Ukraine and migration: a historical look to understand today’s changes and tensions

Migration history

After Russia, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe with a population of 44 million people, with two main ethnic groups: 77.8% Ukrainians and 17.3% Russians. Ukraine has experienced four main waves of migration out of the country. In the first, from 1860 to 1914, to Canada, the United States and Brazil, about 500,000 young peasants and their families left western Ukraine, mainly for economic reasons.

In the second wave, between the two world wars, some 200,000 Ukrainians (intellectuals, soldiers and students) emigrated for political reasons to Canada, the United States, South America, Australia, France, Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic.

In the third wave too, immediately after the Second World War and until 1953, the prevailing motives were political. These were young people deported by the Nazis to Germany, but also anti-communist soldiers and intellectuals who did not want to return to the Soviet-occupied Ukraine. They were granted refugee status in several countries: 80,000 in the United States, 30,000 in Canada, 20,000 each in Australia and Great Britain, 10,000 each in Belgium and France.

From the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the penetration of the capitalist system into post-Soviet societies (elements that favored displacement and migration among the population), we find the fourth phase of Ukrainian emigration, directed mainly towards Western Europe.

People emigrate from Ukraine because of a fragile and unbalanced economy. In fact, the division between the western part, Ukrainian-speaking and culturally closer to the EU, and the eastern part, which is predominantly Russian-speaking, is primarily economic as well as ethnic or political. The western area, the ‘breadbasket of the world’, is essentially agricultural and poor. The eastern zone, heavily industrialized, is richer.

It is from the less developed and poorer regions bordering the EU countries that Ukrainian men and women emigrate from, preferring to leave the little guaranteed by work in the fields with the hope of finding better employment in the EU so that they can send remittances back home to support their families.

The initial destinations for emigration are Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey and, above all, Italy, where they enter mainly with tourist visas and then stay indefinitely.

Ukrainians in Italy: yesterday and today

In Italy, it is easier to control those who land from North Africa than those who come from the East. This apparently paradoxical phrase can help us understand the phenomenon of migration to Italy from Eastern European countries. A tourist bus, in fact, does not have the same emotional-media impact as a boat landing in Lampedusa. However, that coach from the East brings migrants to Italy who, having arrived on tourist or student visas, often end up staying there without valid documents (almost 20 thousand Ukrainians have applied for regularization under the 2020 amnesty for Italian domestic work).

These workers in an irregular situation are added to the 228,000 Ukrainian migrants present in Italy on 1.1.2021, the fifth largest group after Romanians (1.1 million), Albanians (410,000), Moroccans (408,000) and Chinese (289,000).

Ukrainian women number 176,000 and represent 77.4% of the community in Italy. They have an average age of about 45 years, much higher than the average for other immigrant groups. They are generally employed in services, 50% of which as domestic helpers or carers and 20% in the commercial and hotel/restaurant sectors.

People have therefore emigrated from Ukraine in recent years for economic reasons. The citizens who have sought their fortune abroad come mainly from the poor western regions, far from the Donbass and the territories disputed between Ukrainian government troops, pro-Russian militias and the Russian occupation army.

Post Russian occupation war

Today, however, as a result of the Russian military invasion, which began on 24 February 2022, more than 1 million displaced persons, mainly women, children and over 60s. have reached the European Union by entering Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Also involved in this forced exodus from Ukraine are hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from other countries who were in Ukraine at the time of the invasion. These non-Ukrainian migrants and many foreign students, Eritreans or Senegalese, are also fleeing the war but when they arrive at the borders of EU countries they are inexorably rejected, probably because they are not white and Christian like their Ukrainian companions in misfortune.

These numbers are expected to increase. Estimates put the number of people displaced by the armed conflict at between 2.5 and 7.5 million, of whom some 3-4 million may seek international protection.

These refugees, regardless of color or religion, will be covered by the Temporary Protection Directive 2001/55/EC, which automatically grants international protection for one year (renewable) to all persons coming from war zones (who do not therefore have to submit an asylum application to be examined by the territorial commissions).

