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

“After the war, it’s not about keeping men in Ukraine, but about bringing women back,” says the Institute of Demography and Social Studies.

After the victory, it is necessary to prohibit men from leaving Ukraine for three years. This statement, made by the Executive Director of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, Vadym Denysenko, immediately sparked a wave of resonance in society. The reaction on social media was diverse, ranging from outright hatred to the construction of conspiracy theories, suggesting that this is a way for the government to manipulate the sentiments of Ukrainians. Meanwhile, the demographic situation in Ukraine is indeed concerning. Even before the large-scale invasion, the UN had ranked us among the top 10 regions in the world with the most rapid population decline. Of course, the major war has only worsened the situation. But is closing the country to men an effective solution? What will truly happen to the workforce after the victory, and should be Ukraine so afraid of migrants?

In an interview with Telegraf (publication name), Oleksiy Pozniak, the head of the Migration Research Sector at the Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, answered these and other questions.

Mr. Oleksiy, recently a highly controversial initiative was proposed, which stirred up society: to prohibit men from leaving Ukraine for another three years after the victory. Supposedly, this would allow us to preserve the nation and not lose our workforce. What is your stance on this?

This is an entirely unnecessary measure. Such restrictions would only escalate tension in society, and men would seek other ways to leave the country. Secondly, even if we were to force them to stay, they wouldn’t work with high efficiency, as the prohibition would weigh heavily on their psyche.

On another note, it’s important to encourage women to return to Ukraine after the war ends, rather than having men leave. Currently, of course, it doesn’t make sense to do something to entice women back, but at the very least, efforts should be made to ensure that migrants maintain a connection with Ukraine.

How exactly can this connection be maintained?

Distance learning for children in Ukrainian schools plays a significant role in this. Research shows that among those whose children study in Ukrainian schools while abroad, a higher percentage are oriented towards returning. Furthermore, international investments will become a crucial factor. The more investments there are and the better they are directed, the more chances there are for the economy and life to recover quickly. However, the reconstruction will not just involve buildings, but also community territories. Even if a person has decent housing and a good job, if they have to commute through ruins to reach that job, it won’t contribute to a healthy psychological state. Nevertheless, a portion of migrants definitely won’t return, and this needs to be acknowledged. The longer the war lasts, the fewer people will come back.

Will men still leave for their wives in Western countries after the victory? These are the alarming forecasts that demographers are giving now.

There is a threat that some portion might leave, but if a portion of women return to Ukraine, their husbands will naturally stay. Secondly, it should be considered that the longer the war goes on, the more marriages will dissolve, and then men won’t have anyone to leave for abroad.

You mentioned that international investments will be a factor that will contribute to the return of Ukrainians after the victory. If we do indeed receive substantial funds for reconstruction, then why fear that men will leave?

Of course, this will contribute to men not leaving. Additionally, women will return. Let’s imagine a situation: before the large-scale invasion, a woman worked in Ukraine as a manager in a prestigious position with a good salary. Abroad, she found a job as, let’s say, a saleswoman. During the war, this doesn’t worsen her emotional state, as she needs to earn something. But when the situation arises that she can return to Ukraine and have the same job, earning as much as she would in the West, it will encourage a certain portion of women to consider coming back.

Okay, if funds are pouring into Ukraine after the victory, will Ukrainian economy be able to “digest” them? Will there be enough workforce to utilize these funds? Or will labor migrants still be Ukraine’s future reality?

Sooner or later, Ukraine will face the necessity of attracting migrants. The potential of the Ukrainian diaspora: labor migrants, forced migrants, is insufficient in the long-term perspective to provide Ukraine with the necessary workforce. We will need to attract migrants from third countries.

Will this be beneficial for the economy?

Economically, it is certainly beneficial. However, it won’t be to the extent that the labor market cannot “absorb” them. I don’t think that will be the case. Another point is that there could be social problems, as migrants are people with different perspectives and value systems. We already have such migrant groups, but they are not very numerous, and after a large-scale war, some categories of migrants left. This will raise questions about migrant integration. If the integration is successful, the negative aspects of migration will be significantly mitigated.

See also: Ukraine after war: social dimension

Which countries might these migrants come from?

Given substantial investments, migrants could come from European countries, particularly the Western Balkans and Moldova. Perhaps even from Bulgaria and Romania, if there’s a true economic boom. If the economic gains are more modest, then poorer countries in Asia and Africa are possibilities, aside from oil-producing nations.

Are there no other options? Can’t Ukrainian post-war economy manage without migrants?

In the long-term perspective, no. In the first years after post-war recovery, if we manage to bring back a significant portion of our forced migrants, we might have enough workforce for that period. However, in the future, migrant integration will still be necessary in the economy. Ukrainian population is ageing, the proportion of pensioners is growing, and the share of people contributing to economic development is decreasing. This ratio will only worsen. Moreover, there will be an inevitable decline in population size, and then the question of controlling the country’s territory will arise. We’ll need at least a minimal portion of the population to ensure that people are spread across all regions and there are no demographic “gaps”. Therefore, we will still need to attract migrants. It’s better to think about this now because if we suddenly require a very large number of migrants in a short period, they might likely form enclaves and struggle to integrate into society.

