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

Published: Jun 21, 2023 Reading time: 7 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 currently 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 

As of the beginning of April 2023, the UN has recorded over 8.1 million Ukrainian refugees on European territory. The number of holders of temporary protection or similar status has increased by 185,000 since the end of January to around 5 million.

Poland has still granted the largest number of special visas so far at 1.58 million. Then, out of the countries not neighbouring Ukraine, Germany has the highest number of Ukrainian refugees, with just over one million (922,000 of them have temporary protection). The Czech Republic ranks third overall with around 500 thousand cases of temporary protection granted. Other European countries include the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania, France and Slovakia who have also issued more than 100,000 special visas for Ukrainian refugees.

A significant number of Ukrainian refugees have also found refuge overseas. A total of just over 400,000 Ukrainians have headed to Canada and the US since last February. Both countries have introduced special visa regimes for Ukrainian refugees. Those interested in staying in Canada are admitted through the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) programme, through which they can obtain work and study permits, among other things. There is a great deal of interest in participating in the programme, with the Canadian authorities currently registering nearly one million applications. About two-thirds of them have already been approved, but the number of people who have used the entry permit is significantly lower and has not yet exceeded 150,000.

Most of the approximately 270,000 Ukrainians who have fled to the US have been granted either Temporary Protected Status or (for those who arrived after April 1, 2022) a special humanitarian visa granted under the Uniting For Ukraine (U4U) programme. The basic principle of this type of visa, which is granted for two years, is a guarantee by individuals or families legally residing in the US. This sponsorship role can be taken on by relatives or friends of applicants, as well as volunteers from the general public.

The relatively high interest of Ukrainians in emergency resettlement to Canada and the US can likely be explained by, among other things, a deep and rich migration history. There has been strong migration movement toward the Americas since the nineteenth century.

The Reliability of Official Data

The current numbers of Ukrainian refugees in each European country can differ from the total number of special visas granted, sometimes significantly. In the Czech Republic, for example, according to the latest data from the Ministry of the Interior in Czech, there are about 325,000 refugees living in the country. However, roughly one-third of the total number of temporary protections granted have lapsed. Largely, according to the findings of the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic, these are people who have since returned to Ukraine.

Countries where official statistics are likely to underestimate the actual number of refugees may are likely to include, among others, Estonia and Hungary. In Hungary, for example, many of the Ukrainians who fled the war after February 2022 are staying without temporary protection visas, either as labour migrants or as tourists.

On a per capita basis, the largest number of Ukrainian refugees are in Central and Eastern European countries. Officially, meaning purely on the basis of the number of visas issued, the Czech Republic hosts the largest number of refugees (43 per 1,000 inhabitants). Poland and Estonia register a comparable number of refugees in relation to their population. Moldova, although outside the European Temporary Protection Regime, also currently has over 100,000 refugees on its territory (according to UN data).

The data on the number of refugees heading east to Russia remains extremely uncertain. While the UN estimates this figure to be just over 2.8 million, official Russian sources from the so-called power structures spoke of more than 5 million refugees a year after the start of the "special military operation". These figures cannot be independently verified.

Not much is known about the fate of Ukrainians resettled in Russia. Based on a previously adopted government resolution, new arrivals are usually redistributed across all 85 Russian regions, starting with the Voronezh and Rostov regions bordering Ukraine and ending in Chukotka, 7,000 kilometres away.

Leading Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, claim that a substantial part of the 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 of them currently on Russian territory.


A significant number of refugees have already returned to their homeland. As of early April 2023, UNHCR had registered over 11 million border crossings towards Ukraine. However, this figure includes people who move across the border repeatedly. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) put this number at 5.5 million.

Refugees' plans to return have long been unchanged: opinion polls across Europe show that the majority of those displaced want to return to Ukraine. According to a recent statement by Ukrainian Prime Minister, Denis Shmyhal, up to 90% of refugees are interested in returning. Shmyhal said in a statement that he expects the number of returnees to increase significantly through the spring of 2023. However, he said, mass return will only be possible if three basic conditions are met: work, housing and security

Internally displaced persons (IDPs)

An often overlooked but integral part of the Ukrainian refugee crisis is internal displacement. Figures on the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) vary. The latest estimates from Ukrainian government leaders speak of up to seven million displaced people. However, less than five million of them are officially registered. Roughly one million IDPs are children and some 1.1 million of them have had to leave their homes repeatedly.

According to a recent IOM report, in January 2023, the number of internal refugees was about 5.3 million. Almost half of the IDPs come from Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, according to the report. The distribution of internal refugees has changed significantly over time: if in the first months of the war most people sought refuge in the west of the country, nowadays the majority of them remain in the most war-affected east.

One of the consequences of the high number of IDPs is the enormous pressure on regional and local social infrastructure systems (housing, schools, kindergartens, and health facilities). One of the biggest problems from the point of view of the authorities is that they have no idea how many IDPs will eventually return home and how many will go on to actually stay. For this reason, it is difficult for them to determine what capacities the local infrastructure should be prepared for long term.

Autor: Migration Awareness

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