Those who have lost their homes most likely will not return to Ukraine. A conversation with behavioral experts about refugees and how to bring them back

Over the past few months, in surveys conducted among those who have left Ukraine to escape the war, there’s been a growing proportion of people who would like to stay abroad. Of course, wanting to stay and actually making that decision are different things. However, these current trends raise broader questions: Why is this figure increasing? Will the number of emigrants grow after the borders are opened for men? Will there be enough people who remain for the “grand reconstruction” and the ambitious plans of economic growth that the authorities talk about? What is the state planning to do to bring people back, and should it even do so? Is there a need to “target” the quantity and structure of those who can/should be repatriated?

Texty media outlet discussed these and other relevant questions with the Director of the Institute of Behavioral Research and Associate Professor at American University Kyiv, Volodymyr Vakhitov, and researcher at the Institute, Natalia Zaika.

The main points of this conversation are presented in the form of direct speech of the experts.

About the actual number of those who left

The first thing to start with is that we don’t have precise calculations of the number of people who left Ukraine due to the war. Estimates from various sources, ranging from international organizations to local migration and law enforcement agencies in specific countries, vary from 5 million to 8 million people. Approximately 70% of them are women aged 18 and above, while 30% are children.

The proportion of men is small, at least according to observations. The “gray zone” refers to people with refugee status who actively travel to Ukraine, essentially living between two countries for a week to six months, depending on their circumstances in each specific case.

We can see that from around June 2022, mass emigration has subsided, and we’ve returned to pre-war levels of population outflow, around 20,000 to 30,000 people per month or 250,000 to 300,000 people per year.

Is it the war? Or are the same economic/social/personal factors that were causing people to leave even before February 24? It’s difficult to say. But all of this, taken together, influences our understanding of the reasons for departure (escaping the war, implementing long-standing decisions to emigrate, or something else), as well as the complex efforts that will need to be made to bring back all or some of these individuals.

Next: there are no foreign behavioral studies on mass emigration/movement of people associated with real war risk. In other words, the majority of literature focuses on research about evacuations and relocations during natural disasters.

The difference lies in the fact that in the case of natural phenomena, it’s about the force of an overwhelming element. And that’s how people perceive it: it’s a hurricane/forest fire/tsunami — what can we do about it?

Meanwhile, war is a risk that is, firstly, “man-made,” meaning it’s not a natural disaster, and secondly, it’s a highly destructive and realistic threat: you can’t hide from missiles.

On the one hand, this might compel people to flee more decisively, and on the other hand, motivate them to stay to defend against this man-made onslaught (“on the other side, there are people too — it’s easier to deal with them than with a natural disaster”).

How people evacuated from danger zones

According to our estimates, 50% of those who made the decision to leave did so within the first two weeks of the full-scale invasion (the study was conducted at the end of July 2022). These decisions were often impulsive. Among those who are returning, the majority are those who left in the first days. The other half made more considered decisions over the following months, based on information about gradual stabilization, de-occupation of northern regions, and the knowledge of what programs different countries were offering for asylum seekers, and so on. Consequently, these decisions were more thought-out in terms of prospects to stay.

How people made decisions whether to evacuate from a dangerous zone or not, whether to move to another region or not, whether to leave the country or stay in Ukraine? Based on our research, we can say that 90% expected various types of danger/risks: from the risk of death and falling under occupation to the risk of lacking food, water, losing their homes, and so on.

So, only 10% said: we hadn’t encountered or considered these risks when making decisions. So here it is, in the first months, even under conditions of great uncertainty, understanding all these risks, two-thirds of the people stayed in their places of residence, and only one-third left — either to other regions of Ukraine or abroad. Once again: the situation is risky, people realize that, but they stay.

Why does this happen? The “non-material factor” comes into play: this is my home, and I want to defend it; this is where my children were born; I don’t want someone telling me I have to leave; I want to sleep in my own bed and eat in my own kitchen.