What are the threats if migrants integrate poorly into Ukrainian society?

Conflicts and tensions within society. Poor integration means that migrants live within their own enclaves and outside the legal framework of the state. The problems arising within these enclaves are not solved by Ukraine’s law enforcement system, but rather by the leaders and heads of the respective communities.

For example, in the United States, if you consider the white population, apart from people of British origin, the largest group is those of German descent. However, they are not very visible within American society. On the other hand, Italians or Greeks are quite visible. Greeks are concentrated in their own enclave, even though there are fewer Greeks in the US compared to people of German or French origin. This is because Germans and French people arrived in America in the first half of the 19th century, and their numbers gradually increased.

On the other hand, in the second half of the 19th century, migration from Southeastern Europe sharply increased: Greece, Italy, the Balkans. This resulted in the sudden appearance of large migrant groups in the US. These ethnic groups formed areas of their life that don’t intersect much with the regions inhabited by the majority of the US population. We need to learn from this and strive to gradually increase the portion of migrants among us.

And what is needed for this?

In the first years of post-war recovery, a relevant policy needs to be established. This doesn’t mean inviting everyone to Ukraine immediately and granting permissions, but rather creating a system for attracting people and implementing certain quotas.

Is Ukrainian society ready to integrate migrants? Because as soon as forecasts arise that Ukraine can’t do without migrants, a wave of criticism follows, suggesting that migrants will “dilute” the Ukrainian nation, take away jobs, and so on.

Speaking of a high level of readiness, indeed, wouldn’t be accurate. But society isn’t homogeneous. We conducted surveys among students about their attitudes towards migrants, and they indicated that the more a person interacts with migrants, the better their perception becomes.

However, working with citizens is necessary and showing that migration isn’t a threat but rather a long-term benefit. Presenting positive examples is crucial. For instance, what have migrants contributed to Ukraine? The UEFA Cup, which Shakhtar won. So, it’s about convincing society that migration is necessary. The main argument is that a country can either be poor or have migrants. A country cannot be non-poor and without migrants. This is proven by global experience.

Regarding the return of Ukrainians after the war. What factors will contribute to it, and what, on the contrary, will hinder it?

It all depends on the situation in Ukraine. First and foremost, we’re talking about security. Then comes housing and employment, followed by the factor of connections to Ukraine: among those who have close relatives remaining here, a larger portion of individuals are inclined towards returning. However, not everyone will come back. There has never been a historical precedent where all migrants returned after such a prolonged period abroad.

An important factor is also the policies of the countries where Ukrainian citizens have migrated to. Some countries will attempt to retain a certain portion of migrants from Ukraine. In this case, we need to explain to these countries that a depopulated Ukraine, even without a war, will pose a threat to them as well because in a situation where Ukraine’s population is small, large groups of illegal migrants will appear, making it difficult to manage.

Overall, is Europe interested in having a portion of Ukrainian refugees stay?

Yes, they are interested. They, just like Ukraine, it is experiencing an aging population, and Ukrainians are much closer to Europeans from a mental standpoint than individuals from the Middle East, Africa, or Asia.

Currently, Russia is bringing its population, migrants from Russia, to the occupied territories. Will this be a significant future problem?

Yes, it will. Not everyone will leave voluntarily, so addressing this issue will require deportation, as entering and settling in the occupied territories is illegal. It’s better for us if they leave voluntarily, but in migration, it’s not always the case that everyone returns willingly. A portion will try to remain in these territories until the end.

The territories of Ukraine where active combat is currently taking place, like Donbas. Will they become deserted wastelands in the future? The same demographic “gap” you mentioned? Because it’s clear that after victory, people will return to Kyiv and Lviv, but about Donbas…

Indeed, it’s possible that not all cities will be able to be fully restored. Additionally, in cities located on the border with the aggressor country, the rate of return will be lower. However, leaving the region completely deserted is certainly not an option.

So, what could be the driver for people to return to Donbas and prevent it from turning into a wasteland?

For instance, offering better conditions for business development than in other regions, providing incentives. Where there is business, adjacent industries will also thrive.

Ukraine’s adversary has also seen an increase in migration processes after the start of the large-scale invasion. Russians are fleeing mobilization, criminal prosecution, and such. Does this harm their economy?

It weakens it, but doesn’t destroy it. Firstly, not a large number of people have left, and those who did were mainly individuals engaged in intellectual work. Manual laborers didn’t leave as much. Migration out of Russia will make its economy less modern; it will take on the characteristics of a mid-20th century economy. Unfortunately, though, this won’t destroy it. Agriculture and production won’t be significantly affected by this.

Military analysts and experts claim that after the failure of the blitzkrieg, Russia has shifted towards a war of attrition. In terms of human resources, is Ukraine prepared for such a scenario?

We have no choice. It’s evident that the war wasn’t initiated to gain territories or “protect Russian-speaking population.” It was meant to erase Ukrainian identity. Therefore, there’s no room for retreat. While Russian mobilization resources might be greater, in modern warfare, the size of the army isn’t the only decisive factor.

Originally posted by Artur Gor on Telegraf. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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

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