E.g., 09/23/2023
E.g., 09/23/2023
Caught Between East and West, Ukraine Struggles with Its Migration Policy

Caught Between East and West, Ukraine Struggles with Its Migration Policy

Ukraine, one of 15 republics of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR), appeared on the political map as an independent state in 1991 after the USSR collapsed. Opened borders and market reforms transformed the economy and allowed new migration patterns to develop. Some of these changes appeared as a result of significant geopolitical changes, others arose from the traditional migration turnover among Soviet Republics.

Since becoming independent, Ukraine has developed migration policies, created state migration services, and integrated recognized international norms (e.g. freedom of movement and refugee protection) into its national legislation.

The basic principles of Ukraine's national migration policy are secured by its constitution, which was drafted in 1996.

The constitution guarantees:

  • freedom of movement for Ukrainian citizens and legally residing foreigners;
  • the protection of Ukrainian citizens abroad;
  • the ability for foreigners to immigrate to Ukraine (criteria subject to legislation);
  • equal rights for foreigners legally resident in the country;
  • the ability for foreigners to request and be granted asylum,
  • and foreigners the ability to naturalize (criteria subject to legislation).

At the same time, lack of governmental experience as well as persistent Soviet stereotypes, which view migration solely as a way to provide a labor force, have caused failures and missteps in Ukraine's migration regime.

The immigration of numerous ethnic Ukrainians, representatives of ethnic minorities, and their descendants — along with economic emigration to Russia, Western Europe, and elsewhere — also poses challenges for the government. Another problem is the trafficking of Ukrainian women into sexual slavery.

Ukraine, which borders three new European Union (EU) Member States, is also struggling to control the flow of migrants from Asia and Africa who transit through the country on their way to the EU. Recognizing Ukraine's geopolitical importance, the EU provides Ukraine with significant technical and financial support for Ukraine's border enforcement controls. It also helps train immigration professionals and promotes international cooperation.

Historical Background

As a result of poverty and lack of land, over 10 percent of the population of Western Ukraine, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, immigrated to the United States, Canada, and Latin American countries between the end of the 19th and the beginning of 20th century. In the interwar period, when the western Ukrainian territories belonged to Poland and Romania, emigration continued apace.

Economic emigration was complemented by two waves of political emigration to the West. The first was caused by the defeat of the 1917-1920 national revolution while the second was the result of the Soviet administration's oppression of the resistance movement by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II and afterwards.

These migrations caused a large Ukrainian diaspora to form in the Western hemisphere. Today, approximately two million Ukrainians and those of Ukrainian descent live in the U.S., one million in Canada, and 300,000 in Brazil.

Emigration from eastern Ukraine, which belonged to the Russian empire, was also strong. At the beginning of the 20th century, the czarist government transferred at least 1.6 million Ukrainian peasants to Kazakhstan and the Russian Far East, providing them with land plots in order to settle remote territories.

During Stalin's reign, force was increasingly used to resettle Ukrainians. At the time of collectivization, 200,000 farming households (approximately one million people) were "dekulakized" (a process whereby purportedly wealthy peasants or kulaks were oppressed by Stalin for having capitalist tendencies) and forcibly deported.

At least one million people were deported by the Soviet administration from western Ukraine between 1939 and 1941 after its annexation to the USSR in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In this agreement, Hitler and Stalin divided up Poland, whose borders then included much of western Ukraine, including the important city of Lviv. Another 200,000 people from the region were accused of political unreliability and deported in the post-war period.

Representatives of national minorities in the Ukraine were oppressed along with ethnic Ukrainians. In the 1930s and 1940s, 450,000 ethnic Germans and over 200,000 Crimean Tatars, as well as Poles, Bulgarians, Armenians, and Greeks were deported.

In addition to deportations, the regime actively used supposedly "voluntary" migration tactics, including the mobilization of youth for new building projects, centralized reallocation of new university graduates, and army service. In the Soviet era, the number of ethnic Ukrainians who lived within the USSR but outside of Ukraine grew consistently. According to the last Soviet census in 1989, there were 6.8 million such Ukrainians; the largest numbers were in Russia (4.4 million) and Kazakhstan (890,000).

