Enhancing cooperation among the Prague Process states

Select your language

Integration of Ukrainian refugees: The road ahead

In the new ICMPD Policy Insights Commentary published on 8 March 2022, Justyna Segeš Frelak and Caitlin Katsiaficas, policy analysts at ICMPD, addressed the question of current and future integration of Ukrainians fleeing the war. The Commentary is also available in Russian and Ukrainian languages.

Over 2 million people have fled across Ukraine’s borders following Russia’s invasion on 24 February. Right now, attention is understandably focused on their entry and reception. But soon the EU will need to consider how to best help these newcomers settle in. The activation of the Temporary Protection Directive gives (mainly) Ukrainians the right to access key integration-related services and employment. National administrations now face an enormous challenge to make such access a reality.

Activation of the Temporary Protection Directive is an important – and landmark – step that also enables Ukraine’s citizens and long-term residents to access essential integration-related services and to work. We know from past experience that acting early is key to supporting successful integration. With this in mind, some important considerations are:

Who is arriving and where?

With the Ukrainian government requiring men ages 18-60 to stay and support the war effort, it is largely women and children, as well as elderly men, who are currently crossing into the EU. It is not only Ukrainian citizens who have had to flee: Students, workers, and refugees from other countries have also been uprooted by the immediate outbreak of conflict. Not all non-Ukrainians will be covered by the Temporary Protection Directive, and for those who are not, Member States will need to determine if they will be able to stay.

The vast majority is heading to neighbouring EU countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania). Meanwhile, Poland, Italy, the Czech Republic, Spain, and Germany are home to the largest Ukrainian communities in the EU (measured in permits at the end of 2020), most of whom came to work. Ukrainians are highly mobile: According to a 2018 survey, one-quarter of Ukrainians reported that they or a family member had previously worked abroad temporarily.

Where will they stay?

Housing is one of the most immediate needs. Facing such a large number of arrivals, neighbouring countries have moved to ready reception spaces, with some using existing asylum reception facilities or building temporary camps and others relying on hotels and guest houses. The private sector and private citizens are also stepping up to offer flats for newcomers without a place to stay. More generally, high costs, as well as housing discrimination, remain persistent challenges for many migrants looking for a place to rent.

What physical and mental health care?

As important as it is, physical health is not the only concern. As we have seen in the headlines, peoples’ lives were literally upended overnight, with some waiting as many as 60 hours in the freezing cold in lines many kilometres long to cross to safety. Meanwhile, especially with most men required to remain in Ukraine, families are separated, with those in Europe fearing for the safety of their loved ones back home. Such stressful situations are why mental health and psychosocial support are an essential component of humanitarian interventions – and why they should also be a key part of integration approaches. 

How to incorporate new arrivals into education systems?

School-age children constitute a large share of arriving Ukrainian refugees, pointing to massive implications for school systems in the middle of the school year. Member States have already begun efforts to channel children into mainstream education systems, but the sudden incorporation of large numbers of refugee children poses a range of challenges. Children often face difficulties beyond simply doing their homework, including adjusting to a new school, coping with trauma, dealing with language barriers, and navigating curriculum differences. Teachers are often insufficiently trained on addressing these challenges. It is also unclear how many non-Ukrainian students will be able to access EU higher education and how many plan to return to their countries of origin.

How to overcome language barriers?

Some Ukrainians already speak Hungarian or Romanian as their native language, while personal networks and language proximity with other Slavic languages (e.g. Polish, Slovak, and Czech) may lessen language barriers that can hinder migrants from being aware of or accessing needed services. However, there will still be considerable and immediate demand for interpreters and translators. And in the longer term, language classes will be important for supporting adults in settling in and navigating their new communities, while children can receive assistance in schools. 

How to integrate arrivals into the labour market?

Facilitating labour market access is traditionally a central focus of integration policy, and is also crucial considering newcomers’ limited financial resources and current challenges converting money into local currencies. Employers in a number of EU Member States remain optimistic about the absorption capacities of their labour markets, announcing that they can easily accommodate anywhere from 100,000 (Slovakia) to 500,000 (Poland) additional workers. Private sector initiatives offering jobs, combined with additional support (e.g. housing) to newly arrived refugees, have been mushrooming. Indeed, labour shortages mean there may be more opportunities – but most likely not everyone will enter the labour market so easily. In addition to language-related challenges, a significant share of newcomers may not have been active in the Ukrainian labour market and may not be in the EU either. 

How do public attitudes enter the equation?

Public attitudes towards refugees and migrants shape the welcome newcomers will receive and also influence local and national policies affecting them. Across the EU, the outpouring of support for Ukrainians has been remarkable. This does not necessarily mean, though, that it will stay this way, as we have seen in other cases. It is not only newcomers who will need to adapt, and promoting local engagement will therefore be paramount. It is clear that efforts to tackle discrimination and strategic communication will have important roles to play.

A unique situation

While many of the current destination countries have increasingly realised the importance of comprehensive immigration policies, there is still considerable room for improvement in various integration policy areas. The scale of arrivals would test any EU Member State – and many of these countries have relatively short experience receiving immigrants. In many ways, the current situation differs from previous large-scale refugee arrivals – not least because Ukrainians across the board were granted the right to work, stay, and access services almost immediately. Also important, they are thus far allowed to move within the EU to link up with their networks. And many have already worked or studied in the EU.  But that is not to say it will be easy. Europe has seen an amazing mobilization, with an outpouring of aid from civil society, the private sector, and individuals – and this is exactly what is needed for such a large undertaking. For integration to be successful, it is critical that this goodwill stands the test of time.

Read the whole article on the ICMPD website.