This policy brief is based on an empirical examination of the early-stage migration of Ukrainian war asylum seekers to Latvia in 2022, following the Russian invasion. The study highlights the urgent nature of their displacement and identifies the pivotal role of kinship in Latvia in the decision-making. Three categories of refugees emerge based on kinship ties, employment opportunities, and cultural affinity. The study also reveals the substantial influence of the pre-existing Ukrainian diaspora and underlines the significance of network effects in refugees’ location decisions. Contrary to previous studies, refugees didn’t necessarily settle for the first country available. The research underscores the strategy of seeking support from personal networks in acute displacement scenarios, which appears to be the most influential factor for the choice of location in the decision-making process.
Ukrainian Displaced People in Latvia
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 triggered a geopolitical upheaval in Europe and resulted in a mass exodus that had not been witnessed since World War II. With the war showing no signs of cessation, return for many of these displaced people appears difficult in the near future. Latvia, although not a bordering country, have become a haven for 36 000 Ukrainian refugees.
This brief seeks insight into Ukrainian displaced people’s preference for Latvia, using interviews conducted in March 2022, a month after the war began. With no common border between Ukraine and Latvia these refugees had to transit through other countries, making the question about the choice of Latvia as their ultimate destination particularly relevant.
Unlike during the migration crisis in 2015 and during the recent influx of Syrians and other groups, the Ukrainian refugees found themselves being welcomed with open arms, belying Latvia’s typically guarded stance towards immigrants. This unexpected warmth is influenced by a multifaceted kinship rooted in historical connections from the Soviet era, a pre-existing Ukrainian diaspora in Latvia, labor migration, and shared cultural elements.
These factors can also play a role in Ukrainian refugees’ choice of Latvia as their ultimate destination. The study underlying this policy brief seeks to explore these facets and unravel the reasons behind the Ukrainian refugees’ choice to seek safety in Latvia.
Two aspects are crucial in the analysis of migration decisions: the factors that influence refugees’ choice of destination and the process underlying this decision.
Traditional assumptions surrounding asylum-seeker migration, as emphasized by Böcker and Havinga (1997), suggest that when people are forced to flee, their primary focus is safety – not destination. However, more nuanced perspectives have evolved in recent studies (see Robinson and Sergott, 2002; Brekke and Aarset, 2009). They highlight the calculated and adaptable nature of refugee destination choices throughout the asylum-seeking migration journey, demonstrating that circumstances and journey stage significantly influence destination choices.
Research indicates that host country policies and economic conditions can both enhance and limit refugee flows (Czaika and de Haas, 2017; Ortega and Peri, 2013; Brekke and Aarset, 2009; Diop-Christensen and Diop, 2021; Kang, 2021; Suzuki,2020; Collyer, 2005). However, another line of research emphasizes that policy and economic factors are secondary to networks, cultural affinity, language, and perceptions in determining destination choices (Robinson and Sergott, 2002). Factors such as social networks (Koser and Pinkerton, 2002; Tucker 2018), kinship (Havinga and Böcker, 1999; Neumayer, 2005; Mallett and Hagen-Zanker, 2018), financial resources (Mallett and Hagen-Zanker, 2018), geography (Neumayer, 2005; Kang, 2021), destination country image (Benzer and Zetter, 2014), culture (Suzuki, 2020), and colonial links (Havinga and Böcker, 1999) have been established to be significant at various stages of migration. Economic and education opportunities are also found to have a marginal influence on destination decision-making compared to the possibility of resolving statelessness (Tucker, 2018).
These varying determinants of destination may also be contingent on the refugee journey stage. Policies may not dominate in acute cases of forced migration (Diop-Christensen and Diop, 2021). For individuals with time to prepare for migration, a cost-benefit analysis often informs their decisions. In contrast, those in urgent circumstances, such as during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, may have to take immediate refuge and put less emphasis on benefits and policies (Robinson and Sergott, 2002). Destination determinants differ by both origin and destination countries (Havinga and Böcker, 1999, Tucker, 2018, Gilbert and Koser, 2006). Thus, research on underexplored regions and countries is valuable for a comprehensive understanding of migration patterns.
Migration, voluntary or forced, involves intricate decision-making. As Mallett and Hagen-Zanker (2018) aptly state, the dynamic experiences ‘on the road’ shape refugees’ journey and destination choices. Robinson and Sergott (2002) and Brekke and Aarset, 2009 have pioneered models for asylum seekers’ decision-making, suggesting that factors such as networks, language, cultural affinity, and perceptions evolve across different stages of the asylum journey. Others, like Gonsalves (1992) and Shultz et al. (2020), have constructed models delineating stages of refugee passage and displacement, highlighting the changing needs and preferences of refugees.