The population outflow from Ukraine, however, was accompanied by an even larger inflow from other parts of the USSR. During the Soviet era, Ukraine always had more immigration than emigration. However, as young people moved to Siberia and the far north of the USSR to work, mostly pensioners returned.

Migration also affected the ethnic composition of the population. Ethnic Ukrainians made up the largest proportion of those leaving, while the incoming population was to a large extent represented by other ethnicities, in most cases ethnic Russians. The Soviet Census of 1989 showed that 44 percent of Russians living in the Ukrainian republic were born outside Ukraine.

The key objectives of Soviet migration policy were mixing the multinational population of the USSR to create a new supranational "Soviet people," and satisfying the empire's labor market needs.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, emigration to countries outside the Soviet Union was strictly limited. Permission to exit the USSR was issued only for the purpose of family reunification and was primarily available for Jews immigrating to Israel or for Germans moving to Germany.

The Soviet regime relaxed its emigration policies only during perestroika in the 1980s. In 1987, 5,400 Ukrainians residents received permission to emigrate, and, in 1989, 36,500 were allowed to leave. By 1990, this number had already reached over 90,000 including minors. Most of these migrants planned to move to Israel. In reality, only 76,500 actually left due to the 1990 Gulf War and international tensions in the Middle East.

Immigration During the Era of Ukrainian Independence

The collapse of the USSR and the first years of Ukrainian independence are associated with large-scale immigration into Ukraine.

According to the State Committee of Ukraine for Statistics, which registers incoming/outgoing permanent residents, over one million individuals immigrated to Ukraine between the beginning of 1991 and the end of 1992. Of those, 984,000 moved from the former Soviet Union (FSU), and 81,000 came from Central European countries (these were mostly military personnel of the Soviet army divisions and their family members).

In 1992, when immigration was the strongest, 538,200 people entered Ukraine. However, in the ensuing years, immigration to the country declined. In 2004, only 38,600 people entered — 32,600 from post-Soviet states and 6,000 from other countries.

In the mid 1990s, Ukraine plunged into a severe economic crisis caused by the fall of the Soviet Union and market reforms. This made the country unattractive for immigration. Within the post-Soviet sphere, population movement was limited by the establishment of border controls, and the introduction of national currencies and national ID cards.

However, by the late 1990s people had begun to recover from the economic shock of the USSR's collapse. Between 1991 and 2004, 2,229,870 individuals immigrated to Ukraine (over two million from post-Soviet countries and 164,000 from other states).

Immigration is now regulated by the "Law On Immigration" (2001), which foresees quotas and a preference system. Quotas are defined by the national government on an annual basis. Preferences are given to those with historical roots in Ukraine and highly qualified professionals.


The majority of immigrants who arrived in the years immediately after independence were repatriated ethnic Ukrainians from Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Kazakhstan, as well as people of other ethnicities who had historically lived in Ukraine. Migration policy during the Soviet era had created substantial ethnic Ukrainian populations outside the Ukraine. Additionally, ethnic Ukrainians who had been forcibly deported to other parts of the Soviet Union as well as representatives of ethnic minorities deported by the Soviet regime (Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans, and Greeks) started returning.

The results of the repatriation were reflected in the first Ukrainian census, conducted in 2001. The share of the population which identified as ethnically Ukrainian increased from 72.7 percent in 1989 to 77.8 percent, while the number of Crimean Tatars increased fivefold. At the time of the 2001 census, 248,200 Crimean Tatars lived in Ukraine, and in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea they made up 12 percent of the population.

The "Law On Citizenship" (1991) actively promoted repatriation of individuals with historic roots in Ukraine. It guaranteed citizenship to the emigrants from Ukraine and their descendants (not just ethnic Ukrainians).

The new version of the law passed in 2001 further simplified citizenship procedures for this category of immigrants. In previous years, a person who "repatriated" could only be naturalized within a limited time period. The 2001 law eliminated the time restriction. It also expanded the list of categories for defining legitimate family ties beyond the traditional parents-grandparents option.

