How Many Ukrainians Will Return Home After the War? The answer is not as straightforward as you'd think...

Published: May 18, 2023 Reading time: 13 minutes
How Many Ukrainians Will Return Home After the War? The answer is not as straightforward as you'd think...
© Photo: Raymond Kotewicz
Russia's massive attack against Ukraine in February 2022 brought about the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the end of WWII. More than a year after the invasion, over eight million refugees remain spread out around Europe. Polls carried out across the continent show that most Ukrainians eventually do want to return to their homeland once the war is over, however, experience from past global armed conflicts urges people to entertain this idea cautiously. The conditions necessary for most refugees to give up their security abroad and return home are not always possible.

Population movements triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine have been multi-directional nearly since the beginning. By the end of April 2022, a mere two months after the invasion began and at a time when the numbers of people newly arriving in the EU were still breaking one record after another, about 700,000 refugees had already begun to return to Ukraine. In February 2023, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that the number of returnees was about 5.5 million people.

Nevertheless, the available statistical data show that the intensity of returns culminated in the late summer and early autumn of 2022. That said, is it possible that the potential of return migration has been exhausted? Where do the people whose involuntary exile to Europe has entered the second year see their future?

What the polls are (not) telling us

According to one of the very first reliable polls carried out at Ukraine’s western border crossings by Razumkov Centre in March 2022, about 80% of the refugees planned to return to their homeland. 

However, when the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) mapped out the plans of displaced Ukrainians several months later, the figures looked somewhat different. Of the nearly 15,000 people polled in ten European countries, only 35% declared a desire to return (the highest number of these refugees being in Romania, the lowest in Germany). In fact, one out of every five respondents expressed an intention to remain in the country they currently resided in, and one out of every six said that they planned to stay in their host nation, but return regularly to Ukraine from time to time.

The Kyiv-based Centre for Economic Strategy further investigated the intentions of Ukrainian refugees in November and December 2022. The data they gathered shows that about three-quarters of those polled “definitely” or “probably” planned to return to Ukraine with only 10% of those respondents saying that they planned to stay abroad.

The Kyiv-based Centre for Economic Strategy further investigated the intentions of Ukrainian refugees in November and December 2022. The data they gathered shows that about three-quarters of those polled “definitely” or “probably” planned to return to Ukraine. Only ten per cent of the respondents said they planned to stay abroad.

The figures mentioned most recently more or less correspond to the information that we have about the situation in the Czech Republic. In a survey carried out among the refugees here by experts from the Faculty of Science at Charles University in the late summer and early autumn of 2022, 76 per cent of the respondents answered that they indeed planned to return to Ukraine eventually (42 % responded “definitely yes” and 34 % “probably yes”).

What is more, these intentions change with time. According to the Sereda, it takes about six months to a year for forced migrants to fully realize and come to terms with the fact that they’ve had to leave their homes behind for a long time, possibly even for good.

War refugees returning home - historical context

Longevity is one of the fundamental characteristics of modern-day refugeeism. There were only a few cases in the post-1945 period when most of the displaced returned to their homes after the end of the war. One exception was the return of the bulk (probably 80-90%) of the ten million people who fled East Bengal in 1971 in the context of the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Much better known from the European perspective is the case of Kosovo in 1999. Three weeks after the end of the local armed conflict, about 600,000 refugees, an overwhelming majority of them ethnic Albanians, returned to the territory of the former Yugoslav autonomous area within a process described by the United Nations as “one of the fastest refugee returns in history”.

The mass return of refugees to Kosovo sharply contrasted with the situation that occurred in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. In that case, only about 20% of all displaced people returned to their homes in the first 16 months after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, in which the return of refugees was one of the priorities of the post-war arrangement. Largely due to regional politicians, against whom the international community was practically powerless at the beginning, voluntary repatriation did not speed up until after 2000. Of the altogether 2.2 million people scattered across Europe and inside Bosnia’s borders by the war, about one million had returned by 2004.

