Ukrainian Forcefully Displaced Persons in Germany: To Stay or to Leave?
By Natalia Zaitseva-Chipak
According to the UNHCR, since the beginning of the war, Germany has accepted about one million Ukrainian forcefully displaced persons, and more than 880,000 people are registered under the Temporary Protection Program or similar national protection programs.
This is a staggering figure.
Incoming migrants to Germany have also received a number of benefits: financial assistance, health insurance, housing, compensation for utilities and travel, and free German language courses. This strains the country’s social system. It is enough to multiply the cost of these benefits by the number of forcefully displaced persons to understand that we are talking about support worth billions of euros.
However, these costs are temporary. In the near future, Ukrainian forcefully displaced persons could adapt and be able to join the German economy, which can become potentially powerful factors of its growth. Given that most of the migrants are women (of working age) with children, these contributions will refer to not only the near but also the more distant future.
At the same time, the loss of these people will be detrimental to postwar Ukraine. Even today, Ukrainian demographers fear the country’s depopulation. This, in turn, could be a critical factor in slowing down the country’s reconstruction, as it requires labor, skilled workers, and young people.
At the moment, it is difficult to predict what the majority of people who moved to Germany because of the war in Ukraine will want in the future. Quantitative sociological studies show that 85 to 93 percent of forcefully displaced persons plan to return home after the war ends. However, this is an equation with many unknown variables: How long will the war last? What will be the extent of the destruction in Ukraine? Will Ukraine receive sufficient support to rebuild after the war? How will its economy and social system function? And will Ukraine be able to obtain sufficient security guarantees for the future?
In theory, all of these factors should be taken into account by people who are currently in a stable and secure situation and are debating whether to return to a country that was devastated by the largest war in recent European history. After all, according to Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the factor of security (health, property, future) is at the heart of human needs.
However, to what extent are these motives taken into account against the background of longing for home, familiar circle of communication and culture? What other arguments do Ukrainians forcefully displaced by the war consider when building their own migration strategy? What their final choice will be is an open question.
My research’s objective is aimed at but not limited to determine the most complete list of decision-making motives; to establish their significance; to understand the mechanism of choice formation; and finally to model (predict) what choices different social groups of internally displaced persons from Ukraine will be inclined to make. I argue that understanding the intentions of internally displaced persons from Ukraine will allow both Germany and Ukraine to build their social and economic policies in an effective and balanced manner.
This is especially important, given that quantitative forecasts can be accurate only up to a certain point and do not allow us to fully predict forcefully displaced persons’ future choices. Additionally, pure numbers do not give us a full understanding of how such choices are made – that is, what factors are taken into account and what the impact of each of them is.
By contrast, in the paradigm of ‘interpretive sociology’ (which, incidentally, originated in Germany as verstehende Soziologie), we can focus on the inner worldviews of people and better understand how their choices are formed. Given that both countries will be interested in this development potential and will (likely) compete for human resources in the future, it is important to understand which influences will be effective in shaping these decisions.
To answer my research questions, I interviewed 15 female Ukrainians who had experience of displacement to Germany. The interviews were conducted between 5 December 2022 and 30 January 2023.
The intentions of Ukrainian forcefully displaced persons in Germany (from the viewpoint of time when this research was conducted)
My study, confirms the results of previous quantitative studies: most of the people that I spoke to declared their desire to return to Ukraine.
Interestingly, the forcefully displaced women I interviewed, who plan to return to Ukraine, demonstrate two key behavioral strategies. Some of them seem to be ‘putting their lives on hold’ – that is, they are waiting out the war in a safe environment and plan to return to Ukraine once it’s over to start building their lives there again. Others, however, are trying to use new opportunities to become more resourceful in the future. For example, they plan to learn or are learning a language that will be an additional competitive advantage at home or they are acquiring experiences in Germany that can be transferred back to their communities in Ukraine. The first group is less likely to adapt in Germany and more likely to leave, while the second group is likely to adapt better, and will therefore have more reasons to remain in Germany.
