Week Twelve: Ukraine

In partnership with the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice, Oxford Brookes University


Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University
Dr. Zoë Jordan, Centre for Development and Emergency Practice, Oxford Brookes University
Dr. Richard Carver, Centre for Development and Emergency Practice, Oxford Brookes University


Overview of the Conflict

The Russo-Ukrainian War began in February 2014 following the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, and initially focused on the status of Crimea and the Donbas, internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. The first eight years of the conflict included the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the ongoing escalating war in Donbas (2014 to present) between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. Between March and April 2021, Russian Armed Forces began massing thousands of personnel and military equipment near Russia’s border with Ukraine and in Crimea, representing the largest mobilization since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The conflict expanded significantly when the Russian Federation (hereafter referred to as Russia) launched a military offensive against Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

By late April, areas in the east and the south of Ukraine including eastern Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk were affected by the worst of the fighting, with civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure across the country. The on-going conflict and limited access to Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk has resulted in information gaps regarding the humanitarian situation and needs of those remaining in the area, but with heavy conflict and shelling, humanitarian needs are dire. Bucha, in northern Ukraine, has also been the site of heavy fighting, with reports of mass atrocities against civilians. According to the  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the indiscriminate shelling of population centers and civilian infrastructures, including schools and hospitals, “may amount to war crimes.” Calls for a humanitarian pause in fighting during Orthodox Easter were not heeded.

Displacement in Numbers

Since February 2022, more than seven million refugees have left Ukraine. This refugee population is overwhelmingly composed of women and children. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are largely not permitted to leave the country under the country’s martial law, which has been extended until 23 August 2022 . Over 4.7 million refugees from Ukraine have registered for Temporary Protection or similar national protection schemes in Europe. Approximately one-quarter of the country’s total population had left their homes just one month into the conflict.

By May, more than five million people had crossed the border leaving Ukraine. This caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, and the largest refugee crisis of the twenty-first century.

The United Nations stated that by June, more than two million Ukrainians had returned to Ukraine. Ukraine’s border forces have stated that people are crossing back into the country at a rate of about 30,000 per day. However, as the conflict persists, there is little information about whether this is a pendular movement rather than a durable return. A survey of those returning to Ukraine from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova found that 83% returned to their area of origin in Ukraine. A third of respondents gave their primary reason for returning as reuniting with their family, with a further third saying they perceived the area to be safe.

Much of the focus has been on the large numbers of people who have crossed Ukraine’s borders, but there has also been some attention to those who have been unable to leave or evacuate from cities and locations under attack. Internally, more than eight million people are currently displaced according to the International Organization for Migration (UN Migration).  In the initial days following the Russian invasion, reporting indicated racial discrimination preventing some Black people being refused at border crossings or not allowed onto transport. More recently, attention has focused on civilians who have been unable to leave cities that are under the control of the Russian army, or from sites that are the focus of bombardment, such as the on-going evacuation (at time of writing) of the Mariupol Steelworks. Nine humanitarian corridors were agreed from the east in March 2022, but with limited success. On 4 May, Russia unilaterally announced the establishment of a corridor from Mariupol allowing movement to Russia and to Kyiv-controlled territories.

Although the numbers of internally displaced have multiplied since 24 February 2022, large-scale internal displacement has taken place since 2014, with approximately one and a half million people already having fled their homes before 2022. Consequently, between 2014 and 2016, Ukraine adopted a series of laws making legal and social provision for IDPs, broadly reflecting the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These attempted to secure the rights of the internally displaced in relation to political participation, education, employment, social protection, and civil registration. IDPs also benefit from free access to the country’s extensive system of primary and secondary legal aid. However, IDPs have been unable to participate fully in the affairs of their local host communities, even though, prior to 2022, more than half stated that they had no intention of returning to their region of origin - primarily because these were under long-term Russian occupation.

There have been repeated allegations of the deportation of Ukrainian nationals in Russian-occupied areas to Russia. Ukrainian prosecutors are investigating the alleged “forcible transfer” of 2,389 children from occupied territories to Russia, a claim that is denied by the latter. However, the Russian authorities have stated that they have transferred large numbers of Ukrainians to Russia at their own request. The forcible transfer and deportation of civilians in occupied territory is expressly prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, as well as a long-standing customary rule of international humanitarian law. In addition, the forcible removal of children could qualify as a breach of the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Realities in Host Countries

In general, countries neighboring Ukraine have kept their borders open. The bulk of the refugees are arriving to the EU through Poland, which is now home to more than three million Ukrainian refugees. The onward distribution of refugees from the neighboring Eastern European countries towards Western Europe is taking place in accordance to their proximity and the size of Ukrainian communities within each country. Ukrainian citizens continue to be exempt from the visa requirements for moving within the Schengen Area, an exemption that in recent years has facilitated migration into the EU and the formation of a significant Ukrainian diaspora in the member states. According to reports, diasporic communities continue to play an active role in taking in refugees and in making certain countries more attractive to refugees compared to others. Ukraine is one of the most migration-affected countries in Europe, with a diaspora of up to 20 million people, and 2.5 million labor migrants who contribute remittances of USD 11 billion, which represents 10% of the country’s GDP.

For the first time the EU has invoked its Temporary Protection Directive to provide refuge for the millions of displaced people who are leaving Ukraine following the Russian invasion. Following the directive, Spain was one of the first member states to apply it in its broadest terms, offering refuge not only to Ukrainian nationals but also to persons from other nationalities who were living in Ukraine with permanent or temporary residence permits. According to UN Migration, approximately 500,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine are nationals of other countries. Hungary and Slovakia have taken more than 550,000 refugees and 390,000 refugees respectively. The Czech Republic has taken more than 360,000 refugees, and more than 780,000 Ukrainians are in Germany, 40% of whom are children.

A significant number of Ukrainians have crossed the border into Russia from the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in the east. President Vladimir Putin publicly stated that Russian forces assisted in the evacuation of 140,000 civilians from Mariupol, but insisted none of them were forced to enter into Russia.

The EU has officially granted Ukrainians the right to reside and work throughout all twenty-seven of its member states for up to three years. Refugees who do not have contacts or relatives in EU host states are housed in reception centers where they are given food and medical care, and information about onward travel. Ukrainian refugees are entitled to social welfare payments, access to housing and schooling. The UK introduced a family visa scheme for Ukrainians who have immediate or extended family members in the country. The UK has since launched the Homes for Ukraine scheme to allow those without relatives in the UK to settle.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

Unlike the status of international protection, Temporary Protection provides a simplified and faster procedure for obtaining a residence permit in the EU, as well as immediate access to fundamental rights immediately after obtaining this permit. These benefits include employment, health care and social benefits. Since the decision applies to the majority of EU countries, Ukrainians can legally stay on the status in virtually any EU country. The principle of temporary protection provides for the free choice of the country in which a citizen of Ukraine wishes to enjoy the rights of temporary protection.

A revised Regional Refugee Response Plan was released on 25 April 2022, alongside a Flash Appeal. The plan estimates that USD 4.1 billion will be needed to meet the needs of 17 million people inside and outside Ukraine. There has been a large-scale response to calls for funding for the Ukraine response, including considerable donations from private individuals across the EU and UK. On 21 April, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Ukraine released USD 50 million from the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, with additional funding for neighboring host states. The response to the Ukraine Humanitarian Flash Appeal has been one of the quickest and largest responses ever, in stark comparison to under-funded appeals for other on-going crises, including those in Yemen, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.