While existing literature mainly focuses on the later stages of forced migration journeys, limited empirical evidence exists on the migration moves during acute displacement. Additionally, further understanding on migration induced by the war on Ukraine is needed. There is also incomplete coverage of asylum seeker and refugee topics in the Baltic countries, making such research particularly relevant. To address these gaps, this brief aims to provide qualitative findings on the decision-making and experiences of Ukrainian displaced people in Latvia.
Understanding the Decision
The research underlying this brief explored the reasons behind Ukrainian displaced people’s choice of Latvia as their migration destination during the early part of the invasion. The study is based on 34 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with displaced people conducted in March 2022. The dataset is part of a larger study that includes continuous interviews to understand Ukrainian displaced people’s lives, plans and needs in Latvia.
From the interviews, it was apparent that the predominant factor in respondents’ decision-making was the presence of kin or acquaintances in Latvia.
All but one participant had some connection to Latvia, whether through distant relatives, friends, or professional contacts. The one participant without such connections arrived from Russia and not from Ukraine, working on a contract. A minority of our participants considered staying in Ukraine. One example is Lidiia, who initially planned to move near Lviv, but redirected to Riga during the journey.
“She found a family that would host us, 100 km from Lviv… We agreed, but then our friends… called us on the way, we were leaving Kyiv under bombardment. Our train was delayed because of the air alarm. When we just arrived there, a shell exploded above the railway station… And on the way, friends from Riga called us and invited us: ‘Come, everyone will help here’. Therefore, everything changed while we were on the train, we decided everything“ (Lidiia).
Proximity of kin was not the primary concern for the interviewees; the mere fact that they had a relative in Latvia appeared more influential in their narratives. Indeed, the majority of participants had distant rather than close kin, though a few had close family in Latvia (grandparents, parents, common-law husband, and sister). As Olena explained, the presence of even distant relatives influenced her choice: “there are distant relatives, very distant… That’s why we came” (Olena). However, ties in Latvia were not the only determinants as many of the participants also had family connections in other parts of Europe.
The speed of decision-making was also striking – most decisions to migrate were not a matter of long-term planning but a reaction to the sudden crisis, often influenced by incoming offers of assistance. Nataliia remembered: “My mother said, ‘You have to leave because everything is so fatally bad. Take the children and leave.’ And literally overnight I packed up, bought the tickets. But first I went to Poland, to my brother” (Nataliia).
Maryana ended up choosing her destination only after leaving home. “At first, we thought to go to Poland, but it is completely crowded, and then we called to whoever we could. There are no relatives in other countries. No, there are relatives in other cities, but these are Luhansk, Donetsk, we are from Slobozhanska Ukraine, so all our relatives are from the side where very heavy fighting is going on now“ (Maryana). Such testimonies illuminate how, owing to the immediacy of the situation, the eventual destination of some displaced Ukrainians was not predetermined but evolved during their respective journeys.
From the interviews with the participants who knew someone in Latvia, one can identify three groups based on the main factor that determined their decision.
Network, First of All
For respondents who did not have family in Latvia, friends, acquaintances, and professional contacts in Latvia acted as anchors. Like family members, such acquaintances often reached out, offering assistance and lodging as soon as they heard the news of the war. The influx of supportive communication from Latvian acquaintances influenced the decision for many participants.
Olha decided to flee with her friend, who had a distant cousin residing in Latvia. Upon the onset of the conflict, the cousin reached out and urged them to come to Latvia. As Olha recalls: “As soon as she heard that there was a bombing in Kharkiv, she said, ‘Come’. My friend, with whom I came, Lesya, does not have a car, so she immediately told me… let’s run away’” (Olha).
Lidiia received an invitation from a Latvian friend she had met through her church, even as she was already in the process of fleeing Ukraine. Similarly, Andrii, who was vacationing abroad at the time of the war’s outbreak, remembered: “On the 25th our best friend wrote to us that, ‘There is housing, come here’ and we began to negotiate with the embassy to fly here” (Andrii).
Even in the absence of explicit messages, displaced individuals recalled having friends and family in Latvia and chose to make their way to Riga. Olena, like Lidiia, initially set off without a clear destination in mind. It wasn’t until she reached the border that she decided to head to Latvia: “Just at the border that you decided where to go?” (Olena).
Existing friendships and ongoing communication also influenced some people’s choice to opt for Latvia. Olha (2) was encouraged by her daughter to relocate to Riga due to her daughter’s friendships with Latvians that she had formed at a camp in Estonia: “Friends appeared, with whom she was in close contact for six months. That’s why for her there was no choice at all ‘Where?’. She immediately said: ‘To Riga’” (Olha (2)).