Meanwhile, a minority of the respondents admitted that they are at a crossroads and are hesitant about their future life strategies:
- “Some people want to return to Ukraine. Some don’t. Everyone is very uncertain. Everyone is stressed.” (F, 42, from a rear region)
- “I can’t say 100 percent that I’m ready to live here and 100 percent that I’m ready to return to Ukraine. At the moment, I can’t say. But my mother wants to go home, so she’s sitting and waiting for spring to come, when they are promising that everything will be over, and she can return home, and everything will be fine.” (F, 35, from a frontline region)
Two key strategies for making decisions are aligned with the aforementioned behavioral strategies. Some try to think according to algorithms by which they will make their decisions (i.e., they define the conditions under which they will leave or stay), while others believe that it is inappropriate to try to make decisions until the war is over and the situation in Ukraine is stable. The first group tends to work more actively on influencing their conditions in Germany, because the conditions in Ukraine are beyond their control. For this reason, they have a higher chance of adaptation to their new place of residence and most likely refuse to return. The second group is more likely to passively observe how circumstances will develop:
- “If the war ends in two months, that’s one situation. If it ends in two years, that’s a different situation. It depends on what my position here will be at that moment. (F, 38, from an occupied region)
Only one respondent made the final decision to stay in Germany. The main motive is that her city is located in the occupied territories and was completely destroyed by the war.
Intentions to return to Ukraine are more often declared by residents from regions less affected by the war as these regions have not suffered largescale destruction or occupation.
Another distinct point is that forcefully displaced persons who have higher chances of adaptation tend to stay in Germany. This includes, for example, those who are fluent in German or work in a field that is in demand in Germany. Such people have higher chances of building a career or obtaining a higher-quality education in the country. Young people (17–25 years old), for instance, are much more likely to express an intention to stay in Germany. They often speak the German language, have an easier time adapting, have not yet started a family, and have plenty of opportunities to receive higher education in the country. I frequently heard from middle-aged (26–54 years old), forcefully displaced persons that they planned to return to Ukraine, but insisted that their children should remain abroad (at least until they graduate):
- “I plan to take the language exam in March, leave my son and mom here, and return to Ukraine to find a job, to live in Ukraine for some time and to come visit my son [here].” (F 42, from a rear region)
In contrast, middle-aged Ukrainian women who have built a career, started a family, and have a home in Ukraine are more likely to return there:
- “I would like to return home. I’m afraid now about when this will be? I’ve never had such aspirations [to go abroad] […]If everything is restored, I want to restore it [my previous life] as well.” (F, 34, from an occupied region)
Germany: Reasons for choosing a country to live in and motivations to remain abroad
First of all, I should note that each of the respondents emphasized that their main motivation for going abroad was security concerns. Respondents from the frontline regions of Ukraine fled from the occupation forces and active bombardment; those from the rear regions left the country because of the difficulties in caring for elderly parents or young children amid constant air raids and fears of the unpredictable risks of war:
- “There was only one argument for leaving: to feel safe and not to hear those sounds and not to see what was happening. Not to feel that fear.” (F, 35, from a frontline region)
Ukrainians could count on taking refuge in many Western countries. The choice of Germany as a final destination for forcefully displaced persons often stemmed from three factors: they had friends or family in Germany, they emphasized the good access to medical care and the availability of social benefits.
My interviewees also provided a wide range of reasons for staying in Germany after the end of the war. Their level of optimism or pessimism about the future of Ukraine plays an important role in this decision. Forcefully displaced persons are scared by the prospect of returning to a country with a ruined economy, a lack of jobs, and only vague prospects for recovery:
- “You see, after the war, the situation will be unstable, it won’t end with the last day of the war. Especially in my city. It’s a small, economically depressed city. And I don’t understand at all what will happen there when the war ends.” (F, 38, from an occupied region)
- “There will be an unstable economic situation, part of the country has already been destroyed, and the people who used to live there are already losing their jobs. New ones will appear after these cities are rebuilt, but that’s another issue. It’s not yet clear what will be left of our city, what will happen there.” (F, 20, from a rear region)
Some forcefully displaced persons see going back to Ukraine not as a return to a familiar environment, but as a step into the unknown. By contrast, Germany is perceived as a zone of stability, a country of economic prosperity by the majority of respondents. Here, there is more guarantee to find a job with a decent pay.
