News | War / Peace - Migration / Flight - Eastern Europe - Ukraine Crisis Who Will Stay, Who Will Return?

How class, gender, and age shape Ukrainian refugees’ experience abroad and perception at home


Two adults and three children sit on a bed in front of family pictures.
Ukrainian refugees Dimitri Didenko und Elena Bobo and their children, who currently live in a refugee camp in the town of Căinari, Moldova, are among the over 500,000 Ukrainians seeking protection in the country. Photo: IMAGO/Mauersberger

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine took most Ukrainians by surprise. Many initially thought it was some kind of misunderstanding that could be resolved by negotiations within a matter of days or weeks. People fleeing their hometowns often had the intention of “waiting for things to settle down”, and very few Ukrainians thought that the war could last a year or longer. Among those who left Ukraine, most (52 percent, according to polls) waited for a couple of weeks before reaching this decision.

Anastasiya Ryabchuk is Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and a PAUSE scholar-at-risk at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales in Paris.

This article first appeared in the Eastern European Left Media Outlet series “Transnational Migration in CEE from Intersectional Perspectives of Race, Gender, Class, and Citizenship”.

By May, even as negotiations faltered and the war dragged on, many Ukrainians who fled abroad began returning home, just as Russian troops retreated from Kyiv and the northern regions of Ukraine. The State Border Service of Ukraine reports that from May onwards, the number of border crossings into Ukraine began to exceed the number of crossings to leave the country. Who were the people rushing back home so early? Who hesitated? Will there be a new wave of migrants and refugees this winter, now that Russia began targeting civilian electricity infrastructure?

The expected duration of the war is crucial in determining the migration patterns of Ukrainian refugees in the European Union, along with the divergent trajectories of migrants and refugees themselves. Classical migration theories that consider “push-and-pull” factors at home and in the receiving countries are of course still relevant. However, the question of time needs to be weaved into this narrative. This is particularly true given Ukrainian migrants’ temporary protection status in the EU, and the higher chances that they will return home as soon as the war ends, unlike a refugee status that assumes a more long-term break with war-torn home countries.

Hopes and Expectations

About two thirds of refugees left Ukraine in March (84 percent by the end of April), while as little as 15 percent left their country from May onwards. Almost half of respondents interviewed in May by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) believed that the war would end in the next six months, and only 18 percent felt it could last longer. Eleven percent gave an indication of six to 12 months, and 7 percent more than a year.

By September, the certainty of a quick end to the war began to dissipate. The vast majority of Ukrainians still believed in Ukraine’s ultimate victory and prosperous future as a member of the EU. In a survey conducted on 7–13 September 2022, KIIS asked whether a person would consider emigrating to the EU or US if they were offered unconditional citizenship rights. Compared to 2020, the percentage of those who responded positively decreased four-fold, from 28 percent to 7 percent. According to the institute, even if we take into account that some of those who would have responded positively had already left since the start of Russian invasion, the difference would still remain twofold — a very significant decrease.

InfoSapiens conducted an omnibus study on 12–18 August that showed an increase in pride of being Ukrainian (98 percent compared to 41 percent in 2002 and 69 percent in 2020). The survey also showed that a vast majority — 95 percent — was optimistic about the future of Ukraine, and 92 percent are optimistic about their own future in Ukraine. The percentage of those who would not agree to Ukraine’s territorial losses in the name of peace remained high and even increased by a few points: from 84 percent in May to 87 percent in September.

An overwhelming majority (86 percent) felt that Ukraine should continue to resist even in the face of Russia’s massive, terror-inducing attacks on Ukraine’s electricity network in October 2022, with all the risks of total blackouts and a collapse of the electric grid, heating, and sanitation networks they entailed.

Yet hopes proved much dimmer when asked about the expected duration of war. The aforementioned KIIS study found that in September, the percentage of those who felt the war could end in the next six months had fallen to 28 percent, while the percentage of those who thought it would last longer nearly doubled, to 34 percent, with 16 percent giving an indication of 6–12 months, and another 18 percent thinking it would last for more than a year.

In fact, the Russian attacks on the electricity network that began in October may lead to a new wave of Ukrainian refugees to the EU. NGOs working with Ukrainian refugees in neighbouring countries have in some instances reported a tenfold increase by the end of October, as in the case of Záhony border crossing to Hungary, which currently witnesses between 300 and 500 new cases daily, compared to less than 50 in the summer. Even several of Ukraine’s high-ranking government officials encouraged citizens who can to go abroad for the winter, and those who are currently abroad to postpone their return until next spring.

What Pushes, Who Pulls?

