The other side of the fence:

The good, the bad and the ugly about emi­gra­tion from Ukraine — and some sur­pris­ing num­bers

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Lyubomyr Shava­lyuk

The good, the bad and the ugly about emi­gra­tion from Ukraine

What makes a per­son leave their home and travel hun­dreds and even thou­sands of kilo­me­ters to a new place? As many an­swers as there are peo­ple. Some are look­ing for better op­por­tu­ni­ties for per­sonal devel­op­ment, others sim­ply want to see the world. Some don’t iden­tify with the place they were born in. Some sim­ply aren’t tied down: no fam­ily of their own, and the rest of their rel­a­tives are strangers to them. All of these peo­ple have one thing in com­mon: they’re look­ing for a better future.

After all, no one leaves be­hind a place where they are happy and no mat­ter how peo­ple think about it, in the ma­jor­ity of cases it all comes down to a higher stan­dard of liv­ing—a good job for de­cent money. To leave on a long jour­ney into the un­known and pos­si­bly never come back, a per­son has to be strongly mo­ti­vated. A higher stan­dard of liv­ing is the main fac­tor in mi­gra­tion. In fact, there are few other in­ter­nal or ex­ter­nal fac­tors.


How many Ukraini­ans are leaving home is one of the hot top­ics of the day, both among or­di­nary Ukraini­ans and among politi­cians. But there are plenty of myths be­ing prop­a­gated as well, as there are few pub­lic es­ti­mates of just how many peo­ple have left and how many of them have not come back. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data from DerzhS­tat, the sta­tis­tics agency, 6,500 Ukraini­ans em­i­grated in 2016, well down from pre­vi­ous years, when the num­bers ranged from 14,000 to 23,000. If this num­ber re­flected reality, how­ever, the is­sue would not be worth a fig and no one would be com­plain­ing about half-empty vil­lages where only old folks and chil­dren live. Given that 14,000 peo­ple im­mi­grated to Ukraine last year and mi­gra­tion num­bers have been net pos­i­tive since 2005, politi­cians could just clap their hands and talk about how great it is to live in Ukraine and how the coun­try is see­ing per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion growth from mi­gra­tion.

Of course, this isn’t what’s hap­pen­ing. Of­fi­cial num­bers do not re­flect the reality be­cause they only in­clude those em­i­grants who ac­tu­ally filed stacks of doc­u­ments prior to leaving, with­out which the fact that some­one has ac­tu­ally em­i­grated is not es­tab­lished and so DerzhS­tat can­not re­port it. In the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, peo­ple sim­ply go, avoid­ing this bu­reau­cratic night­mare. Even with­out that, things are not easy for those who travel many leagues to a new land.

For one thing, many Ukraini­ans think that they will re­turn and many of them do, after a cer­tain time, if only to see their fam­ily again. These are all var­i­ous streams of mi­gra­tion and of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics can’t cap­ture them.

And so we can only es­ti­mate the real scale of emi­gra­tion from Ukraine. For this pur­pose, The Ukrainian Week has used data from the State Bor­der Ser­vice (SBS) re­gard­ing ex­its and en­tries by Ukrainian cit­i­zens (see One in a Hun­dred). If the ma­jor­ity of Ukraini­ans that leave the coun­try in a year is more than the num­ber that en­ter it, the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two is the de facto num­ber of em­i­grants dur­ing that pe­riod. Even if some­one who left re­turns in the next pe­riod, ei­ther net emi­gra­tion will go down or some­one else will leave the coun­try at the same time and the num­bers won’t change.


The num­bers tell an in­ter­est­ing story. First of all, the num­ber of Ukraini­ans that leave—mean­ing the ac­tual cross­ings of the bor­der, given that some peo­ple cross back and forth mul­ti­ple times a year—for all coun­tries ex­cept the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion—mean­ing mainly to the EU, es­pe­cially Poland—has grown 62% since 2013. For 2017, the num­ber reached nearly 30 mil­lion.

