2017; Wetterwald and Thaller 2020) and also hosts older contributions on deportees (Uehling 2008) and statelessness (de Chickera and Whiteman 2014). As noted in an interesting contribution in a US law journal, surprisingly little attention has been given to the continued refugee resettlement of Ukrainians to the US on the grounds of religious persecution (Klokiw 2019)..
The Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies features a substantial gender oriented literature on labor market participation, transnational marriages, motherhood (i.e. Górny and Kępińska 2004; Kindler and Szulecka 2013) but no contributions focusing on displacement and conflict in Ukraine. The International Migration Review is home to some older scholarship on Ukraine and European migration (Shamshur 1992) and on post-war Ukrainian refugee resettlement to Canada (Luciuk 1986). International Migration has a contribution on legal and illegal migration in the 2000s (Uehling 2004); and Migration Studies features publications on internal displacement (Uehling 2021) and socio-legal aspects of return migration (Kubal 2015). While we have found few scholars with a large body of published scholarship in this topical area, it might be noted that Greta Uehling, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan has been an important and prolific contributor to this field for more than two decades.
In the adjacent field of humanitarian studies Journals such as Disasters, the Journal of Humanitarian Affairs and the Journal of Humanitarian action have nothing on Ukrainian displacement (though note Ukraine focus as part of the large scholarship on famine relief (Werther 2021). A contribution on Polish aid to Ukrainian internally displaced people (IDPs) is published in Humanitarian logistics (Piotrowicz 2018).
While the academic specialist fields of refugee and forced migration studies have a limited track record on Ukraine, a larger body of work on forced displacement can be found in area studies, (with a key point of reference being a special issue in Europe-Asia Studies 72.3 (2020)). This includes research on the IDPs (Kuznetsova and Mikheieva 2020) in Crimea (Charron 2020) and Donbas (Sereda 2020; Sasse and Lackner 2020); media representations of IDPs (Rimpiläinen 2020) IDPs and public space (Lazarenko 2021) and gender (Kuznetsova 2021; Khrystova and Uvarova 2022); humanitarian crisis (Scrinic 2015; Quinn 2015; Bulakh 2017).
2. A century of Ukrainian displacement and resettlement
In the following, drawing on historical scholarship and scholarship in history, we provide a brief chronology of displacement in Ukraine over the past century. There was substantial out-migration to North America prior to the First World War (Chyz 1939). Between the early 1920s and 2020, Ukraine – until after the Second World War divided into Western and Eastern Ukraine – has experienced numerous periods of mass emigration, forced relocation and displacement. Before the first World War, poverty and land scarcity led to large scale migration from Western Ukraine (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later Poland and Romania) to North America. In the East, peasants were subjected to massive, forced relocations to other parts of the Czarist empire. The annexation and deportation continued under Stalin. The Holodomor –to kill by starvation –was a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine between 1932-1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians. The famine was exacerbated by the governments rejection of outside aid, confiscation of household foodstuffs and the restriction of population movements (Basciani 2011). In addition to ethnic Ukrainians, national minorities were also oppressed and deported in the 1930s and 1940s (ethnic Germans, Crimean Tatars, Poles, Bulgarians, Armenians, and Greeks) (Malynovska 2006). As the international refugee regime began taking shape, the emergence of anti-immigration laws in the US (the Immigration Act of 1917, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the Immigration Act of 1924) significantly curtailed transnational Ukrainian migration. Groups displaced by the first world war were again displaced by World War II from reception countries in eastern Europe (Kulischer 1949).