Of the 4.5 million Ukrainian refugees who received temporary protection status in the EU, more than 80 percent are women, and two-thirds have children. At the same time, among those Ukrainians who are returning to Ukraine, only one third are with children.

This is to be expected: mothers with children are more hesitant to return to Ukraine while the war is still ongoing, fearing for their children’s safety. Younger, single people who feel they will be able to adapt to the new reality of war, as well as the elderly who find it difficult abroad and miss their homes, are more likely to return at this stage.

Research carried out by the Razumkov Centre last spring showed that 79 percent of migrants wanted to return home “after the war”. At the same time, however, a study showed that 59 percent of Ukrainian refugees under temporary protection status were already searching for employment. Of course, the latter figure could be due to insufficient support in the host countries and not necessarily mean that the Ukrainian refugees want to stay longer, but at least in the short term, these 59 percent chose to integrate rather than return back home.

A KIIS study for CASE Ukraine carried out on 3–18 May found that only 42.9 percent of Ukrainians envisage their children’s future in Ukraine in the case of a prolonged war. In case of a ceasefire and a peace treaty being signed in the near future, this number grew to 54.7 percent. Women in the study had higher safety demands than men.

Research shows that the first to leave were people who were better off economically and had more social and cultural capital to consider moving abroad.

The concerns of mothers are obviously not only about bombing, but also whether schools and preschools will reopen, and whether children can have a “normal childhood”. Due to women’s greater involvement in reproductive labour, they are more acutely aware of all the things that are needed to raise a child, such as schools, shops and pharmacies, clinics, Wi-Fi connections, not to mention reliable supplies of water and electricity.

In my daughter’s primary school in central Kyiv, two-thirds of parents who took part in a survey in June concerning a planned return to school on 1 September responded positively. But as a result, out of a class of 20, only one child attends school offline, another three attend online from other parts of Ukraine, and the rest currently attends school abroad. Some were frightened by Russia’s threats of nuclear attack last August, while others were intimidated by an extensive list of what to pack in an emergency backpack in case a child should remain trapped in the school basement for up to three days after a shelling attack.

At the same time, difficulties in securing childcare and a lack of family support in cases of family separation may push women to return even to contexts that are not perceived as safe. With older children and youth, there is also a possibility of the mother returning while the child remains in the EU. Several boarding schools offer round-the-clock care for Ukrainian youth, and private boarding schools that specifically target Ukrainian refugee children were created this school year.

In May, the UNHCR carried out research along the border in the Zakarpattia region concerning Ukrainian refugees’ reasons for returning home. One third indicated reunification with family as the main reason, and another third cited a perception of safety in the area of return (particularly for northern regions and Kyiv). We can classify these responses as “pulling-back-home” factors.

At the same time, although less prevalent, there were also “pushing-out-of-EU” factors: no housing/difficulty finding housing in the receiving country (5 percent), or lack of employment opportunities in the receiving country (among those returning to Kyiv, this was the reason for 5 percent — even during war, Kyiv could offer some people better working conditions than EU countries).

The role of these factors may grow over time. Firstly, people may be more willing to accept inadequate living conditions in reception centres in the short term, but not the long term. Moreover, the social benefits offered to Ukrainian refugees in the first weeks and months are being drastically reduced, which makes survival without full-time employment more difficult.

For instance, France, one of the most generous countries, initially offered 420 euro per month per adult in social payments, free rail transportation, and free accommodation in hotels. At the beginning of May, however, it cancelled free transport and began evacuating residents from hotels by offering them three alternative housing options (offers were often in rural distant areas, and in case of refusal of the third offer, no further offers were made).

In October, French social payments were reduced by half, retaining the second half only for those who can prove they are paying rent. France also limits the validity of temporary protection documents to six months, and the first wave of Ukrainian refugees already had to renew their status this September.

The Class Dimension

Such changes have at least two immediate effects. Firstly, they “filter out” Ukrainian refugees into the more or less “desirable” — further integrating those who managed to find employment and housing but limiting social benefits to all others, thus forcing some of them to return home. Secondly, they make it more difficult for the newly arriving refugees, who are often a more vulnerable subcategory than the first wave.

Research shows that the first to leave were people who were better off economically and had more social and cultural capital to consider moving abroad. The first wave of migrants was more likely to have personal savings to cover basic needs while waiting for temporary protection applications to be processed.

A UNHCR survey of 34,145 Ukrainian refugees found that 12 percent had relatives in receiving countries, and that 56 percent had already managed to find private housing for rent (although 29 percent were still in reception centres, and this figure is higher for newly arriving refugees). They were more likely to have private vehicles (and thus could leave the country in the first days of war) and some prior contacts in receiving countries whether personal or professional, knowledge of at least one foreign language, higher education, etc.

