Spotlight on Ukraine 3

Geographic Differences in Ukrainian Refugees’ European Experiences

by Tetiana Skrypchenko 17/01/2024

Depending on the host country, Ukrainian refugees report on different living conditions, available supports, contact with locals, language skills and integration into the labour market. A study compares how Ukrainians in the four regions of Europe view their experiences and the differences to life in Ukraine.

Language course for refugee women from Ukraine in Dortmund in March 2022 © IMAGO / Funke Foto Services

Almost two years have passed since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, during which millions of Ukrainian refugees have found themselves elsewhere in Europe. Over this period, some Ukrainians have changed host countries or cities multiple times, mastered another language, and secured employment and housing, while others have returned home.

To better understand the disparities among Ukrainians’ experiences in different European regions, the research laboratory Rating Lab in 2023 conducted research that encompassed over 2,000 Ukrainians across 31 European countries. The study categorised these countries into four regions: Northern, Western, Eastern, and Southern Europe (figure 1).

Figure 1: European regions in the Rating Lab study

Living conditions and aid

Across all European regions, the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees reported comfortable living conditions: 90 per cent in Northern Europe, 85 per cent in Western Europe, 84 per cent in Eastern Europe, and 83 per cent in Southern Europe. The divergence was more pronounced when it came to income: lower-income refugees, regardless of their host country, perceived their conditions to be less comfortable than higher-income individuals.

In terms of the refugees’ assessments of the aid provided by the host states, there was a regional discrepancy. The vast majority of those surveyed in Western and Northern Europe (84 per cent) found the aid to be sufficient. By contrast, only 65 per cent of Ukrainians in Eastern Europe and notably fewer in Southern Europe, just 47 per cent, shared this positive view.

Positive perceptions in Northern Europe were also linked to an improvement in refugees’ financial situations after settling in the region, a factor that was mentioned by 53 per cent of respondents. In contrast, only 29 per cent of respondents in Southern Europe reported such an improvement.

Attitudes from and towards local populations

Northern Europe also stands out as having the warmest attitudes, both from Ukrainians towards the local population and vice versa. This warmth was reflected in the region’s average attitude index of 1.15 on a scale of -2 to 2. Conversely, Ukrainians perceived the least warmth in Eastern Europe, rating locals’ attitudes towards them at 0.4.

Interestingly, Ukrainians in Eastern Europe reported more instances of being denied employment, with 44 per cent of respondents in the region having heard of such cases, compared with no more than a third in other regions.

Certain attitudes were typical for specific categories of people. Thus older refugees, women, and those from the first migration wave after the invasion had the most positive perceptions of how they were treated, while younger individuals, men, and recent arrivals were more neutral about their reception.

Language proficiency as the key to employment

According to EU law, Ukrainian refugees who have been forced to leave their country have the right to work in the EU. And indeed, a significant proportion of those surveyed had found employment in their host countries. Higher rates of employment were reported in Eastern and Southern Europe, at 67 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively. Meanwhile, Western Europe had the largest percentage of refugees who were students. Notably, those not working in Western Europe were the least concerned about job hunting.

Language proficiency emerges from the survey as a crucial factor in securing employment. Among those fluent in the local language, over 70 per cent were employed. Overall, proficiency was highest in Southern and Eastern Europe and lowest in Northern Europe, where half did not know the language above the level of a few words or phrases. Interestingly, Western and Northern Europe had the most refugees attending language courses to improve their skills.

The language barrier remains the primary obstacle to employment across the regions. However, this obstacle was mentioned more often by respondents in Western Europe, while issues like low-paid work and locals’ reluctance to hire Ukrainians surfaced more frequently in Eastern Europe.

Comparative opportunities

When comparing Ukraine and the host countries, respondents believed the latter offer better opportunities, especially in terms of income, social security, citizens’ rights and freedoms, comfortable living, and job prospects.

However, respondents rated governmental online services in Ukraine much better than those elsewhere in Europe. Similarly, they found financial and banking services to be more beneficial in Ukraine and levels of bureaucracy to be much higher in the host countries, especially in Western Europe. Respondents also rated the ease of doing business slightly higher in Ukraine than in the host countries.

Interestingly, Ukrainians believed the availability and quality of medical services to be better in Ukraine than elsewhere in Europe. Within Europe, the East and North were rated somewhat worse than the West and South. Assessments in the field of education were mixed: respondents rated pre-school and school education somewhat better in Ukraine, but higher education better in the host countries. Moreover, Ukrainian students studying at European universities leaned more towards believing that higher education was better in Europe.

Respondents also rated the service sector, including cafés, the beauty industry, and retail chains, as better in Ukraine. Only in tourism-dependent Southern Europe did Ukrainians rate these services slightly higher than in other countries. Online public services were seen as better in Northern Europe than in other regions but still not as good as in Ukraine. Conversely, Western Europe was deemed to have the worst online services of all regions.

Respondents perceived the protection of citizens’ rights and freedoms and social security to be better in all European regions than in Ukraine, and best of all in Western and Northern Europe.

In conclusion, the experiences of Ukrainian refugees across European regions showcase both common challenges and variations. While overall living conditions were reported as comfortable, income disparities and varying perceptions of aid provision highlight regional differences. Attitudes towards refugees, employment opportunities linked to language proficiency, and contrasting evaluations of services also vary across the host countries.

Tetiana Skrypchenko is a fellow at the Ukraine Research Network@ZOiS, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.