The num­ber of Ukraini­ans that leave—mean­ing the ac­tual cross­ings of the bor­der, given that some peo­ple cross back and forth mul­ti­ple times a year— for all coun­tries ex­cept the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion—mean­ing mainly to the EU, es­pe­cially Poland—has grown 62% since 2013. For 2017, the num­ber reached nearly 30 mil­lion

As the graph shows, this num­ber has been grow­ing steadily since 2013, although the visa-free regime with the EU kicked in barely half a year ago. This shows pretty clearly that the Euro­pean Union be­gan to sup­port Ukraine in deeds and not just words nei­ther to­day nor yes­ter­day, but at least since the Euro­maidan.

The num­ber of ex­its needs to be un­der­stood prop­erly. Its key com­po­nent is res­i­dents in bor­der­ing oblasts. They make their liv­ings by buy­ing goods in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries and sell­ing them at home, or the re­verse. They can eas­ily cross the bor­der sev­eral times a day, which means a hun­dred cross­ings a year in both di­rec­tions. Tens of thou­sands of these shut­tle traders ac­count for up to a mil­lion cross­ings a year. In fact, they could ac­count for much more. They typ­i­cally cel­e­brate the Christ­mas sea­son at home, in Ukraine, so they don’t fig­ure in net emi­gra­tion, nor can they be prop­erly called mi­grants although they make a big dif­fer­ence sta­tis­ti­cally.

The next group are sea­sonal mi­grants, those who go to work to some place like Poland, mostly just for the sum­mer. They also can cross the bor­der back and fort sev­eral times a year, go­ing home in mid-sea­son for some hol­i­day or for per­sonal rea­sons. But they also cel­e­brate New Year’s and Christ­mas at home, be­cause there’s much less work abroad in win­ter and so they also don’t fig­ure in net mi­gra­tion. These two groups to­gether form the lion’s share of those who cross Ukraine’s bor­der. They have no is­sues with visas or pass­ports, ei­ther, and so they were in­dif­fer­ent to Ukraine’s gain­ing visa-free travel from the EU. The fact that they are mostly not on visas, they ef­fec­tively do not af­fect sta­tis­tics on bor­der cross­ings be­cause the fre­quency of their cross­ings has not changed.

One more group is peo­ple who have no con­nec­tion to mi­gra­tion at all: tourists, stu­dents and busi­ness trav­el­ers mostly as­so­ciate them­selves with Ukraine, at least at this point in time, so they will ob­vi­ously re­turn. Whether there are many or few of them, it’s hard to say, but anec­do­tally at least their num­bers have been grow­ing.


This leaves the net bal­ance—those who cross the bor­der with a one-way ticket—even when they ac­tu­ally have a re­turn ticket just in case they’re asked by im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials. The best SBS sta­tis­tics can of­fer is an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of about 200,000 in­di­vid­u­als an­nu­ally. This num­ber has re­mained ap­prox­i­mately the same over the last five year and was that high even be­fore the Euro­maidan. What does this sug­gest? Firstly, that those who are de­ter­mined to leave Ukraine there are no ob­sta­cles: whether or not con­di­tions for cross­ing the bor­der are strict, they man­age to do it. Most likely their mo­ti­va­tion is not limited to ma­te­rial con­sid­er­a­tions, ei­ther.

After all, in 2013, Ukraine had “sta­bil­ity” with rel­a­tively high wages, a strong hryv­nia, while the rest of Europe was in the mid­dle of a cri­sis. This should have en­cour­aged peo­ple to stay in Ukraine or to come back home from work­ing abroad, but the em­i­grant flow never slowed down.

We might as­sume that a big share of these em­i­grants were peo­ple who sim­ply hated Ukraine and could not imag­ine liv­ing there un­der any cir­cum­stances, or those for whom the dif­fer­ence be­tween $200 and $400 in wages was not sig­nif­i­cant as they needed at least $2,000. Ev­ery Ukrainian knows peo­ple like that, but are there re­ally that many to form the main share of net emi­gra­tion? In any case, over the last five years, so­cio-eco­nomic con­di­tions have shifted more than one, and dra­mat­i­cally at that, yet the flow of net emi­gra­tion from Ukraine to coun­tries other than the RF has not changed. That’s a sta­tis­ti­cal fact.