A Razumkov Centre study found a higher percentage of managers (14 percent compared to 1.5 percent of the Ukrainian population as a whole) and private entrepreneurs (14 percent compared to 4 percent of the population as a whole), with a further 12 percent self-identifying as skilled workers, and another 11 percent as housewives. Thus, those who leave Ukraine often enjoy a higher socio-economic status than those who remained. They are also more likely to come from urban areas (nine in ten respondents in the Razumkov study) and have higher levels of education (86 percent had either completed or were in the process of obtaining an advanced degree).

Those who made the decision to leave at a later point in time were more likely to have been forced to do so by a deteriorating safety situation, loss or damage to their homes, and other “push-out-of-Ukraine” factors, with “pull-into-EU factors” playing a less significant role.

The vast majority of Ukrainian refugees initially expressed a desire to return home.

Safety concerns were the main “push-out-of-Ukraine” factor, while living standards acted as a “pull-into-EU” factor (temporary protection and other benefits). But the opposite dynamic works as well: improving safety perception at home can be a “pull-into-Ukraine” factor, while difficulties in securing an adequate standard of life as a “push-out-of-EU”/“return-to-Ukraine” factor.

“Pull-into-EU” factors may be dominant for more vulnerable groups who require special assistance: the EU has better healthcare, facilities for special needs children, and better provisions for people with chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases like cancer. “Pull-into-EU” factors may also dominate for youth without a family of their own and without a permanent need to care for family members in Ukraine (university students, single people). They see economic support of family members who remain in Ukraine as a valuable contribution and a reason to remain in the EU (“I can’t be with my parents, but I can send them money and help them in this way”).

Furthermore, the determination to stay is stronger if the family unit remained intact, as in cases where the father was able to join his wife and children in the EU (cases of 3+ children, children with disabilities, or if the father left the country prior to the war), or cases where grandparents were able to settle with their children to help out with household and childcare duties.

“Push-back-to-Ukraine” factors, on the other hand, are often related to an initial negative experience: bureaucracy that takes too long, difficulties in finding a job, housing, or securing childcare. Difficulties in finding a job involve not only barriers to employment — no knowledge of local languages, need to confirm skills/qualifications, unwillingness to accept “humiliating” offers (i.e. farm work for urban, middle-class migrants) — but also, in some cases, better employment prospects in Ukraine.

For instance, the Razumkov Centre survey of Ukrainian refugees found that almost 60 percent of them only have enough resources to buy food and basic, inexpensive clothing and household items, and another 12 percent can barely make ends meet, compared to 11 percent and 2 percent back in Ukraine. Forty-two percent of respondents had problems finding a job, 32 percent struggled to secure rental housing with a further 21.5 percent lacking any housing, and 15 percent citing uncomfortable housing conditions.

Their situations are aggravated by problems securing childcare needs: cases where preschools only accept children if mothers are employed, or where one needs to have a permanent address before applying for a place at a preschool, where working hours don’t correspond to school and preschool hours, or where school fees are unaffordable (particularly in nurseries for young children). Fourteen percent of Ukrainian refugees from the Razumkov study had difficulties securing education for their children, and 13.5 percent struggled to secure their leisure and after-school activities.

Not only school and nursery operating hours, but also those of bureaucratic institutions, shops, pharmacies, and more often overlap with working hours, making it practically impossible for a single mother to secure household needs, look after the children, and keep a job. A study of mothers with preschool age children found that a lack of childcare options was the main barrier to finding employment, limited their choices in terms of finding a place of residence, and was more likely to push some of the refugees back to Ukraine.

Social ties are much more limited in hosting societies, whereas in Ukraine, other family members or social networks can help. There are also emotional and psychological difficulties: understanding how the system operates in Ukraine (“like a fish in water”) vs. having to figure everything out from scratch, which takes up time and resources (“like a fish out of water”).

“As Soon as the War Ends”

As noted above, the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees initially expressed a desire to return home: a 4Service survey carried out between 28 March and 4 April 2022 found that more than two thirds wanted to return either as soon as it was safe again in their home region (36 percent) or “as soon as the war ends” (35 percent). Another 13 percent planned to return within a year or two after the end of war, and 7 percent if their employer resumed operations or if they had a definite job prospect back home. On the two extremes were the 11 percent planning to return in the nearest future, and 7 percent who did not envisage returning at all.

