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

Published: Dec 12, 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 

It's been nine months since the Russian invasion and the UN reports that there are now a total of 7.8 million Ukrainian refugees on European territory. So far, more than 4.7 million of them have received temporary protection or similar status. Poland has granted the largest number of special visas, nearly 1.5 million. Out of the countries not neighbouring Ukraine, Germany has the highest number of Ukrainian refugees with over one million. The Czech Republic ranks third overall with 460,000 cases of temporary protection granted. Other European countries include Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Slovakia who also have issued more than 100 000 special visas for Ukrainian refugees. As for non-European nations, the USA and Canada have received more than a quarter of a million Ukrainians since the end of February. Both of these countries already had large Ukrainian communities as a result of other Ukrainian diasporas before the start of this current war.

In terms of people per capita, the largest numbers of Ukrainian refugees are in Central and Eastern Europe. Officially, measuring purely on the basis of the number of visas granted, the Czech Republic hosts the largest number of refugees (43 per 1,000 inhabitants). Poland and Estonia both have comparable number of refugees relative to their respective populations and Moldova -- although technically outside the EU -- currently has almost 100 000 refugees on its territory, according to official UN data.

The data concerning the number of refugees heading east from Ukraine to Russia remains extremely uncertain. While, as of mid-November, the UN estimates a figure slightly above 2.8 million, official Russian sources from the so-called power structures speak of almost 5 million refugees nine months after the start of the "special military operation". 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. 

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: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees registers approximately 7.3 million such cases. However, this data also includes people who move across the border repeatedly. The actual number of people who have returned to Ukraine and remain on its territory is slightly lower. According to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, around 5 million Ukrainians had returned from EU countries by mid-September.

Kyiv urges Ukrainians abroad to wait to return to their homeland
At the end of October, Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine's Minister of the Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, appealed to refugees currently abroad to stay abroad for the winter and to return to Ukraine in the spring. According to Vereshchuk, the reason why people should postpone their return is due to the critical energy situation in the country caused by Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure.

The second figure, which should not be overlooked, concerns internal displacement. At the end of September, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimated that the number of internal refugees in Ukraine was more than 6.2 million. Compared to the first months after the Russian invasion, when most internal refugees sought refuge in the west of the country, most of them (around two million) now remain in the war-affected regions in the east.

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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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