In­deed, the eas­ier con­di­tions for cross­ing into the EU that a visa-free regime ush­ered in has had very lit­tle im­pact on net emi­gra­tion from Ukraine. Those who want to leave see no ob­sta­cles to do­ing so. In short, there’s no truth to state­ments that emi­gra­tion picked up pace after the Euro­maidan: the same num­ber of peo­ple left per­ma­nently both be­fore and since. There’s al­ways a good rea­son if some­one needs on: un­der Yanukovych the rea­sons were lack of prospects, re­duced free­doms and un­prece­dented cor­rup­tion at all lev­els; the rea­sons now are the eco­nomic cri­sis, the war, and wide­spread con­cerns about so­cial is­sues.

Mean­while, lib­er­al­ized con­di­tions for en­ter­ing the EU, the US, Canada and other coun­tries are pro­vid­ing many op­por­tu­ni­ties for those Ukraini­ans who want to travel to learn, to meet peo­ple, to wan­der around, to work tem­po­rar­ily, and so on, but plan to come back. And that’s why the to­tal num­ber of peo­ple cross­ing the bor­der keeps ris­ing... and will prob­a­bly con­tinue to do so.


SBS data also make it pos­si­ble to an­a­lyze em­i­grant flows to the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion. These re­flect the ac­tual num­ber of cross­ings on those parts of the Ukraine-Rus­sia bor­der that are un­der Ukrainian con­trol to­day, as there are no fig­ures for the part of the bor­der in ORDiLO, the

oc­cu­pied coun­ties of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts where Rus­sia con­trols the bor­der. In the last four years, the num­ber of Ukraini­ans who travel into the RF through of­fi­cial Ukrainian bor­der con­trols has gone down by 22%.

As the graph shows clearly, 2013 was the wa­ter­shed year. Since then, Ukraini­ans have been trav­el­ling less and less to Rus­sia. There are sev­eral pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions for this. First, of course, the po­lit­i­cal fac­tor is the ex­tremely sig­nif­i­cant. The chances for a Ukrainian to be ac­cused of es­pi­onage or to be jailed with­out an in­ves­ti­ga­tion or trial are quite high, as the hun­dred some­thing Ukraini­ans cur­rently lan­guish­ing in Rus­sian jails at­test to. Why risk it?

Sec­ond is the eco­nomic fac­tor. Western sanc­tions and fall­ing prices for oil and gas led to a deep re­ces­sion in Rus­sia’s econ­omy and a steep de­val­u­a­tion of the ru­ble. In­comes went down sig­nif­i­cantly and are not as im­pres­sive as wages in other coun­tries (see Wage gap). In short, it be­came less prof­itable to work in Rus­sia at that point. Right now, the Rus­sian econ­omy is slowly re­cov­er­ing as the price of oil rises and so some­what more Ukraini­ans have be­gun to go there, but noth­ing like the scale prior to the cri­sis.

Thirdly, world­views have changed. Ob­vi­ously, since the start of Rus­sian ag­gres­sion in Ukraine, a ma­jor­ity of Ukraini­ans, from both Eastern and Western Ukraine, are not re­cep­tive to Rus­sia, and a good por­tion of them see the coun­try as the en­emy. Some have prob­a­bly de­cided it would be better to be poor at home than to work for the en­emy—a mo­tive that is sur­pris­ingly strong for many Ukraini­ans.

In­deed, the dy­namic of net emi­gra­tion re­flects all these fac­tors. In 2013, to­tal emi­gra­tion from Ukraine to Rus­sia was much higher than to all other coun­tries put to­gether. In 2014, the num­bers con­tin­ued to rise, most likely re­flect­ing large num­bers of refugees who fled the war in Don­bas to Rus­sia that year. In 2015, when hos­tili- ties were at their fiercest, net emi­gra­tion sud­denly went into the neg­a­tives, that is, more Ukraini­ans re­turned from Rus­sia than went there. Over the last two years, the num­ber of peo­ple who left Ukraine per­ma­nently for Rus­sia has started grow­ing, but nowhere on the scale that it was be­fore the war.