Additionally, the government has implemented a number of local programs in the Crimea to assist repatriates, including Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Armenians, Greeks, and Germans. Since independence, over 800 million Ukrainian hryvna (UAH), approximately $160 million, have been allocated from the national budget for repatriation purposes.


In the early 1990s, armed conflicts and ethnic tension in some post-Soviet states became another important source of immigration to Ukraine. A randomly conducted survey by the State Committee for Statistics revealed that 12 percent of immigrants from the FSU residing in the Ukraine were prompted to move as result of ethnic tension in their native countries.

The 2001 census shows that compared to 1989, there was an increase in the number of people from countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that are involved in war. In particular, the number of Azeris increased by 22.2 percent (from 37,000 in 1989 to 45,000 in 2001) and Georgians by 45.3 percent (from 23,500 in 1989 to 34,200 in 2001), while the number of Armenians nearly doubled (from 54,200 in 1989 to 99,900 in 2001).

The Ukrainian government reacted to humanitarian crises in the CIS with a number of special decisions guaranteeing refugees acceptance, registration, documentation, and assistance. In 1992, Ukraine accepted 62,000 refugees from Transdnistria — the predominantly Russian-speaking part of Moldova where ethnic Ukrainians compose a large part of the population — which has broken away from Chisinau. In the mid 1990s, assistance was provided for about 3,000 war victims from Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, Chechnya (2,000), and Tajikistan (around 5,000).

In December 1993, the Ukrainian parliament passed the "Law On Refugees," which reflected the spirit and principles of the 1951 Geneva Convention. In order to implement this regulation, a national migration service was created in 1994, and a procedure for considering asylum seekers' applications was initiated.

In 2001, a revised version of the Law on Refugees was adopted, which met all international standards. In 2002, this allowed Ukraine to join the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

Currently, an average of over 1,200 to 1,400 foreigners apply for refugee status in Ukraine annually (only 80 applicants were recognized as refugees in 2004); about 3,000 officially registered refugees live in the country. They come from 40 countries, but most are from Afghanistan.

Working with the government, regional authorities, and NGOs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ukraine advises, assists, and monitors the country's implementation of refugee protections as well as supports the development of a comprehensive asylum system. UNHCR's priorities in recent years include constructing new accommodation centers for asylum seekers and helping refugees find jobs and housing.

Various international and human rights organizations have criticized Ukraine's asylum system for its legal weaknesses, corruption, high risk of forced return (particularly of Chechens), and use of detention. Ukraine also does not provide protection for failed asylum seekers or others who need humanitarian protection, a change that UNHCR has strongly advocated.

Emigration in the Era of Independence

Between 1991 and 2004, the government counted 2,537,400 individuals who emigrated; 1,897,500 moved to other post-Soviet states, and 639,900 moved to other, mainly Western, states.

The Ukrainian government abolished all exit restrictions in January 1993, and, in February 1994, the "Law on the Order of Exit from Ukraine and Entrance to Ukraine for the Citizens of Ukraine" was adopted. It guaranteed Ukrainian citizens the right to freely depart and return to its territory. Additional guarantees of free movement are provided by the 2003 "Law on Freedom of Movement and Free Choice of Residence in Ukraine."

As a result of the liberalization of the emigration regime, the democratization of public life, and the demise of political, religious, and ethnic causes of emigration, the number of people emigrating from Ukraine has decreased by almost five times since the early 1990s. In 1991, 310,200 individuals left the country (236,600 moved to other post-Soviet states and 73,600 to other countries). However, in 2004, only 46,200 emigrated — 28,900 to CIS states and 17,300 to other states.

The decline in emigration can also be attributed to Ukrainian citizens no longer being able to obtain political asylum in the West. Although refugee acceptance programs for Jews from post-Soviet countries still exist in the U.S. and Germany, only a few entry permits are given.