There are undoubtedly more reasons why the cases of Kosovo and Bosnia differ so greatly, but the factor of time is perhaps the most important one. The displacement only lasted about three months on average in Kosovo, whereas the refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina spent three to four years outside their homes.

The repatriation of refugees in “post-Dayton” Bosnia suffered also from other problems besides its meagre extent. Minority returns, i.e. cases of people returning to regions under the political control of another ethnic group, were absolutely exceptional. The “harmonious reintegration” of refugees dreamt up by the authors of the Dayton Peace Agreement never took place in practice (see the map below). Moreover, many of the returnees left Bosnia for a second time – this time definitively – a few months or years due to both political and economic reasons.

Why mass returns are so exceptional

History shows that the return of war refugees largely depends on a number of different variables and can follow countless trajectories and variations. First of all, the extent, speed and sustainability of the return may depend on the policies of the states from which the people had originally fled. While some actively resist repatriation (this is typical, for instance, in countries where “ethnic cleansing” previously took place), others are quick to support it, sometimes even in spite of the wishes of the refugees themselves – this was the case of the USSR shortly after the end of WWII.

The conditions in the country that provides refuge are also a deciding factor. According to experts, the level of integration on the part of the refugees is a crucial factor. “Studies from Cyprus to Somalia to Syria have found that the least integrated into their home societies are the most likely to return,” sociologists Rawan Arar and David Scott FitzGerald state in their book, The Refugee System. “Those who have made investments in their host societies, for instance by purchasing land or starting a business, are less likely to return.” 

Voluntary repatriation, which the UN presents as the ideal solution to "long-term refugee situations," only realistically possible for a fraction of the world's refugees.

The authors explain that while the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and most countries of Western Europe traditionally understand the arrival of refugees as permanent, the naturalization of refugees is absolutely or almost impossible in the poorer states of the Global South. “On the plus side, the probability of return after the end of a war conflict is higher precisely for refugees who have found refuge in the states of the Global South.”

The catch is that this "end of armed conflict" is quite rare in today's world. Wars not only tend to last a long time, but even when they stop, they tend to break out again. The average civil war nowadays lasts, according to some expert estimates, is more than ten years. Moreover, of the wars fought in the early 21st century, 60% were reignited within five years.

The outcome? Voluntary repatriation, which the United Nations presents as the ideal of the three possible solutions to “long-time refugee situations” (besides local integration and resettlement into a third country) only concerns a fraction of the refugees in practice. In the first half of 2022, for instance, saw a mere 162,000 refugees return to their country of origin.

So, how many Ukrainians will actually return home?

Can we use all this historical evidence and statistics to make an educated guess as to how the return will look for Ukrainians who have been driven out of their country by the Russian invasion in February 2022? Well, sort of, but great caution is needed if we’re going to try to do this. The decisions of the individuals and families about whether to return to the country they fled or stay in the country that hosts them are the result of a complex mix of factors that are unique in each refugee’s situation. The circumstances of the escape of the Ukrainians provide many arguments both for and against their return.

The first reason why it might be realistic to expect a strong return wave sooner or later is that the refugees themselves evidently want to return home. While the informational value of sociological surveys investigating refugees’ plans may be limited, it is certainly not zero. Another indicator of the fact that Ukrainian refugees perceive their migration as temporary is, for instance, the preference of many Ukrainian parents to continue to educate their children online via the online education organized by Ukrainian schools. According to our data, 40% of Ukrainian primary school pupils and half of secondary school students in the Czech Republic were educated in this manner at the end of last year. In Poland, whose laws regard online education with a Ukrainian school as an equal alternative to physical attendance, the number of the refugees’ children in local schools is less than one-third.

Another strong impulse for return is undoubtedly the fact that the doors back to Ukraine will be wide open. Unlike many of the refugee populations in today’s world, Ukrainians did not flee from a dictatorship or an internal conflict. So if they do decide to return, they will come back to a democratic state with a nationally compact, inclusively-thinking civic society. Refusal and ostracism, such as those faced by “minority” returnees in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, are not a factor for the majority of those returning to Ukraine.

