Ukrainian Refugee Crisis: The Current Situation

Published: Jan 25, 2024 Reading time: 6 minutes
Ukrainian Refugee Crisis: The Current Situation
© Foto: Robert Paul Jensen

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine caused, among other things, the largest forced migration in Europe since the end of World War II. Up to a third of the population has been displaced. About two years since the conflict erupted, ten million Ukrainians still cannot return to their homes. Almost four million remain internally displaced within Ukraine, and more than six million refugees have found shelter abroad, not only in Europe but also overseas.

The mass migration triggered by the Russian-instigated war is not just about fleeing Ukraine to the nearest safe country; it has become more complex. This complexity has become particularly evident in recent months as the movement of refugees from countries directly bordering Ukraine has expanded further west, mainly to Germany, but also as far as Canada, where there is a robust Ukrainian diaspora. Many Ukrainians maintain contact with home through short-term moves back and forth, building on pre-existing patterns of seasonal labour migration. Millions of refugees have returned permanently to their homeland but rarely to the areas where they fled.

The situation in Europe

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are currently around 6 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe.

The distribution of refugees has changed significantly over the past year. While in the spring of 2023, Poland was still the country with the highest number of forcibly displaced persons, Germany is now the leading destination. According to official statistics, about 1.1 million Ukrainian refugees currently reside in Germany.

The refugee situation has changed dramatically in Poland as well. Of the more than 1.6 million refugees to whom Poland granted temporary protection, only about 960,000 remain there.

There are several reasons for the mass exodus of Ukrainians from Poland - most often to Germany, but to a lesser extent to other Western European countries. Recent sociological studies show that the main drivers of secondary migration to Germany are higher earnings and better social security—nearly half of the out-migrants report being encouraged to move further west by recommendations from friends or relatives.

Focusing on the number of refugees per capita, Estonia tops the EU ranking, with about 37 Ukrainian temporary protection holders per 1,000 inhabitants. Only two other European countries, each located outside the EU's borders, report a higher proportion of refugees in their populations. In Moldova, refugees comprise almost a twentieth of the population, and in Montenegro, more than a tenth.

Of the Western European countries, perhaps somewhat surprisingly to many, it is not Germany but Ireland which boasts the highest relative number of refugees. With a population of just five million, the Ukrainian population in this island country has already passed 100,000 and continues to grow. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's government has struggled with the relentless increase in the number of refugees, particularly as it exacerbates the long-standing crisis in the housing market.

In this context, it is important to note that in the case of Ireland, as in Germany and Austria, the Ukrainian refugee crisis is just one of many. The mass arrival of Ukrainians is occurring at the same time as record numbers of asylum seekers from non-European countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Venezuela are arriving in these countries.

Canada and USA

A significant number of Ukrainian refugees find sanctuary overseas. Over 400,000 Ukrainians have migrated to Canada and the US since February 2022. Both of these countries have introduced special visa regimes for Ukrainian refugees. Those interested in staying in Canada can gain admission through the Canada-Ukraine Authorisation for Emergency Travel (CUAET) programme, through which they can obtain work and study permits, among other things. There is great interest in participating in the programme, with the Canadian authorities registering about 1.2 million applications. Almost two-thirds have already been approved, but the number of people who have taken advantage of the entry permit is significantly lower. According to the latest data, just over 210,000 people have entered Canada under the CUAET programme.

The US granted either Temporary Protected Status or (for those who arrived after 1 April 2022) a special humanitarian visa granted under the Uniting For Ukraine (U4U) programme to most of the approximately 270,000 Ukrainians who came. The basic principle of this type of visa, granted for two years, is a guarantee by individuals or families who already legally reside in the US. Relatives, applicants' friends, or volunteers from the general public can take on this sponsorship role.

The relatively high interest of Ukrainians in emergency movement to Canada and the USA can be explained, in part, by their deep and rich migration history. There has been a robust Ukrainian diaspora in both North American countries since the nineteenth century.


The data on the number of refugees heading east to Russia remain highly uncertain. Official Russian sources from the so-called power structures speak of 5 and sometimes even more than 7 million refugees a year after the start of their "special military operation". According to an analysis by experts from the Russian non-profit organisation 'Civic Support', these figures reflect the number of people crossing the Russian border and are drastically overestimated. Many experts estimated the actual number of displaced people at 1.2 million. The newly revised UNHCR figures are consistent with this.

Not much is known about the fates of Ukrainians who resettled in Russia. Based on a previously adopted government resolution, the new arrivals are redistributed across all 85 Russian regions, starting with the Voronezh and Rostov regions, which border Ukraine, and ending in Chukotka, seven thousand kilometres away.

Leading Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, claim that a substantial percentage of transfers to Russia are deportations. In March 2023, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in connection with the abduction of Ukrainian children. According to Ukrainian sources, there are at least 8,000 abducted children in Russian territory.


A significant number of refugees have already returned to their homeland. The UNHCR has registered over 11 million border crossings into Ukraine as of early April 2023. This figure, however, includes repeat crossings. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates the actual number of returnees at around 4.6 million.

Refugees' plans to return have remained constant for a long time: opinion polls of displaced individuals across Europe show that most intend to return to Ukraine. However, leading Ukrainian officials and independent experts agree that a mass return will only be possible if the country can meet three basic conditions: work, housing, and security.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs)

Internal displacement is an often overlooked but integral aspect of the Ukrainian refugee crisis. According to the IOM's most recent report, as of October 2023, the number of internal refugees was approximately 3.7 million. The Ukrainian authorities estimate that there are around 4.9 million IDPs, including those already displaced before 24 February 2022.

Almost half of those displaced come from the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions. The distribution of internal refugees has changed significantly over time: while in the early months of the war, most people sought refuge in the west of the country, more than a third now remain in the war-affected east. Nearly a fifth of IDPs have found temporary homes in Kyiv or the wider Kyiv region.

Autor: Migration Awareness

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