If a person has lived in one place for over 10 years, if he is an elderly individual with a low income, he was more likely to stay in place. Additionally, based on our observations, sometimes the presence of a pet was a reason to stay. This correlates with Western studies on evacuations over the past 50 years.

Why did people decide to leave?

If we’re talking about those who ultimately decided to leave, the factor of having children (and the responsibility of parents for their safety) was the most significant. Additionally, we see that younger and more educated individuals with higher incomes were more inclined to leave. They understood that they had the resources to self-sustain for the “initial period.” However, this wasn’t the most decisive factor.

Among those who left their places of residence, the presence of a car was crucial. Among the “technical” factors, this one was probably the most significant, as it represents relative freedom in planning one’s movement, without relying on external factors such as public transportation schedules or organized state evacuations.

Many people mentioned that they left in someone else’s car or that “people from another household also left in my car.”

Interestingly, slightly more prepared individuals to leave were those who had some kind of prior plan (based on our observations, this accounted for no more than 20%). This didn’t necessarily have to be a packed emergency bag; it could even be just a list of steps.

During the study, we conducted an experiment that showed that if a person is shown a simple call to evacuate and the same call with a specific list of actions to be taken, it will be much easier to convince him to leave.

Previous experience was also important. For instance, people who moved from the occupied territories of Donetsk or Crimea in 2014-2015 were more likely to make the decision to leave — they simply had a better understanding of the implications.

However, it’s fair to say that such experience could also work as a factor for the opposite decision: “I’ve moved once already — I don’t want to go anywhere else.” Overall, we observe that 2/3 of the surveyed individuals who had the status of internally displaced persons before February 2022 chose to leave.

For those who left abroad, the decision on where to go was often random (if we don’t take into account the presence of relatives, acquaintances, or other “anchoring” factors that would make the destination country an undisputed choice). If there’s a bus going to Poland or if acquaintances have already reached Germany — well, then I’ll go there too.

Europe was accepting almost everyone without significant restrictions, unlike, let’s say, the USA. If suitable accommodation was found there — then they stayed, if not — people moved on or returned.

If a person, after evacuation, found shelter or was accommodated on a mattress in a school, it was clear that these were temporary options, and people tried to keep moving, searching for something stable and long-term. For instance, a room in a dormitory or settling with relatives.

However, if such a long-term option didn’t work out (if housing wasn’t found, it was expensive, or conditions were very poor), this became a significant factor for returning. For a certain period, six months or a year, for example, they could try to live under the existing conditions. But if the conditions during evacuation were unbearable and there was a whole apartment or house left at home, people were inclined to return, even despite the danger, for example, to Kharkiv or Kupiansk.

See also: “Ukraine can be either poor or with migrants”: an interview with a demographer

Also, if a person lacks means of subsistence and the local authorities provide only minimal social benefits, this is also a factor for returning. Few governments are actually generous in this regard — apart from Germany, perhaps Denmark or the Netherlands. So the logic goes: if a person’s choice is to survive in Ukraine or in Europe, but with the added language and sociocultural barrier, he will most likely choose the former.

How do people make the decision to return?

In the research that has been conducted, the primary factor remains safety — in various interpretations, from the cessation of constant shelling in their locality to the end of the war overall in Ukraine. If this condition is met, then other factors come into play: personal and external, in the host country and in Ukraine.

For instance, a lot depends on the level of integration into the society and community that has taken in the asylum seeker, the ability to “attach.” Does the woman have an income separate from social assistance? If she has a child, does she receive assistance for child care? Has the child started school or kindergarten? Does the woman have close ties with family members who stayed in Ukraine (not necessarily a husband — could be elderly parents, older children who are studying or unable to leave)?

The level of integration is also influenced by the skills a person had before arriving in another country — how quickly he can learn the language, acquire a new or related skill to the existing one, and adapt to the local work process.

Is the job a person obtains tied to his asylum seeker status (meaning if/when the war ends and the status is annulled, the person might lose the job)? Does he have the opportunity to work in their field of expertise, or is he forced to seek employment with lower qualifications?