The decision of individuals and families whether to return to the country from which they have fled or to stay is the result of a complex mix of factors unique to each refugee situation.

Finally, another strong push factor that will encourage many to return is the time-limited legal status. This fact was pointed out by sociologist Ella Libanova in a recent interview for the Ukrainian version of the Forbes magazine: “Most Ukrainians do not get refugee status, but a sort of temporary protect status. They know very well that this is only a two-year status and it is uncertain whether or not it will be extended. Most probably, it will be, but in any case, it is not a status that guarantees them the right to a long-term stay, unlike the cases of more [traditional] refugees.”

Patriotism alone will not be enough

There are several important counter-arguments against the idea of returning. Most of them are concerned with the extent of the war destruction. According to the latest estimates from the World Bank, the post-war renovation of Ukraine will require at least $411 billion, an amount corresponding to about two and a half times the country's pre-war GDP.

Additionally, many of the refugees simply have nowhere to return to. Russia's war has destroyed at least 140,000 residential houses, including about 18,000 multi-story buildings, and as many as a hundred apartments. Cities and towns with tens of thousands of inhabitants such as Mariupol, Volnovakha, Popasna, Rubizhne, Lyman or Bakhmut have been almost entirely, if not completely, razed to the ground. Besides housing stock, the social infrastructure has also suffered heavily – expert estimates say that hundreds of hospitals and thousands of schools all over Ukraine have been destroyed or badly damaged as a result of the war.

An additional major obstacle to the return of refugees will be their adaptation to life abroad. As with the destruction of war, time will play a crucial role. Libanova confirms this: "The longer the war lasts, the more damage will be done to the infrastructure and economy. People will have nowhere to physically return to, there will be no jobs, no housing. At the same time, people will adapt to life in the countries they fled to. Children will have gone to schools, colleges and universities there, mothers will have gone to work." In this context, Libanova considers the fact that many countries have already facilitated the recognition of Ukrainian diplomas to be a dangerous signal because this change of policy could mean that more and more countries are considering the presence of Ukrainian refugees as permanent. And this step, although good for the refugees themselves, makes their eventual return less likely.

Opinions about whether the forces of Ukraine or of the West will prevail in the end differ. Some experts do not hide their pessimism. Vladimir Paniotto, the director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, has already warned us that we may experience a second exodus after the end of the war – this time, mostly of men, to whom the travel ban that is currently in effect will no longer apply and who will be “drawn” abroad by their families. According to Pawel Kaczmarczyk, the head of the Centre of Migration Research in Warsaw, it cannot be ruled out that a new massive wave of departures will take place once the full extent of the damage is revealed and the first problems with post-war reconstruction occur.

An opposite, altogether optimistic scenario concerning the return of the refugees is, quite expectedly, presented above all by the leading representatives of the Ukrainian regime. Nevertheless, even Kyiv is well aware that three basic conditions need to be ensured for the refugees to return and remain in the country with their families: security, housing and jobs.

PM Denys Shmyhal confirmed at the end of last year that the cabinet was working hard on improvements in all three spheres. Mr Shmyhal named the perfection of air defence as the priority task in the field of security. As regards the labour market, the government is concentrating on the stimulation of the job market and the creation of new jobs by means of tax incentives, regulation and advantageous loans for employers. A generous mortgage-granting programme is meant to contribute to a recovery of the housing sector.

There is no doubt that the mentioned measures are a sine qua non condition for the sustainable return of the refugees. Only time will tell whether these efforts alone are effective enough to bring home the large number of displaced Ukrainian citizens.

Key sources:
Aristide Zolberg, Astri Suhrke and Sergio Aguayo: Escape from violence. OUP 1992.
Rawan Arar and David Scott FitzGerald: The Refugee System. Polity, 2022.
Ukrajinska pravda, The New Voice of Ukraine, The Kyiv Independent, The Economist
Autor: Jakub Andrle, Migration Awareness Department

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