Young Ukrainians seek refuge abroad

Even if the ceasefire in Ukraine stands, the conflict has already uprooted a generation and changed their life and their country forever.

By Maria Danmark and Rikke Mathiassen

Lublin, Poland – Oleksii Rokytskyi – or just ‘Alex’ – as he prefers to be called, rapidly scrawls a line of cyrillic letters into a his notebook with blue ink. Then he looks up from the sheet to think for a second. His native language is Russian, but after the crisis broke out, he started to write his poems in Ukrainian.

Speaking Ukrainian is no longer only a matter of which geographical area you belong to, he claims, “it is a civil position now”.

“Before the conflict my poems were mostly about women, about love”, he says: “But now they have more serious lyrics concerning what is happening in our country, my attitude to it. Some of them are patriotic”.

It was the summer of 2014, and Alex was in the middle of finishing his final exams for his bachelor’s degree in English Philology, when all his plans for the future suddenly had to change.

“I’d planned to go and study in Donetsk, but because of war, I couldn’t,” he explains.

The 22-year-old Alex was born and raised in Donetsk in the eastern part of Ukraine, and as the conflict between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian rebels escalated with increasing violence throughout the Donbass region, Alex’s mother advised him to seek abroad instead. He didn’t think twice about the idea.

“I learned Polish during the summer – of some kind – very, very, very fast”, he says: “It was a course over Skype, we studied in little group of three or four people and tried to get as good as possible”.

That summer, Alex and his parents moved from Donetsk to Kiev and in August, Alex continued the journey west on his own. In great haste he was admitted to a Master’s degree at the Polish Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, and now he sits in his rented flat in Lublin, west of the Polish-Ukrainian border.

“It was just like a flash, like a blink. I had never imagine that I would go to Poland to study. I just jumped into the last train, so everything went very fast.”

More Ukrainians migrating to Poland

Alex is not the only young Ukrainian who has had serious thoughts about emigrating following the outbreak of the crisis. A survey published last month by the NGO ‘Movement for Justice’ found that, despite an increase in patriotism, an overwhelming majority – in total 81 percent – of young Ukrainians between the ages of 18 and 28 say that they would rather leave Ukraine to live in another country. Out of those, 47 percent reply that “security for life” is the reason, why they want to emigrate.

The trend doesn’t surprise Franck Düvell, Senior Researcher at the COMPAS, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford.

“The crisis and the income devaluation is so severe and the inflation is so high in the country, that sooner or later, millions of people [Ukrainians] will struggle to make end’s meet.”

This year, the number of Ukrainians trying to move to neighbouring Poland has more than doubled, according to the Polish State Office for Foreigners. From January 1 to March 23, Ukrainian citizens filed 9,579 applications for temporary residence in Poland. This was more than twice the 4,753 registered in the first four months of 2014.

Asylum: Not the only escape

Today, Alex is wearing black from top to toe, only interrupted by a shiny tie in a deep red colour. He explains that his hometown, Donetsk is known as “the city of the million roses”, even though he can’t remember why exactly it got this name. However, he still has a vivid image of what it used to be like before the war.

“It was really a pretty city, full of interesting people, full of DJ’s and parties. When spring arrived, everything were glowing, just glowing,” he says: “But there is nothing to do there now, it has become a dead city.”

The majority of Ukrainians, who are fleeing from the conflict, end up staying with relatives or friends, in other and safer areas of the country, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). However, an increasing number of Ukrainians apply for asylum abroad. By the end of October last year, UNHCR had registered 8,936 Ukrainians asking for international protection in the EU. This was a tenfold increase from the 885 asylum applications for the whole of 2013.

The EU country, which received the largest number of Ukrainian asylum seekers last year was Poland with in total 2,318 submitted applications, according to the Polish state office for foreigners.

However, obtaining refugee status in for example Poland is not easy, according to Irina Lapshyna who an expert on migration from Ukraine. She is a holder of a British academy grant, where she currently researches on the potential role of Ukrainians who live outside of their country in the post-conflict reconstruction of Ukraine.

“They [Ukrainians] apply, but there are lots of refusals. The justification for refusal is that first they should seek out options safety in their own country, as there are still safe parts of Ukraine,” she says.

According to UNHCR spokesman William Spindler the number of Ukrainians fleeing abroad could be considerably higher than the number of asylum seekers, as many Ukrainians prefer to apply for other forms of legal status such as temporary or permanent residence permits in other countries, he stated at a press conference in December.