SBS data shows that over the last few years, a tec­tonic shift has taken place in mi­gra­tion flows. Many Ukraini­ans used to look for a better life in Rus­sia: in 2013, 30% of all em­i­grants went there, while the share of tem­po­rary mi­grants was 150% higher even than that. Over the last four years, these num­bers have halved. Even Ukraini­ans from the western oblasts used to go to Rus­sia for work: they knew the lan­guage more-or-less and cul­tural adap­ta­tion was faster be­cause of the com­mon soviet past. More­over, the RF was very com­pet­i­tive in terms of wages: 10 years ago, it of­fered wages that were higher than the av­er­age in Eastern Europe, while Western Europe was too dis­tant, both ge­o­graph­i­cally and in terms of men­tal­i­ties for many Ukraini­ans to try to adapt them­selves and learn a very dif­fer­ent lan­guage just for higher wages. When Europe’s debt cri­sis be­gan, Rus­sia be­came even more at­trac­tive to Ukrainian mi­grant work­ers: it sur­vived the 2008-2009 global cri­sis rel­a­tively in­tact, while the Euro­pean cri­sis barely af­fected it.

Since then, much has changed. First came the war in Don­bas and Rus­sia’s deep eco­nomic cri­sis, cre­at­ing a set of ob­jec­tive and sub­jec­tive fac­tors that made it less at­trac­tive to Ukraini­ans look­ing for work. Some Ukraini­ans ab­so­lutely re­fused to go there un­der any cir­cum­stances. In Western Ukraine, peo­ple are more and more turn­ing into shut­tle traders, trav­el­ling into the EU and back, trad-


ing goods from the Union, as stores with such prod­ucts are avail­able even in Kyiv. Others started look­ing for al­ter­na­tives, but the op­tions aren’t many, be­cause it means coun­tries where Rus­sian is spo­ken and are sig­nif­i­cantly wealth­ier than Ukraine. In­ter­est­ingly, il­le­gal mi­gra­tion to Is­rael has surged. As an ex­am­ple, a few months ago, on an ex­cur­sion from Egypt to Jerusalem, the guide ex­plained that 2-3 peo­ple from ev­ery ex­cur­sion never went back, “So if any of you plan to stay, let me know right now so that we don’t hold rest of the folks up.” She noted that in 2016, nearly 40,000 il­le­gal mi­grants made their way to Is­rael in this man­ner, many of whom were Ukraini­ans.

Sec­ond, the soviet gen­er­a­tion is slowly leaving the stage and is be­ing re­placed by a more mo­bile, less os­si­fied gen­er­a­tion that finds it less of a chal­lenge to learn a for­eign lan­guage. These Ukraini­ans are quite will­ing to look for work in the EU. A decade and more ago, there weren’t many of these, com­pared to la­bor mi­grants who went to Rus­sia. Get­ting into Europe was much harder and even if some­one from a vil­lage found a loop­hole to

get a visa and a job in a spe­cific Euro­pean coun­try, then others from their vil­lage would fol­low suit. Some vil­lages worked in Czechia, others in Greece, Por­tu­gal, Spain, or Italy. The Euro­pean cri­sis sent many Ukraini­ans pack­ing, who re­turned to Ukraine an ei­ther stopped mi­grat­ing for jobs or be­gan look­ing for new op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Third, in the last 10 years, rel­a­tive wages have changed rad­i­cally (see Wage gap). Av­er­age wages in Rus­sia are half of what they are in Poland to­day. Of course, il­le­gal mi­grants are not paid that much, but there’s lit­tle ad­van­tage to mi­grat­ing to Rus­sia for work, even for diehard pro-Russians. Ac­cord­ing to OSCE fig­ures, the pur­chas­ing power par­ity (PPP) of wages in Eastern Europe, that is, Poland and Czechia, has be­come equal to those in South­ern Europe, mean­ing Por­tu­gal and Greece. So there’s lit­tle point in trav­el­ling all the way to Por­tu­gal from Ukraine just for a job. And that’s why we hear that over a mil­lion Ukraini­ans are work­ing in Poland to­day, large num­bers of whom prob­a­bly have moved east from more dis­tant coun­tries.