The survey found that among those who already had permanent employment in the EU, 18 percent did not envisage a return, although this figure will potentially change over time. As time goes by, the EU may be faced with an increasing polarization among Ukrainian refugees. On the one hand will be those who integrated fully into the labour market, secured private housing, integrated children into local schools, and will be welcome to remain in the EU even when the temporary protection scheme is over.

As the hope of a quick end to the war vanishes, motivations also change.

Even today, the 4Service groups study found  a higher proportion of some specific profiles among those who do not intend to return: those who were considering emigration to the EU even prior to the war (54 percent), single youth under 35 who made the decision only for themselves (and not for the entire household), and those who are fluent in one or several European languages (64 percent).

On the other hand, we may find the more desperate group of refugees who simply have nowhere to return to due to destroyed homes, lack of employment prospects, or poor social provisions in post-war Ukraine to vulnerable groups such as the elderly and people with disabilities. Out of the 81 percent of respondents who were employed prior to the war, only 11 percent had confidence that they could return to their jobs, with a further 34 percent hoping that it would be possible. At the same time, 12 percent were hoping to find a different job, while 36 percent do not know whether they will be able to find any employment at all.

We may also observe a growing gap in receiving countries’ capacities to accommodate refugees, as more educated middle-class refugees will migrate further west to countries with better provisions. We already see this trend with further migration from Poland to Germany: although Poland initially hosted the bulk of refugees due to its physical and cultural proximity to Ukraine, by autumn, the number of refugees in Germany grew to 800,000. Many in this group had initially settled in Poland and only moved to Germany later for better levels of social protection. Similarly, Bulgaria reported almost half-a-million Ukrainians entering the country, but only one in ten chose to stay and obtain temporary protection, with the remaining 90 percent continuing on to other countries.

There is a tendency to stop for a few months to explore options of further migration: Facebook groups of Ukrainian refugees in neighbouring countries often have discussions of “Where can we find better provisions?”, or “What is the situation like for refugees in France, Spain, Netherlands, etc.?” Compared to those who stay in the initial country of entry, those who choose to migrate further are likely to be more motivated and focused — having done their “research” of where they can receive better protection, knowing more clearly where exactly they are going, what they can count on, etc.

As for the Ukrainian side, regional differences could already be seen in the first days of the war — which will also aggravate over time. The 4Service group survey cited above showed that while one in five refugees from western regions were planning to return in the immediate future, only 6 percent of refugees from eastern and southern regions did so — and even then, they usually planned to return to a different part of Ukraine.

There are also slight regional differences in terms of willingness to end the war through negotiations even if it would mean territorial losses: although even in eastern and southern regions a vast majority responds that Ukraine should keep resisting militarily, the percentage is somewhat lower than the national average (69 vs. 88 percent), and the percentage of those who would agree to negotiations and a ceasefire is higher (29 vs 8 percent). The immediate horrors of war that were witnessed by much higher numbers of people from these regions may translate into another growing gap in experiences of war over time.

New Divisions, New Solidarities?

It is clear that different migration patterns and choices, as well as different starting points, are generating new divisions among Ukrainian refugees. The dynamic of push-and-pull factors also changes over time: hoping for a quick end to the war, people tend to emphasize the positive aspects of returning home (family reunification, familiar social and cultural context, more stable housing arrangements, and in some cases also employment) along with negative experiences abroad (such as insufficient protection and unfamiliar social and cultural context).

As this hope of a quick end vanishes, however, motivations also change. Class distinctions between more mobile and confident middle-class refugees and more vulnerable groups with fewer options may also become more pronounced. Sociologists also observe differing attitudes among Ukrainians who remained in the country towards those who fled war. A split-sample experiment carried out by KIIS in September showed that although the attitude towards all groups of Ukrainian refugees is generally positive (90 percent of respondents expressed understanding, and only 5 percent expressed condemnation of refugees’ decision), there are nonetheless some differences based on gender and family status of refugees.

In the case of mothers with underage children whose husbands remained in Ukraine, 90 percent are supportive, while 6 percent condemn their decision. For single young women without children, support drops to 87 percent and condemnation rises to 9 percent. For elderly men (a 72-year-old professor) support drops even further, to 83 percent, and condemnation rises to 10 percent. Predictably, support is lowest in the case of a “31-year-old male labour migrant who was in Poland when war broke out and decided to stay there” (75 percent supportive vs. 19 percent who condemn his choice).

The divergent experiences of different groups of migrants and differing perceptions of these migrants at home may end up becoming significant barriers to Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction and the formation of unifying social narratives capable of bridging these gaps and forging solidarities.