Opportunities and Realities
The turning point for many respondents was their arrival in Poland as, initially, Latvia was not the principal or only choice of destination. These respondents emphasized that, besides having friends and relatives in Latvia, they also contemplated where they might find better opportunities. Their narratives provide a contrasting perspective of Poland and Latvia. While traversing Poland, their general impression was that the country was already ‘overfilled’, which in turn kindled the notion that Latvia might harbor more possibilities. For this group of displaced individuals, the importance of employment prospects was paramount.
Nataliia took the decision to head for Latvia, choosing to stay with remote kin there rather than with her sibling in Poland, as she believed Poland lacked opportunities for her. In Myroslava’s case, a friend helped secure a job in Latvia: “We didn’t choose Latvia for any particular reason – better or worse, we didn’t care. We needed somewhere to stay, somewhere to work in order to live. Well, that’s why when a job turned up through acquaintances, they said that a person was needed here, we immediately gathered. Could not be found in Poland. In Poland, there was simply no work, no housing” (Myroslava).
Bohdan, too, mentioned the crowdedness and the high cost of living in Poland, hence deciding to move further north to Latvia: “We didn’t have a specific plan because we weren’t at all sure we would succeed. In general, my wife benefits from going to Poland, she works for an IT company operating in Poland. And we thought about getting there at first, but when we got to Poland, everything was already full. There were such expensive options, $1600 a month, we were shocked” (Bohdan).
Anastasiia echoed similar concerns: “We arrived in Warsaw, reunited there and tried to stay in Warsaw and look for a place, but there are a lot of people there, and there is no place to live, very… food, maybe cheaper than in Latvia, but there is no place to live… no place to work. And I would like to work somehow… not to be dependent” (Anastasiia).
These stories illuminate another stratum of decision-making, that beyond familial ties, participants also considered the opportunities available at their chosen destination. They accumulate information on their journey and recalibrate their destination accordingly.
Cultural Kinship, Language, Diaspora
Not all participants had prior personal experience with Latvia, even if they had relatives there. A lot of their understanding about the country stemmed from stories they’d heard or news they’d come across. This third group of participants decided on Latvia not only because they knew someone in the country, but also because they saw value in shared language, culture, and history.
Political and cultural connections played a significant role in their choice. Being able to communicate in Russian and Ukrainian in Latvia was a crucial factor, as it was associated with a smoother integration process and increased job opportunities. Nadiia, who traveled to Latvia via Poland and Budapest, elaborated on this: “And I was in Latvia and here there is an opportunity to communicate in Ukrainian, in Russian” (Nadiia).
The possibility of being accepted and integrated into the local community was also mentioned as a decision-driver. Oksana shared that her father, who had previously worked in Riga, advised her to go to Latvia: “you guys, probably go to Riga, well, because you will be accepted there, accommodated” (Oksana).
Nonetheless, choosing Latvia because of the possibility to communicate in Russian does not come without complications. Nataliia B., for instance, found the topic of language stirring up strong emotions and confessed that she doesn’t wish to speak Russian anymore: “I had such a psychological reaction – I didn’t speak Ukrainian for many years, and when all these events began, I read, I remember well how I woke up in the morning and began to speak Ukrainian. My thoughts have become Ukrainian” (Nataliia B.).
Moreover, having knowledge of the Ukrainian diaspora in the country also proved an important factor. “I also found out that there is a Ukrainian diaspora in Latvia of about 50 000 people, as I heard in the Latvian news. And this also encouraged me, I realised that I could find help from my compatriots” (Nadiia). This observation underlines the role of cultural kinship in the decision-making process regarding destination, and it can indeed be seen as a decisive factor. As the diaspora expands with the influx of more displaced people, this rationale for choosing Latvia may become increasingly common.
The study underlying this brief provided empirical insight into the initial phases of Ukrainian war asylum seekers’ journey to Latvia in 2022, enhancing our understanding of the factors that influenced the choice of Latvia over other destinations.
Ukrainians fleeing the early stage of the 2022 Russian invasion were compelled to make swift and difficult decisions due to the pressing crisis. Leaving behind their familiar lives, properties, and dear ones – often the very individuals facilitating their exodus for safety reasons – was a harrowing reality. The support from kin and acquaintances in Latvia was crucial in endorsing their decision to seek refuge in the country.
Three groups emerged among the Ukrainian refugees in Latvia, all connected by personal relationships to some degree. The factors influencing their migration ranged from the presence of kin and considerations of employment prospects, to shared language, culture, and history. The fact that the initial outreach usually originated from the Latvian side underscores the profound solidarity and active support provided by Latvians to their Ukrainian counterparts. This likely also played a significant role in the refugees’ decisions. The pre-existing Ukrainian diaspora in Latvia, estimated at around 50 000 before the invasion, also significantly influenced the choice of Latvia as a refuge.