There are two opposing hypotheses. One is that high qualifications, work flexibility, and a capacity for learning are all advantages that contribute to better integration, consequently increasing the chances that a person will stay abroad.

However, another hypothesis seems more likely: the higher the qualifications and complexity of the profession, the narrower the market and the fiercer the competition. No matter how well you know the language, you won’t master it at the level of native speakers. Moreover, apart from language proficiency, they also understand the socio-cultural context, making it harder to outcompete them.

Here, highly qualified individuals have three paths: striving to break through in their field (which requires high motivation), seeking less qualified work (a phenomenon known as brain waste), or returning to Ukraine.

And one more thing: even if a highly qualified worker manages to find a job that relatively meets his expectations, the standard of living in Ukraine will still be higher due to the lower cost of living and lower daily expenses. How many people will make decisions based on these factors will need further research.

Most likely, after the war ends, temporary asylum certificates will expire, becoming a significant impetus for the return of many asylum seekers. If these permits continue to be valid, the requirements for their holders will become more stringent, and not everyone will be willing to meet them.

Another factor is whether there is a place to return to. If people leave Mariupol, Bakhmut, where their homes have been completely destroyed, and immediately go abroad, it is most likely that they won’t return because they have nowhere to go. Thus, we can already confidently say that the demographic structure of these regions will significantly change.

Surveys indicate that the vast majority of people prefer to return to their homes, their walls, and their beds. Using the example of the areas in Kharkiv and Kherson regions that have been liberated, we see that even despite constant shelling in the near-front areas, people still prefer to return as soon as the opportunity arises.

Regarding those who return to “rebuild the country”

Perhaps one of the most ambiguous, and therefore interesting and important questions, is the impact of national identity on the decision to return. Roughly speaking, if we put prosperity and psychological peace abroad on one side of the scale, and the opportunity to build a European country here, to contribute to reconstruction, to be part of the success story, and the desire to defend the country from the aggressor on the other side — what will people choose?

We are just beginning to investigate this question. Separate studies on identity and its changes during war do not answer the question of how this affects the specific decision to stay abroad or return. There are no foreign studies on this matter.

Here we have a few hypotheses and a few facts that allow us to look at the situation optimistically.

Firstly, we have over 400,000 people who returned to Ukraine with the start of the invasion. Not all of them, obviously join the Armed Forces, but the overall trend is more than telling.

Secondly, we already have a certain history of “passionarity,” meaning millions of people actively took part in Euromaidan protests throughout the country, demonstrating a strong civic stance.

Thirdly, we know that according to surveys, war has affected at least 80% of people in one way or another — from the loss of loved ones and destruction of homes to job loss, deteriorating health, and changes in place of residence.

So, there’s an assumption that for a significant portion of people, the paid price is too high to “quit halfway.” This is in addition to the fact that for many, the current hot phase of the war has become a legal opportunity to take up arms and fight Russians as a way to seek revenge for centuries of oppression.

Of course, there’s another side of the coin. The longer the active phase of the war lasts, the longer the expected duration becomes. People always feel like they are in the middle of the process: if the hostilities have been ongoing for 16 months, then presumably, there’s another 16 months left until the end.

And a prolonged period of expected war duration can generate the sentiment of “I don’t have time to wait,” I want to live here and now (abroad). However, according to our assumption, this kind of thinking is prevalent among those who previously weren’t too concerned with Ukraine’s development and the war has simply become a reason to act on a long-held decision to emigrate.

During the surveys, a portion of these respondents openly states their intention not to return. And another portion, in order to stay within “socially acceptable” responses, answers with constructs like “we will return if…”. Then follows a list of conditions, from judicial reform to complete reconstruction, from greener streets to ramps in government institutions. This resembles the search for justifications for oneself. Because who prevented building such a country before you left?

About the departure of men after the end of the war

Is there a reason to fear the departure of men after the war ends, and should we prohibit them from leaving after the end of the state of war? In our opinion, there should be a clear and transparent process for return, possibly even with certain elements of “amnesty” for those who left illegally or semi-legally and wish to return.