The 2001 census showed that emigration of ethnic Russians to mainly Russia led to the decrease of their share in Ukraine's total population from 22.1 percent to 17.3 percent, while their absolute number decreased by 26.6 percent. Because of the better economic situation in Russia, not only Russians but also ethnic Ukrainians and other ethnic groups have left for the Russian Federation.

Although general emigration is shrinking, the share of those leaving for the West has increased. In the early 1990s, 20 percent of emigrants headed to the West, a number that rose to 33 percent in 2004.

At the same time, this emigration flow has lost its ethnic characteristics. Over 60 percent of emigrants were Jewish following Ukrainian independence, but in 2004 they composed only 16.5 percent of emigrants. Instead, 47.7 percent of emigrants moving to the states outside the FSU were ethnic Ukrainians (compared to 14.8 percent in 1991). While in 1995 38.9 percent emigrants moving to the non-FSU states immigrated to Israel, in 2004 only 14.0 percent did so; about 40 percent left for Germany.

Labor Migration

The newfound openness of borders has created opportunities for Ukrainians to improve their quality of life through labor migration. The adoption of the "Law on Exit and Entry (1994), along with the "Law on Employment of the Population" safeguarded the right of Ukrainian citizens to move and work abroad.

In the 1990s, the petty trade of so-called "shuttle" traders became the most widespread form of labor migration. These people purchase small quantities of consumer goods abroad (predominantly in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and even China) and then sell them back in Ukraine. In the years of economic crisis in the mid 1990s, such trade helped many unemployed Ukrainian citizens survive. Shuttling became a source of capital that many shuttle traders later invested in small businesses. Experience gained during such trips abroad as well as new cross-border business contacts helped many Ukrainians enter the international labor market.

In the context of low salaries and unemployment within Ukraine, labor migration became a mass phenomenon at the end of the 1990s. Although estimates vary, approximately two to three million Ukrainian citizens are currently working abroad, most of them illegally, in construction, service, housekeeping, and agriculture industries.

Ukrainian embassies report that 300,000 Ukrainian citizens are working in Poland, 200,000 in Italy, approximately 200,000 in the Czech Republic, 150,000 in Portugal, 100,000 in Spain, 35,000 in Turkey, and 20,000 in the U.S. The largest number of Ukrainian workers abroad, about one million, are in the Russian Federation.

Studies seem to indicate that most Ukrainian workers intend to return home. For instance, according to a survey conducted in Portugal by sociologist Maria Baganha of the University of Coimbra, only 16 percent of Ukrainian workers said they would like to stay in the country. However, this number could increase due to migration amnesties. In 1999, Portugal hosted only 127 migrants with legal status from Ukraine, but there were 65,200 Ukrainians with legal status after Portugal's regularization program in 2002.

Remittances from Ukrainians abroad amount to between $4 and $6 billion per year. This money is predominantly used for family consumption as well as for children's education and housing. To a much lesser extent, money is invested into small family businesses, mainly because Ukraine has few economic incentives for such enterprises.

Since so many Ukrainian emigrants have no legal status in the countries where they live and work, the Ukrainian government has been trying to make it easier for them to migrate legally. In the 1990s, the government had already signed temporary employment agreements with the Russian Federation, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic (no longer valid), Slovakia, and Vietnam.

In 2003, the Ukrainian Parliament ratified the "Treaty on Temporary Labor Migration" with Portugal, which allows Ukrainians to get placed in jobs offered by Portuguese employers. Ukraine has also initiated negotiations on similar agreements with Italy, Spain, and Greece.

In addition, Ukraine has repeatedly asked the EU to introduce a simplified visa regime for Ukrainian citizens. To show its openness, since May 2005 Ukraine has unilaterally cancelled short-term entry visas for EU and U.S. citizens. The government has also cancelled them for citizens of Canada, Japan, Switzerland, and the European Economic Area (EEA) countries, which include Norway and Iceland.

Thus far, most of the new EU Member States — including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — have responded to Ukraine's measures by issuing visas for Ukrainians free of charge.

