Refugees are increasingly returning to Ukraine from abroad. How this will impact the labour market within the country

Refugees are increasingly returning to Ukraine from abroad. How this will impact the labour market within the country

The return of people to the country is critically important as a resource for post-war reconstruction

Refugees are increasingly returning to Ukraine from abroad. How this will impact the labour market within the country
Photo: UNIAN

"No matter how much money donors pour into the reconstruction of Ukraine if there physically won't be anyone to carry out this reconstruction." The phrase was uttered in the corridors of one of the recent business forums in the capital and belongs to a top manager of a large transnational company. At the moment it was voiced, the company was considering the possibility of restoring production in one of the previously front-line regions, and in addition to assessing the damage and forming a new logistics scheme, it identified problem number one: the lack of the necessary number of personnel for restarting.

The good news is that in the last few months there has been a trend towards the return of Ukrainians from abroad. This is largely due to the end of the heating season – the official announcement of its cessation recorded that Ukraine experienced the most severe winter in recent history, and for many, this became a signal to return – whether for a long time or for the next six months. The trend is confirmed by both subjective observations – among the author's acquaintances, several families residing in Spain and planning to return in May, – and official statistics. Since February, the State Border Guard has regularly declared a positive daily migration balance, when more people enter the country than leave it.

Mind examined how the migration vector is changing and what it promises to the Ukrainian labour market.

To start, how many people left Ukraine from 24 February 2022? The figure is not constant, as the process is bilateral and ongoing. The indicator changes daily and is adjusted in official statistics with a delay of several weeks and an error of tens of thousands of people.

It is necessary to take into account the huge data gap in the first days of the war when Ukraine released and neighbouring countries accepted refugees without regard to documentary formalities.

Domestic expert assessments are often overly dramatic, inflated, and not confirmed by official figures from European countries where Ukrainian migrants reside. Even adjusted for the fact that not all those in these countries are recipients of subsidies and thus "visible" to statistics, the gap between the estimate of "almost everyone left" and reality is too large.

The figure of 9 million Ukrainians who left the country from the beginning of the escalation until the end of summer 2022, which used to be widely circulated with reference to the UN, was indeed voiced by a representative of the Organisation, but clarified with the remark that no less than 3.5 million people have returned.

The Institute of Demography and Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine also considers the figure of 9 million refugees to be significantly overestimated. According to the director of the institute, Ella Libanova, the official number of Ukrainians abroad from 24th February 2022 to February 2023 increased by less than 2 million – only 1,830,000 people.

A consensus can be reached about 5-5.5 million Ukrainians living permanently abroad. According to the UN, as of 4th February 2023, around 4.8 million Ukrainian refugees were registered in Europe: about 1.5 million in Poland, around 900,000 in Germany, and about 500,000 in Czechia.

How critical is the number of those who left for the economy's ability to function and noticeable in the labour market? It is important to understand that even this adjusted, reduced figure is colossal for a country with a population of 41.2 million people at the end of 2021. Of this number, only 16.5 million people belonged to the so-called prime working age of 25-54 years at the beginning of the escalation.

In Ukraine, according to the Ministry of Economy, the unemployment rate at the beginning of 2023 was around 30% – 2 million people were searching for work within the country and 2.7 million Ukrainians abroad who are ready to return if a suitable job is found.

As the economy emerges from the crisis and, more importantly, as reconstruction processes begin in the country, the ratio will change, and the level of personnel shortage will increase.

Does the mobilisation factor affect the labour market? Yes, undoubtedly.

The army is also actively competing for personnel.

The ironic phrase "a tractor driver is almost a tank driver" characterises the situation in the agricultural sector, which, through various business associations and lobbying, is forced to exempt personnel from draft by any means necessary, and the state is required to find a balance between food security and national defence interests.

How stable is the trend to return? Sociological research among refugees is done regularly, and its results directly correlate with what is happening in Ukraine at the time of the survey. For example, a survey conducted after a month of calm in Kyiv (which was disrupted by a drone attack on the night of 21st April – Mind) would clearly show higher indicators of potential "returnees" than if it were conducted immediately after a massive missile attack.

However, the average indicators look like this:

  • About half of those who left plan to return home only after the end of the war, whatever that may mean.
  • Those who have left for good and do not plan to return to Ukraine under any circumstances make up no more than 10-12%.
  • The others – about a third of refugees – show a lack of clear plans, although they express this in various ways.

What are the main reasons for returning to Ukraine?

The first reason is psychological. April 2022 was the period when the majority of refugees settled abroad, and a year is a conditional mark after which one needs to decide "what's next". Many people answer this question in favour of Ukraine.

The second one is family-related. Most of those who left are women with children, and after a year, the separation from husband and father can have irreversible consequences for the family. Unable to reunite abroad, many decide to return.

The third one is financial. This reason is not always advertised, but the gradual reduction of European subsidies and the reluctant parting of European taxpayers with their money to support Ukrainians in their own country is often a significant reason for returning to their homeland.

As of today, most European countries have reviewed the amount of aid downwards, and local fiscal authorities are starting to ask uncomfortable questions about declaring income and paying taxes.

How active are Ukrainians in finding employment abroad? Very active.

The "lazy Ukrainian refugee who goes on the dole and thinks everyone owes them" is a myth, possibly invented by russian propaganda.

As Bartosz Marchuk, the vice president of the Polish Development Fund, says, there are around one million Ukrainian refugees in Poland (this figure is for those who arrived after the escalation; there are over 3 million Ukrainians in Poland in total). The vast majority – up to 70% – have already found jobs. However, there is a caveat: in most cases, these are unskilled jobs that do not require any specialisation. Finding work as a hotel cleaner is not a problem, but working as a PR specialist or marketer is almost impossible.

According to Poland's Ministry of Family and Social Policy, half of the workers from Ukraine have taken on simple physical labour. Among them: 37% in the service sector, 34% in industrial enterprises, 15% in the transport and logistics sectors, and 7% in trade or construction.

More than 80% of Ukrainians who arrived in Poland after the russian invasion had never worked in Poland before.

In Germany, 90,000 Ukrainians have successfully found employment. According to Daniel Terzenbach, a board member of the Federal Employment Agency, the influx of refugees helps to combat labour shortages. He said that by the spring of 2023, an increase in this figure is expected as many will complete integration and professional language courses, opening up more skilled vacancies for Ukrainians. "We see a very high level of motivation, to the extent that they overpay taxes," he said.

The main issue for Ukrainian workers, most of whom are women, is the need to take care of their children.

What does global experience say? It is disheartening and suggests that in the 20th century, only a third of those who emigrated returned to their homeland.

In Ukraine, this figure will be higher for sure, but far from 100%; the most realistic estimate is around 60% of those who will return.

How can the return of Ukrainians be encouraged? The main factor is still external and does not depend on national policy.

If specific refugees have managed to find prestigious, well-paid jobs in the last year, they are unlikely to return in the first wave. However, such cases are still in the minority, and as cynical as it sounds, this is good news.

Ukraine can, on its part:

  • Maintain close ties with those who have left and make it clear to them that they are part of the country.
  • Involve refugees in national projects, even via Diya government service app.
  • Promote the creation of jobs.
  • Eliminate the confrontation "those who left vs. those who stayed".
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