The Second World War took an enormous toll on Ukraine. While there are no reliable numbers available, 5 to 7 million people are estimated to have died, and an estimated additional 2.3 million Ukrainians were sent to Germany to perform forced labor. The repatriation agreement signed by Allied powers in at the Yalta conference in February 1945 categorized Ukrainians from the East as Soviet subjects to be forcibly repatriated to the USSR, and many fought to gain recognition as refugees. Ukrainian Displaced Persons (DPs) residing in the German, French, and British zones of temporary occupation at the end of the Second World War were a very mixed group comprising of Ukrainian prisoners of war taken by the Soviets, guerillas fighting against the Soviets, slave labor for the Nazis and Nazi-sympathizing Ukrainians. After the War, this group became classified as political refugees (Stebelsky 1991). In terms of overseas resettlement, in 1947, in a first for Australia, the country joined Argentina, Canada and the US in resettling DPs. as part of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) resettlement agreement (Persian 2018). Post-war resettlement to Canada was a short-lived affair, due to conflicts between the established diaspora community and arriving DPs (Luciuk 1986). With respect to the US, of the 352,000 people admitted to the US under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, 15 percent were Ukrainian, and most were Ukrainian speakers from Western Ukraine. Most Ukrainian immigrants were subject to the limitations that the National Origins Quota System regulating immigration from 1924 to1965. A specific case concerns the postwar trajectories of ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) from Ukraine. Under Nazi resettlement, this population had ended up in Germany and Austria. While not eligible to be assisted by IRO, some did seek assistance. Broadly belonging to Catholic, Protestant, and Mennonite faith groups, the latter was comparatively much more successful in utilizing religious networks for overseas emigration. While individual efforts to switch national identification mostly failed and petitioners living in ‘mixed’ marriages had some success, the well-organized Mennonites managed a ‘collective conversion’ from German to Dutch nationality and resettled as a group (Panagiotidis 2020). By 1955 only about 250,000 of the 2.3 million Ukrainians displaced because of World War II had been allowed to relocate abroad (Wenner 2010). By 1952, most Ukrainian refugees in DP camps had been resettled (Dyczok 2000).
In the post-World War period, religion has been a key structuring factor in resettlement. Post-World War II Ukrainian refugees tended to be Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic; beginning especially in the late 1970s, numerous Soviet Jewish refugees arrived in the US (Basok and Brym 1991), along with smaller populations of Evangelicals, Baptists and Pentecostals. As president Gorbachev’s glasnost policy allowed people to apply for emigration on the grounds of religious persecution, refugees from various evangelical faiths settled at the end of the Cold War. Ukraine experienced economic crisis from the late 1980s until the late 2000s, engendering high outward migration. However, it was the 1990 Lautenberg Amendment that became a primary driver of Ukrainian immigration to the United States. On denominational grounds, Ukrainians were admitted as religious groups with a lesser group-based burden of proof with respect to discrimination. While initially intended as a temporary protection mechanism for persecuted religious minorities in the Soviet Union, it has become a central gateway for Ukrainian Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Baptist and Evangelicals (Klokiw 2019)..
Whereas the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act took refugee admissions under 30,000 per year. Between 2001 and 2003, the US maintained a separate designation, and an associated quota, for countries from the ‘former Soviet Union.’ This quota was removed in 2004, when Ukraine was integrated into a broader ‘Europe’ refugee quota which led to a rapid decline of admissions. Nevertheless by 2011, Ukraine was among the ten countries with the most refugee arrivals (Capps 2015) during FY 2000 through FY 2011. By 2013, only 227 Ukrainian refugees were admitted (Klokiw 2019). At the Russian occupation of Crimea and the subsequent arrival of the Trump administration, the numbers surged again. While the Trump administration slashed the resettlement quota, by 2019, Ukrainians were one of the top groups resettled as refugees in the United States, with a 75 percent growth in arrivals. On a parallel track, Ukrainians have received high admissions under US visa schemes, making up the highest portion of overall European admissions from 2009 to 2018 (Klokiw 2019).
3. The politics of displacement prior to the 2022 invasion
Ukraine has since the end of the Soviet Union been a country of origin, transit and arrival for forced migration, as well as a provider of ‘durable solutions` for ethnic Ukrainians returning to the country form which they had been exiled during the Soviet era.
In the 1990s, the ethnic composition of Ukraine changed significantly. Many ethnic Russians left, and many ethnic Ukrainians returned, including Tatars originally from Crimea, whose returned population increased fivefold between 1989 and 2001. Returnees arriving after the adoption of a new citizenship law in November 1991 did not have Ukrainian citizenship on arrival, as the new law linked citizenship to permanent residence in Ukraine. A sizable population was stateless, as Tatars also had not been granted citizenship of the ex-Soviet Republic in which they lived before their departure. The population from ex-Soviet Republics in which there were conflicts also increased, including from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Ukraine developed a refugee protection framework from the 1990s, with the adoption of the Law on Refugees in 1993, the opening of a UNHCR Liaison Office in Kyiv in 1995, the ratification of the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol in 2002. Asylum claims were processed from 1993. Asylum procedures were criticized as weak, with high levels of forced returns for instance of Chechens. Still, Ukraine recognizes several thousands of refugees a year, and this in some years has included sizable contingent of Afghan refugees since the 1990s. Ukraine in the 1990s was also a country of transit for irregular migrants, with 100 000 migrants being detained at its western borders between 1991 and 2003. Human trafficking, particularly of young women, also increased in the 1990s, and Ukraine ratified the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2000. With the expansion of the European Union in 2004, and the perspective of an association agreement with Ukraine, the European Union focused on capacity building and contributed to fund asylum processing centres.
