The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis: Important Historical Context for the Current Situation

Published: Oct 6, 2022 Reading time: 8 minutes
The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis: Important Historical Context for the Current Situation
© Marek Štys

One million. This was how many people Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), reported had fled Ukraine in the first seven days following the Russian invasion on February 24th. Even from the beginning, it was clear that this was going to be one of the largest exoduses in European history. However, no one was prepared for just how high the numbers would soon become.

Weeks and months went by quickly and the number of people on the run continued to increase. In March, the United Nations predicted that there would be four million refugees in total. That number was reached before the end of the month. By the end of April, the number of people fleeing Ukraine hit 5.5 million and by the end of June the number was 6.5 million. Of course, it has been difficult to capture exactly how many people have already fled or are current fleeing, as official statistics often fail to take various factors into account, like the number of returns, pendulum migration and/or movement within the European Union.

The Current Number of Ukrainian Refugees 

Seven months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the total number of refugees has reached 12.6 million, according to official UNHCR figures. The number of registered refugees within all EU nations totals approximately 7.3 million. Some four million refugees have received some sort of temporary protection. Poland has, by far, recorded the highest number of Ukrainian refugees entertaining its territory by way of neighboring nations at 1.6 million. However, the number of refugees who remain in Poland is lower, with the latest official government estimates putting the number of 1.4 million. An even more pronounced disparity between the number of recorded figures vs. the number of actual refugees can also be seen in Hungary. While some 1.3 million Ukrainians have entered Hungarian territory since February, according to the local border guards, only 30, 000 of them have received temporary protection. According to some humanitarian organisations, the Hungarian government may be purposefully exaggerating the numbers of incoming refugees in attempt to get more EU funding. 

Germany tops the list as the country granting the most special visas, distributing about 660 000 of them in total. However, it is very probable that the number of Ukrainian refugees on its territory is much higher, likely over one million. The Czech Republic comes in second in terms of the number of asylum visas granted. In September, the number of visas granted in Czechia exceeded 430 thousand. And of July, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in the Czech Republic reported that the country had the highest number of refugees per 100 000 inhabitants (over 3,500) out of any country in the EU.  

The data concerning the number of refugees heading east from Ukraine to Russia remains extremely uncertain. While the UN gives estimate around 2.5 million, official Russian sources, such as the Ministry of Emergency Situations, report that seven months after the start of the "special military operation” there are actually around four million refugees in the country. However, this figure cannot be independently verified. According to some Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, a significant part of the movement within Russia are, in fact, a result of deportations. Little is known about the fate of Ukrainians citizens once they are resettled in Russia. According to previously adopted government resolution, the new arrivals should be redistributed across all 85 subjects of the federation, starting in the Voronezh region adjacent to Ukraine and ending in Chukotka, seven thousand kilometres away. The only two regions that are expected to remain inaccessible to refugees are Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

It is especially important to note that a complete summary of the current developments concerning the Ukrainian refugee crisis would not be complete without two key pieces of information. First, the number of people who have returned to Ukraine: UNHCR estimates that there are approximately 5.7 million such cases. In relation to the number of returns, some experts add that migration across the Ukrainian border has taken on a circular character in recent months, with many people heading in one direction or the other repeatedly. Second, internal displacement should not be overlooked. By the end of August, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimated that the number of internal refugees in Ukraine had reached 6.9 million.

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Refugee Waves in Europe After 1945

Regardless of any further developments concerning the conflict in Ukraine and changes to the number of refugees, it is already possible to describe the mass flight from Ukraine as one of the largest exoduses in Europe since 1945. The continent experienced its largest-ever forced migration at the end of WWII. Renowned historian Paul Robert Magocsi reports that over 31 million people were displaced in Central Europe alone between the years of 1944 and 1948. Of these 31 million people, 5.6 million included individuals fleeing advancing front lines. Around 5.5 million people were repatriated to the USSR (approximately half a million against their will). At least 12 million people had to leave their homes entirely as part of a post-war transfers, whether organised or spontaneous (this included the expulsion of ethnic Germans, as well as population exchanges between Poland and the USSR). By 1950, millions had also been forced to move within their own nation’s borders.  

During the Cold War, Asia was the scene of the biggest refugee crises. Consider, for example, the flight and expulsion of 14 million people following the partition of India in 1947. Another 10 million or so people were expelled after the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971 and nearly three million people fled in the wake of the conflict in Vietnam. Another six million fled Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979. In comparison, the largest refugee wave in Europe during this period was the flight of some 200,000 people from Hungary after the suppression of the 1956 uprising. There was also a large amoung of emong of emigration from Czechoslovakia after the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968. However, the effective closure of the borders with the West in October 1969 brought this emigration process to an end. 

Disturbing parallels with the current situation in Ukraine can be found in the case of the wars in Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2000). Similar military methods to those that Russian forces are now resorting to in Ukraine, including the massive bombing of civilian targets, have resulted not only in approximately half a million displaced people in that North Caucasian republic, but also in tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Europe also experienced another wave of mass migration when Yugoslavia collapsed (1991-1995). According to UNHCR, the war in Croatia led to the displacement of some 750,000 people. The end of this conflict was marked by the flight of about 350,000 Serbs in the Krajina region in 1995. As a result of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, around 2.5 million people were displaced against their will and approximately half of this number were internally displaced people (IDPs) - people who, although they left their homes, remained within the borders of the Republic. The war in Kosovo caused an extremely rapid exodus. Some 400 000 people left Kosovo before the intervention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The March 1999 NATO bombing caused the refugee crisis to escalate further. By June of that year, nearly 800,000 refugees had already left for neighboring countries (mainly Albania, but also to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia). Another 600 000 or so remained on the run in the nation of Kosovo. 

Armed conflicts on the territories of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s led to mass displacement. The first war over Nagorno-Karabakh between1988-1994 caused some 800, 000 people to flee. Around that same time, around 300 000 people were driven from their homes due to fighting in South Ossetia (1991-1992) and Abkhazia (1992-1993). Any parallels with the current situation in Ukraine can only be seen in the case of the wars in Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2000) as similar military methods to those now being resorted to by Russian forces in Ukraine were used. Additionally, other tactics, such as the mass bombing of civilian targets, were also used during the conflicts in Chechnya and resulted in approximately half a million people being displaced people in the North Caucasus region and hundreds of thousands of casualties. Finally, as a kind of prelude to the current crisis, it is also appropriate to mention Russia's previous aggression against Ukraine in 2014. This, according to a preliminary UN assessment, led to the internal displacement of more than half a million people. Over 200,000 people had already left Russia before the end of 2014, and tens of thousands more sought refuge in other EU countries.


Paul Robert Magocsi, Historical Atlas of Central Europe. Univ. of Wash. Press, 2002

Aaron Segal, An Atlas of International Migration. Hans Zell Pub, 1993

Peter Gatrell, The Unsettling of Europe. Basic Books, 2019
Author: Migration Awareness

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