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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: The migration outlook

28 March 2022 Lindsay Newman, Ph.D.

Over the course of the first month of Russia's invasion of Ukraine over 3.6 million refugees left Ukraine, according to the United Nations, with another 7 million people internally displaced in Ukraine.

Impact: European countries, especially Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, the current outflows of people from Ukraine represent "the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II". The UNHCR expects up to four million people to move from Ukraine to neighboring countries as the fighting continues; according to European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič, this number is likely to reach up to around seven million.

The biggest immediate impact of this movement will remain on Ukraine's neighboring countries, with the majority of Ukrainians arriving in Poland, as well as Hungary, Moldova, Romania, and Slovakia. Unlike in the case of Middle Eastern migrants stranded on the Belarusian border with Poland in late 2021 or the arrival of irregular migrants to Europe in and soon after 2015, European Union (EU) governments have offered immediate protection and accommodation to Ukrainian refugees from the conflict with Russia.

On 27 February, the European Commission announced all EU countries would accept Ukrainian refugees for three years without having to apply for asylum. Ukrainians have been crossing via regular border checkpoints as a result of visa-free access to the Schengen Area since 2017.

Poland, which so far has received the majority of Ukrainian refugee arrivals, was expecting up to one million refugees prior to the conflict; this number was reached on 6 March, 11 days into the conflict, with more people arriving daily. The impact on the country's state resources and capacity is likely to be mitigated by the disbursement of EUR500 million (USD551 million) in EU funding for humanitarian aid. Nonetheless, the large inflow of people causing long waiting times at the Polish-Ukrainian border (up to 72 hours) will continue increasing the number of crossings into Slovakia and Hungary.

Slovakia, in particular, is likely to struggle to house a large influx of people, with the authorities prepared initially only for around 30,000 arrivals. The number of arrivals has already largely surpassed the expected capacity, with logistical organization, transport, and accommodation provided primarily by Slovakian volunteers. As a result, the lack of state co-ordination and preparedness increases the risk of opportunistic and organized crime, including human trafficking. Slovakia has for long served as a transit destination for trafficked women and children, particularly at its borders with Ukraine. Unconfirmed anecdotal evidence cited in Slovakian media reports suggests some individuals offering transport "only to young girls".

Of non-Slavic-speaking countries, Romania and Moldova are likely to respond to tens of thousands of arrivals mainly through building capacity quickly to host them for a prolonged period. However, they are likely to struggle in this despite ongoing initiatives by civil society groups and non-profit organizations, as well as the distribution of EU funds to offset costs on the government.

Flows of refugees traversing national borders, by car, bus, and on foot, and priority given to passenger traffic at most border crossings will continue to cause delays to ground cargo movement, primarily westward from Ukraine. According to national media reports and anecdotal evidence, the delays are up to 72 hours on the Polish-Ukrainian border and 35 hours on the Slovakian-Ukrainian border. Movement of migrants from Moldova into Romania and from Romania into Bulgaria is also likely to cause traffic delays of between several hours and a few days. Even after the refugee arrivals eased, ground cargo would highly likely remain subject to delays, not least due to the high level of inspections and heavy presence of military and security guards at the Ukrainian borders.

Indicators of change

  • The closure of selected border crossings and/or all crossings by some of Ukraine's neighboring countries over their governments' concerns about proximity of military action and/or lack of state capacity to process migrants (e.g., lack of available staff) would likely increase pressure significantly on the remaining countries to absorb numbers of refugees above planned capacity.
  • Reports of increasing delays at border crossings of selected neighboring countries would also divert migrant flows to remaining countries, having an impact on the latter's border crossings.
  • EU assistance, including organized resettlement routes to countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Spain and Sweden, would alleviate pressure on Ukraine's neighbors and help them to manage the influx of refugees.
  • Assistance from other European countries (e.g., provision of police or military personnel) would also assist Ukraine's immediate neighbors to manage the refugee flows.

We continue to cover the impact of irregular migration and how it impacts the stability of societies and economies. Want an overview of why this is a critical issue to watch? Listen to our podcast.

Posted 28 March 2022 by Lindsay Newman, Ph.D., Director, Economics & Country Risk, IHS Markit


This article was published by S&P Global Market Intelligence and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.

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