This leads to another important motive for remaining in Germany: social security. The war in Ukraine has led to inflation and a devaluation of the hryvnia (the Ukrainian currency). Consequently, as of July 2022, almost half of Ukrainians received pensions no higher than what equals to about 80 euros per month; internally displaced person (IDP) payments amount to about 53 euros per adult and 80 euros per child per month. After the war, Ukraine will face depopulation (especially the outflow of young people), economic devastation, the need to pay off debts, and a likely reduction of international support. Therefore, the situation with social security may worsen.
In the context of social protection, there is the specific issue of housing. Germany has provided private housing for a significant number of Ukrainian forcefully displaced persons. This factor is especially important for those who lost their homes in Ukraine. Most of them do not believe that their housing will be rebuilt or that the state will be able to find them decent housing if they return: it will not be easy to accumulate the necessary funds in the conditions of postwar devastation. Rents in the country are also quite high. For example, according to the statistics of the trading platform OLX, in 2022 the average price per square meter for an apartment on the resale market in Ukraine was UAH 24,277 (606 euros). Therefore, for forcefully displaced persons who have lost their house, access to a place to live encourages them to stay in Germany:
- “I wanted to return to Ukraine. But I was restrained by the fact that I had nowhere to return to. I told myself that if I had a place to live, if I had a house in Lviv or Kyiv, I probably would have returned by now.” (F, 38, from an occupied region)
On the other hand, losing their housing in Germany may encourage forcefully displaced people to return to Ukraine.
A significant deterrent to return for some forcefully displaced persons can be working or studying in Germany. Part of the forcefully displaced persons say that they may delay returning home if they find employment and self-realization.
In this context, educational opportunities in Germany deserve special attention. Young people are attracted by the possibility of receiving a high-quality European education and an internationally recognized diploma. They see this, in turn, as allowing them to build a career in the West.
However, some of the research participants expressed wanting to leave just their children in Germany temporarily so that they can study (e.g., obtain a diploma or improve their language skills):
- “I kept thinking that we were about to return home. Then my son started school and it turned out to be such a good opportunity for him. Because now in Ukraine, the situation in education, in my opinion, is haphazard. (F, 41, from a rear region)
Based on these responses, I tend to make a conclusion that another key factor for their decision-making is German language proficiency which makes forcefully displaced more likely to stay in Germany.
The people I interviewed mentioned other motives for remaining in Germany, such as higher levels of personal safety, only sporadically.
- “These are life-threatening risks, because the whole of Ukraine is mined. If after the Second World War a lot of places were not cleared of mines, after this war it will take years.” (F, 35, from a frontline region)
Some respondents noted that some forcefully displaced persons choose to stay in Germany because they can return to Ukraine at any time. Conversely, they fear that if they return, and the events in Ukraine unfold according to a negative scenario, their access to Germany would be denied to them.
Finally, the willingness to stay in Germany gradually increases as they get used to and adapt to the new location. Therefore, the longer the war lasts, the less likely it is that some forcefully displaced persons will return to Ukraine.
Motivations for returning to Ukraine
The range of motivations for returning to Ukraine intertwines social, pragmatic, psychological, and ideological considerations. Socially, the main motivation for returning is the desire to reunite with family and reenter a former circle of friends.
