Ukraine has gone through more crises than most other republics of the former USSR. Since the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, it has been the second largest European country in size. While the country has since strived to become a functioning democratic state with a competitive economy integrated into both the post-Soviet and European markets
Throughout its history, Ukraine has been part of several different states, kingdoms and empires such as the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Empire and the Soviet Union. Since its independence in 1991 Ukraine has been torn between Russia and the Western institutions it wants to join such as the EU and the NATO. These different constellations all have shaped migration flows to, through and from the territory of present-day Ukraine.
Ukraine – a country with high emigration
The territory of contemporary Ukraine is characterised by significant emigration. The country’s population shrank from almost 52 million in 1991 to about 42 million in 2020, nearly a 20 percent drop. This is due to a mix of a high emigration rate, coupled with high death and low birth rates
In global comparison, Ukraine is among the top ten countries with the highest emigration levels
The recent Russian invasion, which started on 24 February 2022, has resulted in immense displacement. Roughly four months after the beginning of the war there were already around twelve million displaced Ukrainians; this includes around 2.6 million who fled to neighbouring countries and about seven million who are internally displaced
Emigration until the early twentieth century
Understanding today's complex and multifaceted migration processes in Ukraine requires a historical perspective. Scholarship distinguishes four phases of Ukrainian emigration. The first significant phase of emigration, late 19th– early 20th century, involved mainly rural populations. From Western Ukraine, then part of Austria-Hungary known as Galicia, about half a million people (or around ten percent of the population) went to the USA, Canada, Argentina and Brazil. From Eastern Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, people rather moved East: to Siberia, the Altai or the Far East. In sum, in the 20 years preceding World War I some two million Ukrainians migrated to Asia
The second phase comprised the early Soviet times of the 1920s and 1930s. At least one million Ukrainians, many dispossessed peasants, were forcefully displaced internally to other regions of the USSR. Specifically in the 1930s, large numbers also escaped collectivization and the Holodomor, a politically induced famine.
The Second World War and its aftermath led to a third phase of emigration. Westward, it was almost entirely political. The National Socialist Regime relied heavily on foreign labour and established one of the largest forced labour systems in history. People were also deported to the German Reich from the Soviet Union (and thus also from the territory of today's Ukraine) and forced to work. By the end of 1944, there were about six million civilian forced labourers, including about 2.8 million from the Soviet Union. Most of them returned home voluntarily after the war or were forcibly repatriated. However, there were also people who refused to return to the USSR for fear of persecution. Among them were Ukrainians of whom around 85,000 were later resettled in the USA
Eastward, emigration consisted of forced evacuation, deportation of opponents of the Soviet regime and so-called “unreliable” populations from the territory annexed by the USSR that once was Polish and today forms part of Western Ukraine: From 1939 to 1941, 1.2 million people were deported from Western Ukraine to the Soviet East, including 400,000 Ukrainians
Emigration to countries outside the USSR was highly restricted under Soviet rule and restrictions where only eased somewhat from the 1970s onwards, providing especially emigration options for ethnic minorities like Germans and Jews who had relatives in non-Soviet countries.
Emigration trends since 1991
The fourth phase of emigration is associated with Ukraine’s independence in 1991. In response to economic hardship and political frustration, large numbers of Ukrainians have left since. Experts refer to more than six million people who left Ukraine after 2001 and did not come back
Over time, migration destinations of Ukrainians have changed significantly (see Figure 1). In the first years of independence, almost 85 percent of Ukrainian migrants lived in other former USSR countries (of which over three million, 65 percent, were in Russia). Thereafter, emigrants increasingly chose other destinations and the number of Ukrainian migrants in former USSR countries decreased from 4.6 in 1991 to 4.1 million in 2017. Instead, the number of Ukrainian migrants in the USA, Canada, Western and Central Europe, and Australia has risen from 0.7 in 1991 to at least 2.5 million in 2017 and their share in the total number of Ukrainians who moved abroad has increased from 13 percent to 38 percent
Emigration after the Russian aggression in 2014
Russian military aggression against Ukraine since 2014 has spurred a new wave of emigration – the number of Ukrainians living in Russia increased from three to 3.3 million people
About 80 percent or 488,900 of those first residence permits issued to Ukrainian citizens in the EU in 2020 were issued by Polish authorities
Despite the war in Eastern Ukraine that started in 2014, relatively few Ukrainians sought asylum in the EU (34,400 in 2014/15)
Migration and displacement within Ukraine
In 2014, in response to pro-democratic and pro-European protests in Ukraine, and the country's rapprochement with the West, Russia intervened militarily to support separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, and annex Crimea. Fierce fighting ensued, which continued in some form until the Russian invasion in 2022
Due to violence in Eastern Ukraine about 1.6 million people were internally displaced until November 2015
Immigration in Ukraine before Russia's invasion
Immigration to Ukraine during the Soviet era was mainly driven by migrants from other Soviet republics, whereas immigration from outside the USSR was highly restricted, for instance, to students from "befriended" countries, meaning other socialist countries. Soviet authorities pursued a policy of Russification which intensified Russian immigration to the territory of present-day Ukraine that had already been a major immigration trend in pre-Soviet times as the eastern part of Ukraine belonged to the Russian Empire. In 1989, 22 percent of Ukraine's population were ethnic Russians
Immigration flows in the first years of independence were driven by the return of ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars from other former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Ukraine also hosted refugees who escaped ethnic conflicts and political oppression in the former Soviet republics, primarily Chechens but also some Uzbeks and Moldovans. In later years, migrants and refugees increasingly came from outside the former Soviet space, e.g. from Afghanistan. Ukraine is also an important transit country for migrations from East to West, for example for migrants and asylum seekers who try to enter the EU via Ukraine's borders with Slovakia, Hungary or Poland
In total, in 2019 almost 400,000 foreigners held a residence permit in Ukraine. In addition, there was an unknown number of immigrants staying in the country irregularly
The future of immigration to and emigration from Ukraine is uncertain – as is the future of the country itself. If and when Ukrainians and immigrants who have fled the country or are internally displaced will return to their usual places of residence in Ukraine highly depends on the further course and outcome of the war.