In short, Ukraine has made a huge leap not only in self­aware­ness but also in ori­en­ta­tion, as emi­gra­tion flows demon­strate. This shift is, more­over, likely not just to re­main but to even deepen. Rus­sia’s econ­omy is stag­nat­ing and few new jobs are be­ing gen­er­ated (see Where two can eat, a third won’t go hun­gry). Hy­po­thet­i­cally, ris­ing fuel prices could help Rus­sia but how long will these prices hold as al­ter­na­tive and re­new­able sources are de­vel­oped at an ac­cel­er­at­ing pace? Mean­while, Euro­pean economies are com­ing out of their dol­drums: growth is pick­ing up and, more sig­nif­i­cantly, more jobs are be­ing cre­ated. If the dif­fer­ence in wages and the ease of en­try are added, the op­por­tu­ni­ties for Ukraini­ans be­come ob­vi­ous.

The tec­tonic shift can even be seen in the in­fra­struc­ture. Where ear­lier, the ma­jor­ity of Ukrainian mi­grant work­ers in a coun­try like Spain were from Ha­ly­chyna and fewer from ad­ja­cent oblasts. Once in a while there might have been some­one from cen­tral or eastern Ukraine. To­day, the mix is much more even. Once, trans­port to Europe was prob­lem­atic and peo­ple look­ing to work there mostly trav­eled in small groups with ex­pe­ri­enced pri­vate car­ri­ers.

To­day, the choice of trans­porta­tion is enor­mous: from Lviv alone, there are buses to the EU sev­eral times a day. In down­town Kh­mel­nytsk, which is rel­a­tively dis­tant from Ukraine’s western bor­ders, there’s a huge board with the sched­ule of buses to Poland and other neigh­bor­ing EU coun­tries. Routes to the EU are be­ing launched even from small towns in Don­bas, which was once ef­fec­tively closed.

What’s more, UkrZal­iznyt­sia’s new train sched­ules and new flights to Euro­pean des­ti­na­tions by low-cost car­ri­ers should en­sure that there are plenty of op­tions. Mean­while, sched­ules to Rus­sia are shrink­ing even though 10 years ago, thanks to the range of des­ti­na­tions in­her­ited from soviet times, they of­fered the best op­tions for leaving Ukraine. Whether they are be­ing shut down be­cause of the war or be­cause of lack of de­mand, op­tions to Rus­sia are be­ing cur­tailed.


No mat­ter how much we might wish peo­ple good for­tune and a better fate, mass emi­gra­tion is a prob­lem for any coun­try. Over the last five years, net emi­gra­tion out of Ukraine was nearly 2 mil­lion. This is far too much for any pa­tri­otic politi­cian to ig­nore. The main neg­a­tive con­se­quence of large-scale emi­gra­tion is that it sets up a de­mo­graphic pyra­mid, where the num­ber of young peo­ple is small rel­a­tive to those who are well past their prime. The direct re­sult is a fi­nan­cial chronic short­fall in the pen­sion fund and low pen­sion ben­e­fits. In­di­rectly, it means the pop­u­la­tion is in de­cline, which is a time bomb for the econ­omy. This has not only other ob­vi­ous re­sults, such as dy­ing vil­lages, but also leads re­duced num­ber of users of in­fra­struc­ture such as roads, power grids and so­cial fa­cil­i­ties, and it be­comes eco­nom­i­cally un­fea­si­ble to up­grade them or even keep them in good work­ing con­di­tion. Some el­e­ments might even have to be aban­doned al­to­gether.

Ev­ery Ukrainian is a march­ing eco­nomic unit, be­cause even if they work in the shadow econ­omy and don’t pay any direct taxes, they still con­trib­ute in­di­rectly through VAT and ex­cise as con­sumers, when they buy goods and ser­vices from those who pay di­rectly. Ev­ery Ukrainian’s work con­trib­utes to the GDP and the coun­try’s eco­nomic strength. And, as many put it, the money trans­fers from em­i­grants do the same. How­ever, the out­put pro­duced in the coun­try does not meet the amount of that money. This is money that the em­i­grants’ fam­i­lies use to buy im­ported goods and ser­vices be­cause do­mes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing doesn’t meet de­mand.