Therefore, only taking the number of Ukrainian asylum seekers into account is not sufficient when trying to grasp how many people have, in fact, fled Ukraine following the outbreak of the crisis. This would, for example, exclude people like Alex, who has left because of the war, but who is living abroad on a student visa.

Sofiia Korzhova misses her family, who still live in Luhansk. “They have never thought about leaving, because all of my family live there and my parents have friends and jobs there”, she says.

Sofiia Korzhova misses her family, who still live in Luhansk. “They have never thought about leaving, because all of my family live there and my parents have friends and jobs there”, she says. Photo: Maria Danmark & Rikke Mathiassen


A society in economic ruins

In a quiet student dorm on the other side of Lublin lives 18-year old Sofiia Korzhova. Like Alex, she has also recently obtained a student visa in Poland, where she studies a bachelor in Business Management. At the moment she is home alone, as her three flatmates are all back in Ukraine to visit their families for the public holiday. Sofiia, on the other hand, can’t go back at the moment, as the area around her hometown Krasnodon in Luhansk on the border to Russia has been blocked in the last recent months for passage.

“When I went home for New Year, I saw tanks near the city,” she says, explaining that there is also a lack of food in the area: “The passages are closed, which means that here are only Russian goods in the supermarkets. A lot of people have left the area, because they have lost their job.”

With the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, the country’s currency, the Hryvnia, has been drastically devalued, while inflation has been skyrocketing. According to Lapshyna, the minimum wage is now on level with the minimum wage of Nigeria. Alex, whose dream it is to become a teacher, puts it like this:

“Look, now one dollar costs about 30 hryvnia, while the common salary of a teacher is about 1500 hryvnia. So it is really small,” he says.

Düvell couldn’t agree more. In fact, he almost finds it puzzling how Ukrainians are able to cope living in a country with such severe inflation and devaluation of their income.

“I wonder how people survive on a pension of €40-50 a month, or maybe salaries of €120 a month, when prices are not very dissimilar to western prices,” he says: “Everything is getting more expensive and people have less money.”

Fear of being drafted to the military

While the Ukrainian youth doesn’t need to worry about the size of their pension just yet, there are other things, that according to Düvell, particularly concern the youngsters.

One example is the fact that Ukrainian authorities, due to the crisis, have “significantly” cut the higher education budget, resulting in fewer lecturers and fewer classes at Ukrainian universities. Institutions that often already are suffering from for corruption or poor facilities.

Another reason for seeking refuge abroad is, according to Düvel, a fear among some young people that they may be drafted by the Ukrainian army in order to serve in the conflict in the eastern part of the country.

“That affects both men and women. Women would not be recruited for fighting, but for auxiliary services in medical work which also may well involve working at or near the front line,” he says.

Alex, however, stresses that not wanting to join the army was not part of his personal motivation for leaving Ukraine. If he was called to the army, he would not hesitate to go. “Everyone has fear, but if you have have something to fight for, you should fight for it,” he says.

Ukraine’s lost generation

With young people queuing up to exit Ukraine, the country will be left behind with even bigger issues than those that initially made the youth leave, according to Lapshyna, expert on migration from Ukraine. She is worried that it will result in further stagnation of the development in the country, if the trend continues, and the youth keeps leaving.

“Actually, it already has dramatic consequences. The population of Ukraine has decreased significantly. Where the population was 52 million 15 years ago, now it is only 46 million,” she argues, while underlining the fact that people leaving Ukraine is not a new phenomenon caused by the bloody clashes in Kiev during the Euromaidan or Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

She explains that factors such as seeking to improve one’s standard of living, increasing one’s job prospects or leaving behind corruption have for years have been some of the main drivers of migration from Ukraine.

Düvell argues that the young, often resourceful, Ukrainians who are leaving the country at the moment are not only numbers in Ukraine’s decade-long depopulation trend. He characterises them as “a lost generation of well-educated and committed people who will no longer be available for work in Ukraine,” he says and adds “the population is to decrease even further. It is of course a drain on the country and also undermines the country’s capability to help itself, reform and rebuild”.

Meanwhile, Alex sits at the kitchen table in his Lublin-flat working on his latest poem. He doesn’t know when he, or if he ever will go back to Ukraine to stay for good.

“I had a conversation with a friend. I told him that if anyone had told me just one or two ago, that I would ever write patriotic poems in Ukrainian language, I would have told him that he was a bit crazy, that it was impossible. But time is changing, everything is changing,” he says.