If we threaten everyone with imprisonment, then, of course, no one will return, and after the borders are opened, even more people will leave. On the other hand, as already mentioned, many factors do not favor the ability of people to “settle” abroad.

For instance, after the war ends, it’s evident that the simplified program for asylum seekers with the right to legal employment will not be operational.

Currently, ideas are circulating that certain restrictions on departure after the war’s conclusion should be implemented, and negotiations with other countries should be expedited to have them instantly revoke temporary work permits, so that people return, as otherwise, they would become undocumented.

The individuals proposing this do not understand (or pretend not to understand) how modern public policy works. It cannot be based on coercion or prohibitions.

Behavioral sciences have thoroughly studied this. There are numerous cases from various countries that demonstrate two nearly 100% results of such policies. First, people vigorously try to find ways (and they succeed) to circumvent the prohibition.

So, if you’re prohibited from something or, conversely, ordered to do something that contradicts your desire, people will find a way to circumvent it. The second important consequence is the loss of citizens’ trust in their state, in governmental bodies, the president, parliament, and the government. This is entirely contrary to what we should be establishing as a country.

People won’t have the desire to build something here, to develop, to pay taxes. If we genuinely think about making this country attractive for living, a place where people want to continue living and invest their efforts in its reconstruction, the last thing we can talk about is coercion.

How to bring entrepreneurs back

Separately, it’s worth mentioning the potential return of entrepreneurs. There’s a popular perspective that starting a business in Western countries is harder due to greater bureaucracy and regulation. From this, it’s often concluded that these entrepreneurs will have to return to the “familiar” Ukrainian investment climate.

It’s difficult to agree with this because someone who managed to start a business in Poland or Germany, for example, is likely to appreciate the predictability of their tax, judicial, and labor laws there, as well as the absence of pressure on entrepreneurs, the blocking of tax invoices, and other familiar “practices” for Ukrainian companies.

So, the opportunity/ability to start one’s own business/transfer people abroad is more likely to be considered a factor that reduces the chances of these people returning to Ukraine. We know that people usually try to avoid losses. In this case, if returning to Ukraine equals losing certain advantages of civilized business conditions in Europe, they probably won’t make such a decision.

On incentives for the return of asylum seekers

Should the government incentivize the return of asylum seekers? If so, to what extent? What should be the structure of those who return — should it be “targeted”? A lot depends on how and where the active phase of the war ends.

How much territory will we lose/gain, how many people and resources will be needed for recovery, how much land will be mined, how many cities won’t be subject to reconstruction — these are all factors that will influence the decisions regarding returning asylum seekers.

See also: What will become the main problem for Ukraine after the war and how to preserve democracy

The harsh truth also lies in the fact that the number of jobs we can create for the purpose of recovery (especially for those who return) will directly depend on the amount of funds we receive from external donors.

This, in turn, will also depend on reforms: judicial, law enforcement, tax reforms, and so on, as well as transparent policies for the allocation of incoming funds. At the same time, the volume of investments that will come in will also be determined by people’s willingness to return.

Currently, there is a lot of talk about certain tax incentives for those who return, about grants, and similar “material” factors.

However, this seems like “one-time” communication, and furthermore, an attempt to formally and passively approach the problem: here’s some money, if you want, come back, if not, then no. By the way, localized communication about reconstruction also seems questionable: here, we found a hypothetical 4 million for a hypothetical building in a hypothetical Irpin, and we’ll be restoring it. Nobody will return just for the sake of money.

In our opinion, the policy of encouraging return should be based on the idea that people will have the chance to build something new, unique, essentially a new country: new buildings instead of old, dilapidated panel buildings, new businesses instead of old, inefficient ones.

This should not only be about local decisions but more about a global project, one that presents an honorable and ambitious challenge. Just as corporations sell consumers not just a specific product, but feelings, status, and experience, similarly a country should “sell” this sense of “belonging.”