Transit, Illegal Migration, and Human Trafficking

Ukraine's geopolitical position, the absence of well-regulated borders with the newly independent states of the FSU, and increased border and immigration security within the European Union (EU) have turned Ukraine into a transit country for illegal migrants from Asia and Africa seeking entrance to Western Europe. Between 1991 and 2003, about 100,000 illegal migrants were detained at Ukraine's western border. The number of individuals apprehended skyrocketed from 148 in 1991 to 14,600 in 1999.

In order to prevent illegal migration, the government has launched a number of state programs that aim to improve border control and the visa process, as well as internal control. As a result, the number of detainees has started to decrease, and today the number averages about 5,000 a year. The majority who are apprehended are citizens of China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. According to a Ukrainian news agency report in December 2005, 2,500 illegal migrants were detained in the first 11 months of 2005 — 2,000 of them on the western border.

Since Ukraine has less control of its eastern border with Russia, the country faces a growing number of illegal migrants. Every year, 25,000 to 28,000 illegal foreigners are identified through spot ID checks and other forms of internal control. Their real number, however, is much higher.

The worst form of illegal migration — human trafficking, in particular of young women — has become an increasing phenomenon in Ukraine. Feminization of unemployment and poverty in the early 1990s caused women migrate. But their increasing numbers created a market for human traffickers, who usually sell them into sexual slavery in Western Europe, the Balkans, and the Near East.

In her 2003 Special Report, Ukraine's independent human rights ombudsman (a constitutionally mandated position that provides unrestricted access to all public officials) stated that over 100,000 Ukrainian women became victims of human trafficking in the 1990s. Only 15 percent of them were aware of what fate awaited them abroad. The remaining 85 percent believed they would be employed as waitresses, dancers, or maids in hotels.

As a response, in 1998, the government amended the country's criminal code to improve prevention of human trafficking. Further legislative reforms reinforced the criminal liability for this offense, making it possible for traffickers to serve prison sentences of up to eight years. In 2000, Ukraine joined the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime as well as the supplementing protocols on smuggling and trafficking.

The number of trafficking offenses and opened criminal cases continues to grow: from 169 in 2002 to 269 in 2004. However, as the U.S. State Department's 2005 report on trafficking points out, very few people convicted of trafficking spend any time in prison.

Unresolved Problems

Since its independence, Ukrainian migration policies and related legislation have been based on recognized international norms and standards and the respect for human rights. However, there were certain failures and flaws in this process.

Despite numerous declarations, practical support for repatriation (except for the deported earlier Crimean Tatars, who came back to the Crimea) has not been provided. Assistance to refugees has been limited to the provision of basic necessities, while no proper attention has been paid to their social integration.

Measures for protecting Ukrainian citizens working abroad are practically absent. Ukrainians abroad cannot access the Ukrainian pension system or the welfare safety net, and the Ukrainian government currently has no means for taxing the wages of its citizens abroad, although migrants' families in Ukraine still enjoy free medical, education, and social service benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, the country has not made it easier for Ukrainians to remit money. At the same time, Ukraine has not been able to create enough incentives for its migrants to return home and invest their savings.

In a special report, the ombudsman targeted the weak rights of Ukrainian workers abroad, and the topic was also covered at special parliamentary hearings. As a result, the government has recently strengthened control over the recruiting agencies that place Ukrainians in jobs abroad.

A lack of coordination among government departments responsible for migration issues has also been a problem. Discussion of possible improvements to Ukraine's migration policies and its institutions continue. However, the government still does not know how to solve existing problems and there is no consensus about what kind of migration policy and administration Ukraine needs.

Finally, Ukrainian migration policy still focuses predominantly on control over immigration and foreigners residing in Ukraine. The country will have to overcome its fear of foreigners because it will likely need immigrants in the future. The country's population declined by almost four million persons between 1991 and 2004. Its citizens are aging, and birth rates are down.

The state also needs to pay primary attention to the protection and return of its labor migrants as well as the social integration of immigrants and refugees. It may also want to consider promotion of repatriation of ethnic Ukrainians from other former Soviet Union states to help fill the population gap.


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