These refugees will receive the document and will be able to move freely in Europe. There will be no allocation of reception quotas for European member states, as the refugees will be free to move around and choose the country where they want to join their friends and relatives.

Almost ten thousand have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the conflict. They arrive mainly from the Friulian border, after exhausting journeys by car or coach. They are families, often consisting only of the mother and children, because the father has stayed behind to fight. In many cases, they settle with relatives already present in the country or with Italian families who have employees from Ukraine. The Italy-Ukraine association estimates that 800-900,000 refugees may soon seek refuge in Italy.

To prepare for this massive arrival, the Council of Ministers of 28 February 2022 approved a decree-law on the reception of refugees from Ukraine, declaring a state of emergency until 31 December 2022 and allocating 10 million Euros for the most urgent interventions.

The Ministry of the Interior has, at the moment, prepared a reception plan for 16,000 places in facilities for migrants, 13,000 in the Cas (Extraordinary Reception Centres) and 3,000 in the Sai network (Reception and Integration System).

If the forecasts that speak of millions of people fleeing Ukraine were to come true, the number of places provided would certainly be insufficient, but there is confidence in the specific initiatives in the territories and in the race of solidarity between Italians and Ukrainians already present in the country. In fact, Italy has the largest Ukrainian community in Europe (about 250,000 people), present above all in Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Campania, where about 60% of Ukrainian citizens reside.

It is therefore foreseeable that thousands of refugees will arrive but already with an address where to go, finding hospitality in the homes of family and friends, a solution that is certainly preferable to reception centres. However, the problem of their maintenance remains and it will be up to the State, the municipalities, the network of organisations and voluntary associations to provide meals, health care, and then schooling for the children, Italian courses and training and work for the adults.

To this end, meetings are being held throughout Italy, in Prefectures with representatives of the dioceses, Caritas and representatives of the regions and municipalities concerned, in order to begin to concretely implement the reception of people fleeing Ukraine. The aim of these initiatives is to survey the availability of accommodation (both private and public) in the area, to offer medical care to children and the seriously ill or disabled, and to collect funds and useful goods to be given to the victims of the war in Ukraine.

What to do as Scalabrinians?

As Scalabrinians, present and active in Europe, we want to offer our contribution of solidarity to the victims of every human exodus and, today in particular, to the one involving all the people fleeing the war in Ukraine, whether of Ukrainian or other citizenship who have immigrated to Ukraine for study, work or family reunion.

The first level of our commitment as Scalabrinians, missionaries founded to “make the world the home of humanity” is to denounce the instrumental use of words to describe the tragic exodus of refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Those fleeing the violence of war are women, children, men, Ukrainian citizens, often white and Christian, but also immigrants from third countries, sometimes black and Muslim, all sharing the same fear of war or Libyan camps and the same desire to live. And for this reason they can neither be labelled as ‘real refugees’ and ‘fake refugees’ (as some Italian politicians have tried to claim), nor can they be discriminated against at the borders of Poland or Romania, or some corner of the Mediterranean, by some zealous border guard who arrogates to himself the right to let in some and reject others, as if it were not true that they are all fleeing war.

In reality, no one chooses to end up under the bombs of a war, no matter where they live, no matter their skin color, no matter whether they are a man or a woman: men also have the right to be afraid and flee, just as women can decide to stay and resist, whether or not they carry a gun.

Calling a spade a spade means first and foremost putting the truth before one’s own interests, even those vital to a politician, such as gaining a few more consents at the expense of human dignity itself.

In concrete terms, as Scalabrinians, present and active in Europe, we want to offer our contribution of solidarity to the victims of every human exodus and, today in particular, to that involving all the people fleeing the war in Ukraine, whether of Ukrainian or other citizenship who have immigrated to Ukraine for study, work or family reunification.

As SIMN Europe Africa through ASCS, we are launching #WeCareForUkraine, a fundraising and awareness-raising campaign that aims to give a concrete response to this dramatic situation that is disrupting the lives of millions of people.

Fr. Lorenzo Prencipe c.s

Organisations involved:
SIMN Europe Africa
Scalabrinian Regional Development Office


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