Often, moving to Germany is unacceptable or undesirable for all family members (especially men and older people who did not leave the country during the war and do not want to start life anew in another country or adapt to foreign customs):
- “My husband will definitely not be able to live in Germany, because he feels very secure in Ukraine. And he won’t work as an ordinary worker, he’ll definitely fail in this. It’ll be a complete loss of social status for him.” (F, 38, from an occupied region)
This desire is reinforced by the fact that Ukrainians in Germany are in a kind of linguistic bubble. Because they do not know the language, they are limited in their communication:
- “[There’s a] very limited social circle. [My] parents do not speak any [foreign] language. When they go outside, they can’t even ask where to go or how to get there. […] My father doesn’t like it very much, and every day he says that he wants to return to Ukraine.” (F, 42, from a rear region)
Respondents also reported that without the help of an interpreter, it is difficult for them to get medical advice, find necessary information, and properly study. All this creates an extremely stressful and uncomfortable situation for them:
- “The main problem is that it’s very difficult to explain something, to achieve something, to find something if you don’t know the language. In the beginning, volunteers helped. Now, there is no such help. (F, 38, from an occupied region)
In addition, the vast majority of my respondents’ in-person communication happens with other forcefully displaced persons, or at best with representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora or with volunteers. Meanwhile, communication with local residents is extremely limited. Consequently, forcefully displaced persons do not establish friendships, do not learn about the local culture, and often misinterpret the behavior of other people:
- “In general, it seems to me that Germans are very closed people. If you didn’t go to school or to kindergarten with them, I don’t know how to make friends with them. They’re very emotionally closed. And to arrange a meeting with them, well it’s just a joke among Ukrainians that you have to make an appointment [with them].” (F, 42, from a rear region)
This, in turn, is reflected in the poor cultural adaptation of many forcefully displaced persons. Even after nine months of living in Germany, the local culture seems incomprehensible and alien to them.It is also difficult for them to protect their rights in everyday life. It is noteworthy that refugee women with school-age children often complain that their children are bullied by children from Russian families. Without knowledge of the hosting country language, it is difficult for them to explain the situation to teachers and defend the interests of their children.
However, as they learn the language, this problem gradually lessens; social ties expand and they find shared meanings and values with the local population:
- “My son says… that it was hard for him at first. Not because he was in a different environment, but because he missed his friends. He lost his social circle. And until he had such a solid circle of friends [again], he said that he wanted to return. And now… now he doesn’t have these conversations. And he thinks that he’ll study here at some point in the near future.” (F, 42, from a rear region)
Among psychological factors that motivate my respondents to want to leave, the most significant is the feeling of homesickness. Often, they openly declare that Germany has done the impossible in terms of material support. Rationally, they understand that most of their needs have been met. However, it is difficult for them to cope with some of their emotions:
- “My husband tells me, you’re now in a beautiful city, the children drink iodized water. The air there is beautiful, enriched with iodine. What else is missing, why are you so upset? I didn’t want this. Nothing makes me happy anymore. I don’t want anything anymore. I’m no longer happy with the sea or the free ice cream the Germans offer us. I don’t want anything. I want to go home.” (F, 41, from a rear region)
Some forcefully displaced persons, however, want to return home for patriotic reasons. They understand that Ukraine’s success is linked to whether it will be able to retain its human capacities for reconstruction:
- · “Ukraine needs to be rebuilt. That is, we’re needed there.” (F, 41, from a rear region)
War and migration forced these people to take a fresh look at their lives and their country:
- · “I used to consider myself a patriot, but I didn’t think I was that patriotic… You see, when it’s like ‘well, yes, I love my country, but here this isn’t right, and this isn’t good, and in general I want to go live in Germany, marry a German, and forget [this place]’. And now I live in Germany, and I want to go home, to Ukraine.” (F, 20, from a rear region)
Ukrainian forcefully displaced persons also discovered that they had overestimated the quality of life in Germany and underestimated it in Ukraine. According to the respondents, it turned out that Ukraine has much more progressive state bureaucratic procedures (much of them are digitized and conducted without special appeals to officials) and banking systems (which allow you to open a bank card instantly and online and to conduct financial transactions within 1–2 minutes), as well as often better services and more affordable entertainment and facilities:
- · “It’s a very bureaucratic country, everything takes a long time. There is less digitalization than in Ukraine .” (F, 38, from an occupied region)
- · “It’s hard for me to communicate with their government agencies. With their letters. With the waiting time. With the constant confusion.” (F, 42, from a rear region)
Also, according to the informants, despite its lower social standards, in Ukraine there are fewer bureaucratic restrictions and more opportunities to develop your business and generate capital:
- · “We have less social protection, less of all these perks from the state, but in Ukraine, it’s freer to live, in the sense that in business you can do whatever you want.” (F, 42, from a rear region)
- · “Germany is very good at providing social assistance, but the taxes here are so crazy. I mean, they won’t let you die, but they won’t let you get rich either.” (F, 35, from a frontline region)
As a result, people with a high level of entrepreneurial activity and ideas for their own business, those who strive to achieve a higher than average social and financial status consider Ukraine a more promising country to live in, and are more likely to plan to return home.
