Migration flows from Ukraine: changing trends

ZOiS Spotlight 13/2018 by Olga Gulina and Oleksii Pozniak (11 April 2018)

Dmytro Pidhorny from Ukraine manages a construction company in Warsaw. © Paul Henschel, n-ost

Migration is a reality for present-day Ukraine – and a serious challenge for the country’s future. According to projections from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Ukraine’s population will fall dramatically to 32.9 million in 2050 (a 9.9 per cent drop from 2016), with people older than 60 then accounting for more than 50 per cent of its population. This represents a substantial loss of human capital for Ukraine in terms of quantity and quality.

Political and economic instability, the outward migration of skilled workers, particularly from the education sector, a decline in the quality of education and fewer training opportunities for young people already pose major challenges for Ukraine. And yet these problems and their potential consequences are not yet part of serious social, political and academic debate in the country.

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the ensuing political, economic and social upheavals were the main factors which pushed many people into migration. In recent years, however, changes in the development, geography, quality and quantity of migration flows from Ukraine have been observed. Until 2014, the socioeconomic situation at home was the main determinant of Ukrainians’ migration strategies, but after 2014, new push factors emerged: political instability and the policy of total mobilisation announced in response to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The changing face of migration

Present-day Ukraine has been described as “Europe’s Mexico” as it has become a supplier of cheap labour for the EU countries. Ukrainian civilians forced to flee its eastern regions are often called the “forgotten refugees” of Europe. Migration flows from Ukraine were always irregular and geographically unbalanced – sometimes directed east (meaning Russia) and sometimes west (primarily Poland). For many decades, western Ukraine supplied most of the migrants, both to the east and to the west; the regions of eastern Ukraine played an insignificant role by comparison. However, the trend was reversed in 2014. Until 2013, 93.7 per cent of Ukrainian migrants in Poland originated from the western part of Ukraine and only 6.3 per cent from its eastern regions. But after 2014, the pattern changed considerably: residents of its eastern regions accounted for just 28.4 per cent, and residents of its western regions for 71.6 per cent of Ukrainian migrants in Poland, with residents of Rivnens’ka, Vinnyts’ka, Kirovogradskaya, Ivano-Frankivsk and Poltava oblasts and the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions showing a greater willingness to migrate.

According to the findings of a sociological survey conducted in 2017, 29.1 per cent of Ukrainians are interested in moving to another country in search of work or to study. 53 per cent of those who have already worked abroad are willing to repeat the experience; by contrast, 43 per cent have no wish to experience this type of migration scenario. 52 per cent of respondents aged between 18 and 25 years would be willing to leave Ukraine; for the 26-35 age group, it is 42 per cent, and 33 per cent for respondents aged 36-45 years. Of the respondents aged between 46 and 55 years, 23 per cent would be willing to leave Ukraine. The figures for the 56-65 and 65+ age groups are just 14 per cent and less than 9 per cent, respectively. Among potential migrants – the vast majority of whom are males – 85 per cent have basic schooling, 69 per cent attended a secondary school, 65 per cent are educated to college level, and 57 per cent have a university degree.

Human capital continues to be one of Ukraine’s most successful exports. Today, it is apparent that it was the events of 2014 which triggered a shift in the pattern of migration flows in Ukraine. There are now three possible migration scenarios for which Ukraine needs to prepare.

Three migration scenarios for Ukraine

Scenario 1 comprises a realistic and pragmatic status quo. It would require the parameters of Ukraine’s socioeconomic development to remain unchanged at the 2015-2016 level, with stable political conditions and government policies which encourage the return of migrants in accordance with the Law on External Labour Migration[1]. The key characteristics of this scenario are as follows: outward migration of human capital from Ukraine increases over the short term. The contingent of short-term labour migrants is refreshed with new cohorts who have not previously featured in labour migration. The number of internally displaced persons registered with the subordinate authorities of Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy decreases. The east-to-west reorientation of migration flows continues, and education and labour migration from Ukraine covers a broader geographical area.

Scenario 2 is a critical “migration limbo”. This scenario becomes a reality if the parameters of socioeconomic and political development in Ukraine worsen, relations between Russia and Ukraine do not improve, and the government fails to adopt measures to support the return of labour migrants from other countries. The key characteristics of this scenario are as follows: temporary labour migration becomes irreversible, with a substantial proportion of short-term migrants staying away for the long term. The outflow of highly skilled workers from Ukraine increases; the number of internally displaced persons registered with the subordinate authorities of Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy remains unchanged; and the number of Ukrainians migrating to work in Russia declines. And lastly, education and labour migration from Ukraine expands across a larger geographical area.

The third option is an optimistic “best-case” scenario. In Scenario 3, socioeconomic and political conditions in Ukraine are stabilised, incomes rise and the authorities pursue a pro-active policy to encourage remigration to Ukraine. The key characteristics of this scenario are as follows: the scale of long-term labour migration remains unchanged, but temporary labour migration decreases. Migrants are reoriented towards Ukraine’s own internal labour market. The number of internally displaced persons registered with the subordinate authorities of Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy decreases substantially. Migrants from the conflict areas in eastern Ukraine who currently reside in the Russian Federation are repatriated. This is accompanied by a partial and gradual return of some long-term migrants. The geographical area for education and labour migration from Ukraine shrinks.

The extent to which any of these three scenarios – status quo, migration limbo or best-case— becomes a reality will depend on the situation in Ukraine itself, not on developments beyond its borders. The crucial factor is how the country manages the current political and social situation, what action it takes to stem the outflow of skilled workers and address the decline in the quality of education and training over the coming years, and to what extent the elite takes all these challenges seriously.



[1]The Law on External Labour Migration, which entered into force on 1 January 2016, outlines the obligations of the state in respect of the return of labour migrants. Unfortunately, the Law is merely declaratory in nature and does not specific any practical measures to support the return and reintegration of labour migrants. Ukraine’s migration policy currently lacks any detailed provisions on return. At present, non-governmental and church-based organisations are the sole providers of support for returnees.


Olga Gulina is the CEO & Founder of the Institute on Migration Policy (RUSMPI) in Berlin, Germany.

Oleksii Pozniak is head of the Migration Studies Department of Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies at the National Academy of Science of Ukraine, Kyiv.