Ukraine one year on: the challenge of preventing a new migration crisis in central Europe

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UkraineOne year after the Euro Maidan protests in Kyiv and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine remains one of the world’s top news-stories. A country with a relatively stable migration history has seen the mass exodus of civilians from insecure regions. Last year there were just too many uncertainties to foresee what would happen next. However, we can say that since last March, 1,070,000 IDPs have been registered in the country, including those from Crimea and Donbass. The real number of displaced Ukrainians, including those who do not register, is several times higher. This is still lower, of course, than the numbers seen in such trouble spots as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are still shockingly high, particularly given Europe’s gentler experience of migration in the last decade.

There are no reports from EU member-states about large influxes of migrants from Ukraine: the number of applications has increased moderately from nearly one thousand in 2013 to up to nine thousand at the end 2014. The total number of Ukrainians seeking asylum in neighboring countries (including Russia, Belarus, Moldova as well as EU member states) stands at 284,000. Meanwhile, there are 423,240 seeking other forms of stay such as temporary or permanent residence permits for study, work, reunification, compatriot programmes, etc. (Of course, there is no way to verify how many of these people left Ukraine as a result of the conflict). The sudden surge in Ukrainian applications for asylum in the West, reported in the media, particularly in the EU, gives some sense of the changing motivations and destinations of the displaced. Yet, most asylum-seekers are refused because a life-threatening situation is to be found in only parts of Ukraine. Unable to prove a genuine case for asylum, people keep trying to enter neighboring countries through traditional labour migration and family routes or just stay in Ukraine. It is clear, that the humanitarian risks as well as the economic and political costs of the conflict for Ukraine and for the West will be much higher if the Russian-backed offensive expands and a fully-fledged refugee crisis becomes a reality.

Now at the anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity, which saw Ukraine stand up for its European ambitions, the country has a series of unprecedented challenges ahead. It must halt further Russian-backed separatists attacks in the east; survive a deep economic crisis; and prevent large-scale population displacement getting worse. Why has the price for uneasy social and political transformations been so high? With the available local resources and the current scope of international concern, how long will Ukraine be able to sustain the current challenge? As the political situation both within and around the country remains highly unpredictable, it is not clear whether and for how long Ukraine will be able to withstand these pressures. The future will largely depend on the Russian Federation’s endeavors and attitudes to Ukraine as a geopolitical entity in the international environment. There is, still, a fear that the conflict might spin out of control.

If we look at the chronicle of events (see MPC/RSCAS Working Paper The impact of the current military conflict on migration and mobility in Ukraine), it becomes clear that mass migration flows in Ukraine were largely caused by external orchestrated factors and agents. They would not have been triggered by internal economic, political or cultural contradictions alone. Despite the international early warning mechanisms and elaborate tools for security promotion, do we know enough to act properly when the conflict occurs here, in our backyard? As Ukraine has had little experience of dealing with migration during the military conflicts, experts argue it should make use of United Nations standards as regards forced displacement, standards developed during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Moldova. Still, preventing migration crises arising from multi-actor situations remains a perplexing task both for young inexperienced states and for institutionalized democracies.

Further developments are largely determined by just what the Ukrainian authorities are able to provide to IDPs: if conditions are satisfactory, people will stay in Ukraine, if not many will try to leave. Still, no one should harbour the illusion that this is just Ukraine’s problem. Without a collective international response, further destabilization of Europe’s largest country will create devastating migration and security issues.

Kateryna Ivashchenko-Stadnik, Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology, NAS Ukraine.

The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.