The most important pragmatic factor that encourages Ukrainians to return home is the low prospects of maintaining a high social status in Germany (i.e., getting a white-collar job). Most forcefully displaced persons believe that it will take them several years to reach the required language level, so a career in their field is not available to them. Additionally, they believe that the local market currently offers only blue-collar jobs. Most Ukrainians completed higher education and many of them had successful white-collar careers before the war and are not ready to lose their status.
In only a few cases did forcefully displaced persons from Ukraine explain their desire to return home as motivated by being dissatisfied with their living conditions in Germany or by limited access to social services. These instances included a lack of kindergarten places, a lack of permanent housing and long waiting times for medical appointments.
Thus, as of the beginning of 2023, most respondents planned to return to Ukraine. However, these intentions are unstable and might change depending on the duration of the war. The respondents’ answers indicate that the longer Ukrainians stay in Germany, the more they tend to adapt to their new location and the less inclined they are to return home.
The desire to stay in Germany is often based on pragmatic considerations. The main motivations here are the opportunity to live in a stable and predictable environment, a higher level of security (no mined areas, lower risk of future hostilities), social security, housing, quality and affordable education for children and young people, access to free healthcare, and high wages.
The motives for returning to Ukraine are primarily of the social character: the desire to reunite with family and return to the usual circle of friends. Due to the lack of language skills, many experience an acute sense of isolation and limited opportunities: lack of integration into local society, poor cultural adaptation, and inability to protect their rights on their own. The ability to maintain a high social status (prestige in the local community in Ukraine, white-collar profession, career) is essential.
At the same time, emotional motives to return to Ukraine are also strong: a sense of homesickness, patriotism, and a desire to contribute to the reconstruction of their country.
Other pragmatic motives, such as convenient government and banking services, inexpensive entertainment and services, and greater prospects for small businesses, are the least important in these considerations.
The dominance of certain motives largely depends on the extent to which the war has affected the territories of residence of forced migrants in Ukraine. Those whose settlements are occupied or destroyed are less likely to return. After all, in this case, property and the usual social environment have been lost, rebuilding life from scratch looks exhausting, and the risks of returning to the post-war country are high.
Also, the pre-war social status of Ukrainian women is important There seems to be a belief among refugee women that Germany is more promising for young people (who can get an education here), workers in blue-collar occupations, the elderly, and people in need of social support. Conversely, Ukraine may be more promising for an economically active population, white-collar workers, and entrepreneurs (especially from areas not affected by the war). However, these factors are only relevant only if there are jobs available and decent wages.
One also has to keep in mind, that the motivation to return is not a stable construct. It is often revised and changed. In my opinion, if the war continues and Ukrainians manage to learn the language, find a job or study, and adapt, their decisions to migrate may change.
Both Ukraine and Germany should take into account the following in the context of formulating state social policy to attract human resources.
- An important aspect that could influence the migration intentions of Ukrainian women is the availability of medical services (e.g., free healthcare, or free health insurance )and housing programs, educational and employment opportunities. Germany has largely provided these opportunities in its migration policy. However, such aspects as employment, education (education of children and retraining of adults), and housing require more attention.
At the same time, a desire to live in Germany is largely determined by the extent of a refugee’s adaptation and their cultural and social integration. Therefore, compulsory German language courses seem to be a useful instrument of helping Ukrainians settle in Germany. This, however, is not enough.
Apart from getting from a scratch or improving language skills, Ukrainians also need cultural adaptation, inclusion in social relations, and more active interaction and integration. An example of such actions could be the involvement of Ukrainians in activities together with the German population (volunteer work, internships at enterprises, joint events).
An equally important aspect that is reported to be overlooked in Germany is the lack of sufficient counteraction to the aggressive behavior of some immigrants from Russia towards Ukrainians.
