30.11.23 Review

Adaptive Millions: Why the unprecedented influx of Ukrainian refugees into Europe has not caused a social and political crisis

The number of Ukrainian refugees in Europe has already tripled the migratory influx from Asia and Africa, which caused a full-blown crisis in European politics in 2015-2016. The absorption of the largest wave of immigration that the European continent has faced since World War II has taken place remarkably smoothly, thanks to Europeans' engagement in the Russia-Ukraine war, resentment of Russian aggression, and the much smaller cultural and civilisational distance between Europeans and Ukrainians compared to the one that exists between them and refugees from Syria and Africa. The socio-demographic structure of the new diaspora has also maked a significant contribution to the conflict-free absorption of Ukrainian refugees: about half of them are children, and a third have at least incomplete higher education, about 15% are people with high qualifications, and 15% are people relatively adapted to life in Europe. At the same time, 'classic' refugees — Ukrainians with low levels of education and income and low adaptability — tend to choose 'close' Central European countries (primarily the Czech Republic and Poland). As a result, the social burden associated with the Ukrainian migration inflow has fallen to a large extent on poorer European countries. These circumstances and the general decrease in the involvement of Europeans in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict may lead to a certain increase in tensions in this regard in the future.

More than 6 million refugees have left Ukraine during the past year and a half of war, most of them (about 4.6m, according to the UN) are in Europe — the most significant flow of refugees the European continent has faced since World War II. In addition, according to the Razumkov Centre, another 5% of Ukrainians surveyed (that is, up to 1.5 million people of the population that has remained in Ukraine) have expressed an intention to go to Europe to survive the hardships of the second war winter there. 

The previous major influx of forced migrants to Europe took place in 2015-2016, when about 1.3 million people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, as well as Kosovo, Serbia, and Albania arrived in EU countries in search of asylum. The paradox is that the 'migration crisis' of 2015-2016 has become a truly major political challenge for Europe and European politicians. Thus, the rise in the popularity of the extreme right in European politics in recent years is often attributed to this crisis. Viktor Orban's tough, somewhat xenophobic stance on refugee issues in 2015 largely boosted his popularity in Hungary, which held a referendum rejecting the EU's mandatory immigration quota. In Greece, on the other hand, problems with accepting migrants severely undermined the position of then-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Britain's exit from the European Union is also largely attributed to the migration crisis of 2015-2016.

However, the much larger influx of refugees from Ukraine, contrary to Moscow's expectations, has not yet led to anything similar. On the contrary, the admission of Ukrainians in the first months of the war triggered a wave of pan-European solidarity, fuelled by outrage at the Russian invasion. A recent sociological study by Alexandru D. Moise, James Dennison, and Hanspeter Kriesi outlines this paradox. Ukrainian refugees worry Europeans, but perceptibly less than refugees from Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. This is due to the proximity of contacts between EU countries and Ukraine, the issue of confessional proximity, and probably even racial reasons. The demographic structure of the 'Ukrainian' influx is also important: mostly women with children and elderly people travelled to Europe from Ukraine, while young men also fled from Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan in large numbers.

The sociologists have drawn they data from two waves of a longitudinal survey (i.e. they interviewed the same people) conducted in 2022 in Hungary, Italy, France, as well as in Germany and Poland, where Ukrainian refugees are most concentrated (more than 2 million people in total), comparing the attitudes of Europeans towards refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Somalia. According to the survey, the attitude of Europeans towards Ukrainian refugees is largely determined by their attitude towards the Russia-Ukraine war. EU citizens feel much more involved in this war than in conflicts unfolding in other regions. Respondents who are more informed about the war in Ukraine also express greater support for Ukrainian refugees.

In terms of political attitudes, the attitude of Europeans towards refugees from Ukraine is diametrically opposed to the patterns observed for non-European refugees, the researchers note. Europeans with left-wing preferences are more accepting of refugees from the Middle East and Africa than to Ukrainians, while the right-wing, on the contrary, are wary of Somalis and Afghans, but express support for Ukrainians. At the same time, respondents who declare their support for Russia are predominantly equally averse to accepting any refugees. At the same time, the reception of 'culturally close' Ukrainian refugees has influenced changes in European public opinion about refugees in general. Respondents who declared their support for refugees from Ukraine in the first wave of the survey, softened their opinion on the expediency of accepting refugees from 'culturally distant' countries in the second wave.

Apart from the much more frequent Russian speech now heard in European cities (the bulk of refugees are from south-eastern Ukraine), such a colossal flow of refugees from Ukraine is indeed little noticed in Europe. And support and solidarity towards Ukrainians (as another survey conducted in June 2023 showed) remains at a high level with only minimal signs of fatigue, while tolerance towards Syrian refugees in the summer of 2022 compared to the spring of 2022 has noticeably decreased.

This picture becomes even starker when analysing the socio-demographic characteristics of the new Ukrainian diaspora. A study by the Ukrainian Centre for Economic Strategy (CES) based on the Info Sapiens survey showed that about half of Ukrainian refugees in Europe are children, and almost two-thirds of adults (63%) have at least incomplete higher education. Almost 30% of the Ukrainians who have fled to Europe belong to the type of 'quasi-labour migrants' - these are people who are well adapted to life abroad (they have been to the region before, some of them have already held the status of labour migrants, and they usually know the language of the host country to some level). Another 30% belong to the type of 'professionals' (high qualifications, ability to find a job in their own or related speciality, have friends in the host country, and often knowledge of the language).

Of course, such a mass flow of people still creates certain tensions, especially in the poorer countries of Central Europe, which have taken a significant portion of the influx. According to UN data, 955,000 Ukrainians have found shelter in Poland, 370,000 in the Czech Republic and 112,000 in Slovakia. Re:Russia has previously written that, in Poland, which accepted the largest number of Ukrainians, social tensions associated with migrants are making themselves felt: Poles are dissatisfied with the burden on the economy associated with supporting refugees and with the cheap labour that has been undercutting the labour market in the form of young women of working age. 

Ukrainian refugees in European countries, autumn 2023, thousand people

This situation has also been exacerbated by the less favourable socio-demographic indicators of the Ukrainian refugees in Central Europe. As is evident in the CES study, it is here that the group of 'classic refugees' is concentrated (in general these make up 25% of the total flow). These are middle-aged women with children, with lower levels of education and income, without language skills and unadapted to life in another country. They have predominantly chosen to reside in Poland and Czechia due to their 'proximity' to Ukraine. Thus, poorer and less adapted Ukrainian refugees tend to stay in poorer European countries, increasing the burden on them, while the wealthier and more adaptable ones flock to richer countries. This imbalance may manifest itself more acutely against the background of a general decline in European engagement with the Russia-Ukraine war which, as mentioned above, has been an important factor in European solidarity and tolerance towards refugees.