What is the essence of an em­i­grant? Work­ers are an eco­nomic re­source and when peo­ple em­i­grate, this re­source is lost. Imag­ine if Ukraine’s land were all taken away, the way the Ger­man army carted mil­lions of tonnes of chornozem off dur­ing WWII, or if some­one in­vaded Rus­sia and took con­trol of all its oil and gas? No one would just stand by if that hap­pened. Nor should Ukraine stand qui­etly by in the face of such emi­gra­tion num­bers. Yet dis­quiet can be heard only from a hand­ful of sec­ondtier politi­cians. Premier Gro­is­man says that Ukraine’s econ­omy should grow 6-7% an­nu­ally, but noth­ing about the kind of la­bor pool that kind of growth will need. How will Ukraine ever reach that level when ev­ery year 2-3% of its most able-bod­ied cit­i­zens leave the coun­try for­ever?

The only ad­van­tage to emi­gra­tion is that it is un­der­min­ing the oli­garchy’s hold on Ukraine’s econ­omy. When

the coun­try was closed, there was a con­stant sur­plus of la­bor and so oli­garchs were able to es­tab­lish long-term mo­nop­o­lies on the backs of cheap la­bor, giv­ing them eco­nomic clout and ef­fec­tive con­trol over the coun­try it­self. Now peo­ple have a choice, they go where they find good jobs, and we hear about huge short­falls in skilled la­bor, for in­stance, in Mar­i­upol. In the end, the busi­nesses of oli­garchs, which tend to be in­ef­fi­cient, will lose in the com­pe­ti­tion for qual­ity la­bor be­cause they will be un­able to pay mar­ket wages and ei­ther chron­i­cally op­er­ate in the red, gobbling up their own­ers’ eco­nomic re­serves, or they will fold al­to­gether. Ukraine will be the win­ner in all this, but if the large out­flow of mi­grants con­tin­ues too long, the short­age of la­bor could mean that even­tu­ally mar­ke­to­ri­ented busi­nesses will suf­fer along with the oli­garchs.


La­bor mi­gra­tion is an is­sue that is not just Ukraine’s prob­lem. The pop­u­la­tion losses of the Baltics are also leg­endary, even though wages are far higher than in Ukraine. The Econ­o­mist uses Bul­garia as an­other ex­am­ple of a coun­try that has been los­ing its pop­u­la­tion for a long time: ac­cord­ing to UN es­ti­mates, its pop­u­la­tion could shrink from 7.2 mil­lion to 5.2mn by 2050. The point is that some coun­tries have gov­ern­ments whose poli­cies are com­bat­ing the im­pact of emi­gra­tion, while others do not. Among the for­mer are Poland, which has been patch­ing up the holes with Ukrainian work­ers, and Slo­vakia, which is pro­vid­ing con­di­tions to at­tract its highly qual­i­fied em­i­grants back, writes The Econ­o­mist. Ukraine be­longs to the lat­ter group.

To stem the tide of emi­gra­tion, ac­tion needs to b taken. Ukraine needs to of­fer an al­ter­na­tive, such as jobs in Ukraine with wages that are not much lower than in the West. But the first step is to ac­knowl­edge that there is a se­ri­ous prob­lem, and then to come up with qual­ity poli­cies.

The in­vest­ment cli­mate must also move to a qual­i­ta­tively higher level. There can be no room for raider at­tacks, a crooked ju­di­ciary, pres­sure on busi­nesses from gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and much more. SMEs should get com­pre­hen­sive sup­port. Over­all, the state needs to or­ga­nize life in such a way that eco­nomic re­sources—la­bor, cap­i­tal, en­ter­prise, pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and so on—are high qual­ity and ac­ces­si­ble. In or­der to do this Ukraine must learn to play in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent eco­nomic league. With the cur­rent line-up of play­ers and train­ers, this looks highly un­likely.


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