To achieve this, it is necessary to already transmit this image to the “overseas” Ukrainians, to tell them what specifically (positive) is happening in Ukraine, what awaits them here — both at the state level and at the community level. Perhaps there should even be consideration for a broader involvement of those who have left in decision-making within Ukraine.

Simplification of procedures that returning seekers of shelter will have to undergo should also be worked on — from the recognition of subjects studied in schools and the recognition of earned degrees in universities, to the payment of taxes on earned income.

Everyone who is capable should work

Likewise, we need to honestly admit that we will need to attract foreigners here. Our demographic pyramid and potential are not sufficient to aim for a population level of 45 million, 50 million, or 52 million on our own.

Similarly, we won’t achieve this goal through any program incentivizing the return of seekers of shelter. Do we actually need that many people? This is an open question and much will depend on the type of country — geographically, and politically — we will be talking about after the war. The population structure we aim for after the war is crucial.

A higher percentage of working-age individuals should have the opportunity to work in order to independently provide themselves with a decent standard of living. Whether it’s mothers on maternity leave — they should have the simplified opportunity to legally work part-time, or individuals with disabilities — simplified commuting to the office or remote work should be facilitated.

Unfortunately or fortunately, we can’t afford the current level of benefits and pensions at the age of 45, etc. Of course, benefits for war veterans will remain, but most others will have to be canceled. The retirement age will need to be raised, labor laws will need to be liberalized to facilitate the recruitment of foreign professionals of various levels — from simple trades to top managers.

Similarly, it’s time to reevaluate the status of internally displaced persons (IDPs), which people received almost 10 years ago: if a person moved from Donetsk to Rivne in 2014 and still lives there — does he or she really need to bear the label of an IDP? Perhaps they are just residents of another city by now?

Will Europeans fight for the Ukrainian people?

In our opinion, it’s not necessary to exaggerate the risks of European countries becoming more aggressive in recruiting Ukrainian workers, considering their demographic crisis.

What prevented them from actively engaging our people before the full-scale invasion, if the issue was simply a lack of job opportunities in those countries? Perhaps now, with the “great selection” underway, they can better assess the capability, integrity, and professional level of Ukrainians, especially since those who are leaving now tend to be more educated and skilled.

However, it should also be taken into account that the capacity for the “absorption” and assimilation of a large number of such workers by European labor markets is also limited. Moreover, political risks should not be disregarded: local far-right forces closely monitor any “loyalty programs” benefiting immigrants and are ready to exploit the situation at any moment to create problems for the government.

Not to mention that emigration is far from an easy stroll for everyone, and despite that, you still remain a “second-class citizen” compared to the local population, no matter how harsh that may sound.

It will be significantly “cheaper” for the European Union to admit Ukraine into its ranks, and then, with the existence of a unified labor market and investments flowing into infrastructure from a unified European budget, the question of who works where will matter much less.

If the European legal system, European tax system, and clear European investment rules are in place, a powerful country can be established that will provide its products to the EU and eventually contribute to the Union’s overall growth. And this is much more advantageous than keeping a certain “poor relative” near the border and even “siphoning off” human resources (which, in our opinion, nobody is interested in).

About “reconciliation policy” within the country

It is also necessary to start thinking now about what the hypothetical “reconciliation policy” will be between those who left and those who remained. These conflicts are already a reality, and their number will only continue to grow. Foreign experience literature shows that avoiding them is nearly impossible. The Ministry of Reintegration and, even more so, local communities must work on communication strategies and approaches to resolving such situations today.

The foundation could be the shared aspiration to build European cities and a European country together. The principle would be: “You’ve seen both good and bad abroad, and you know what has changed here on the ground, but we are all residents of this community — so let’s build something important for everyone together, instead of arguing. Let’s look forward together, not backward.” By the way, the same should already be thought about along the lines of those returning from the front and those who didn’t serve.

Originally posted by Oleksiy Nabozhniak on Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Ukraine after war: social dimension

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