Forced migrants have a demand for information and counselling services from mentors for successful adaptation and integration. To a certain extent, this role could be fulfilled by a unified digital platform with information for IDPs on where and how to: prepare documents, receive social services, find housing or work in Germany.
It is important to make IDPs from Ukraine understand today what Germany’s strategy is for them in the future. It is important to give an understanding of whether the country is interested in them staying or whether it prefers them to return to Ukraine.
Germany’s migration policy after the war is also an open but important factor in decision-making process of forcibly displaced Ukrainians. Will the country be ready to accept Ukrainian men who could earlier not leave Ukraine due to martial law restrictions but would now like to join their families? It is crucial to provide a clear understanding of the conditions under which it will be possible to stay in the country for permanent residence.
Based on my findings, I argue that Ukraine’s ability to guarantee its security in the future is critical, so joining the EU and NATO (building closer alliances with them) is a priority. Among other things, this will hopefully attract domestic and foreign investment, create new jobs and decent wages, and improve social protection. I believe that a sense of social justice will also provide an incentive for increased citizen engagement.
For the Ukrainian government, launching programs to encourage the return of forcibly displaced persons, such as compensation for lost or damaged property and preferential mortgage programs, will certainly be important. My findings suggest that these programs are especially relevant for young people.
Moreover, it is important to restore the infrastructure of frontline cities, as refugees tend to return home rather than to a new place of residence. Particular attention should be paid to the reconstruction and economic recovery of small towns, as they have a high chance of becoming economically depressed.
Finally, it is, in my view, important to clearly articulate the need for the return of every citizen, and the Ukrainian government should appeal to the patriotism of the forcibly displaced and emphasize their value and potential contribution to the country’s recovery. Any condemnation of citizens who left the country during the war should be stopped in Ukraine.
 According to the data from Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung https://www.dw.com/ru/ukrainskie-bezency-v-germanii-kakie-oni/a-64107524?maca=rus-rss-ru-all-1126-rdf
 Interpretive sociology – studies the meanings given to behavior (its causes and motives), in contrast to positivist sociology, which focuses on action; relies on qualitative data, in contrast to positivist sociology, which tends to use quantitative data
 According to the Pension Fund of Ukraine https://www.facebook.com/pfu.gov.ua/posts/412375920933627
 According to the Ministry of Reintegration of the Occupied Territories https://minre.gov.ua/infographics/vyplaty-vnutrishno-peremishchenym-osobam-vpo
 Even now, forcibly displaced Ukrainians are facing the problem of finding accommodation in big German cities (e.g. Munich). However, in Ukraine, the issue of compensation for lost housing has not yet been resolved (it is still being tested).
About the author:
Natalia Zaitseva-Chipak is a sociologist and a professor in the Department of Sociology at the Ukrainian Catholic University. Prior to this position, she was a professor in the Department of Sociology at the Lviv Ivan Franko National University. In 2002, she graduated from the Lviv Ivan Franko National University, and in 2007, she completed her PhD at the Classic Private University. Since 2007, she has also worked as an analyst at the Socioinform Ukrainian Center for Public Opinion Research. She has either participated in or managed more than 20 sociological studies of Ukrainian society. Her scientific interests focus on problems of modern Ukrainian society and individual social groups, such as youths or internally displaced persons (IDPs). Natalia Zaitseva-Chipak is a 2022/2023 non-resident Prisma Ukraïna Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
Other recent articles in the TRAFO series War, Migration and Memory:
Olha Labur, Militarized Cancer: People with a Diagnosis and the War in Ukraine, 13 July 2023
Olha Haydamachuk, The ‘Emergency Grab Bag’ of Memory, or the Tonalities of News Headlines About the War in Ukraine – Part Twо, 22 June 2023
Alina Mozolevska, The Power of Maps and Geographic Imagery in Digital Communication: Narrating Russia’s War in Ukraine, 04 May 2023
Citation: Natalia Zaitseva-Chipak, Ukrainian Forcefully Displaced Persons in Germany: To Stay or to Leave?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.07.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48081
Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 27. Juli). Ukrainian Forcefully Displaced Persons in Germany: To Stay or to Leave? TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 1. März 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut7f