The suspension of negotiations of the EU association agreement by a pro-Russia government in 2013 led to the Maidan protests in Kyiv and a pro-European regime change the following year, rapidly followed by Russia’s occupation of Crimea. 5.2 million people were affected by the conflict and 1.6 million were displaced within and outside Ukrainian borders, Ukrainian IDPs have moved westward. As of 2019, there were 1.4 million IDPs in Ukraine, the 12th-largest population of IDPs worldwide Outside the borders, most Ukrainians sought refuge in Russia, but many also went to European Union countries, where the refugee recognition rate was very low – many Ukrainian nationals did not apply for asylum.
As of 2020, the main countries of origin of refugees and asylum seekers in Ukraine were Afghanistan, Syria, Russia and Bangladesh (the latter almost only asylum seekers), with a total of 2249 refugees and 2359 asylum seekers. There were also 35,875 stateless people. Besides, at the end of 2019, IOM estimated that there were between 37,000 and 60,900 irregular migrants in Ukraine, of various nationalities, concentrated in large cities, and with the largest shares from South Asia, West Africa and the Horn of Africa. The majority were young men with secondary education who had arrived with valid visas as tourists or students.
4. Pointers for advocacy
How the exodus from Ukraine will play out remains to be seen. Many of the structural impediments to transit and (temporary) settlement are not present in the current context. Ukrainians don’t require Schengen visas to enter the European union and can stay for up to 90 days. Furthermore, in an unprecedented move, Slovakia admits Ukrainians without valid passports.‘If they pass an individual assessment conducted by border officials’. Poland has also explained that they will admit those without valid documents. At the supranational level, the European Union has for the first time triggered the adoption of the EU temporary protection directive. The directive grants immediate protection, to Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians legally residing in Ukraine and fleeing toe war for one year. In terms of the traditional framework for durable solutions, traditional overseas resettlement countries have announced visa extensions for Ukrainians and priority processing of family reunification. Ukrainian diasporas, for instance in Canada, which hosts of one of the largest population with Ukrainian origins, are mobilizing resources to support their fellow nationals. Canada has also announced an emergency, two-year temporary protection measure for Ukrainian nationals fleeing the war, with no ceiling on eligible applications. Public opinion and politicians at municipal and provincial levels have signaled they will welcome Ukrainian refugees. Several countries are pressured to do more than the changes they first announced, such as the UK and Australia.
At the same time, vulnerability is gendered: all men between 18 and 60 have been conscripted and denied exit from the country. Also, Ukrainian men are currently prevented from leaving Ukraine so as to be available in case of mass mobilization and this appears to disregard concerns for men in vulnerable situations or the impact of family separation. From this perspective, gender-based advocacy focusing on men is necessary, especially as it has not been a priority in refugee advocacy.
Furthermore, the politics of solidarity are not universal: solidarity with Ukrainian refugees does not seem to apply to non-White people also fleeing Ukraine. Instances of discrimination and racism has been reported in Ukraine and at the Polish borders, with African students in Ukraine being trampled on or stopped from fleeing by border guards. The situation has been denounced by the African Union. All advocates should support fair treatment for all people affected by the war regardless of their ethnicity and migratory status.
Finally, vulnerability is tiered. The invasion has meant further displacement for refugees who had fled to Ukraine, such as Afghans who had fled the Taliban‘s return to power in 2021. Governments and civil society providing support to forced migrants from Ukraine should ensure non-Ukrainians are not just not discriminated against, but rather prioritized given their particular vulnerability.
We don’t know how long the invasion will last, what kind of conflict this will develop into and what the civilian toll will be. Our intervention, albeit a tentative exercise, aims to provide a background context for discussions – both scholarly and in various practitioner and activist communities – about humanitarian protection and durable solutions moving forward.
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Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO. She works on the digital transformation of humanitarian action and refugee management with a focus on legalization, accountability, ethics and rights. She also has a long-standing focus on global health.