Financially-related factors such as seeking benefits were largely absent from the narratives, likely due to the geographic proximity, relatively low costs, and the urgent nature of the displacement. The most significant determinant in choosing Latvia as the destination appeared to be the network effect, contrasting with Robinson and Sergott (2002) findings that acute asylum seekers often settle for the first country available.
Given the emergency nature of the displacement, no unambiguous pattern in the location decision could be established. The narrative varied considerably among respondents with decisions often being made, or altered, on the fly. However, in most cases, personal relationships played a primary role in shaping the choices among Ukrainian refugees in Latvia.
For policy-makers planning and responding to acute migration crises, the study highlights the importance of mapping and understanding multifaceted kinships, as well as culture and history. The mapping can be used to plan support and allocate resources to give displaced people an opportunity of a place where they feel welcomed and connected, with hopes of greater integration.
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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced millions to flee from the war zone. This brief addresses Ukrainian refuge in Poland. It provides an overview of the current situation, discusses the ongoing solutions and potential future challenges, and stresses the key areas for urgent policy intervention. It is based on a presentation held at the FREE Network webinar Fleeing the war zone: Will open hearts be enough?, which took place on March 14, 2022. The full webinar can be seen here.
The latest data (from March 15, 2022) shows that since February 24, 1.8 million refugees have already crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border. This number represents over 60 percent of Ukrainians who have fled the country thus far. Among this group that relocated to Poland, approximately 97 percent were people with Ukrainian citizenship. Most of the foreign nationals living in Ukraine before the war, and who came to Poland after its outbreak, have already returned to their countries of origin.
Figure 1. The influx of refugees from Ukraine to Poland since February 24, 2022.
Our estimates show that there are currently about 1.1 million Ukrainian war refugees in Poland. Many stay in large cities such as Warsaw, Kraków or Wrocław. The rest of those who crossed the Polish border transited to the other EU Member States or countries outside of Europe, such as Canada or the USA, reuniting with their families and friends.
In the first days after the outbreak of the war, refugee assistance in Poland was mostly provided by Polish families and households, as well as owners of guesthouses and hotels who made them available for the purpose of providing accommodation.
A similar situation took place at the border and at railway and bus stations where refugees were arriving, with a majority of support coming from volunteering citizens. This assistance largely consisted of the provision of basic necessities such as food, hygiene products, and medical or psychological first aid. The level of mobilization among non-governmental organizations, grass-roots initiatives, private citizens, and civil society, in general, is extremely commendable and should be accredited with providing the safe welcome refugees received upon arrival. For example, during the first days, Polish families sheltered several hundred thousand refugees, often in their own houses or apartments. There are currently two main Ukrainian social groups arriving in Poland: women with children and older persons over the age of 60. This is a result of Ukraine’s internal regulations, which prohibit men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving the country.
Among those who have managed to escape the war, there is a large group of people requiring very specialized support, e.g. children suffering from oncological diseases, and elderly with a high degree of disability. So far, these groups have been provided with the necessary support, but if these needs become more frequent, a review of the capacity of the Polish healthcare system and the system of support for the disabled will be needed.
In the first days after the war broke out, the situation at the border was very difficult. The waiting time for crossing reached up to 70 hours. However, this was related to problems with the information system and the limited number of border guards on the Ukrainian side. Currently, crossing the border is quick and seamless. Every day the Polish Border Police register 80 to 100 thousand individuals, a vast majority of them crossing into Poland. This is a many-fold increase compared to pre-war migration flows, which fluctuated around 12-15 thousand people per day. At the same time, over 80.000 people, mainly men, have crossed the Polish border to Ukraine in the last 20 days with the goal of joining the army or territorial defense.
For a long time, the Polish government held the position that there would be no need to build refugee centers. However, the government recently reversed this decision and decided to open a dozen centers, located in market and sports halls. Currently, over 100,000 people are staying in these types of temporary accommodation facilities. However, these centers are not sufficiently adapted for stays longer than a few days. It is necessary to prepare housing infrastructure (temporary accommodation centers equipped with habitable containers) in which refugees can stay for two or three months until they find another place to live.
So far, Poland has essentially dealt with two of three possible migratory waves. In the first, people with family members or friends living in Poland or in other EU Member States arrived. Before the war, there were already approximately 800 thousand Ukrainians working or studying in Poland. In the second wave, after the bombing of civilian facilities in large cities, people without family or friends living in Poland started arriving. They require full assistance. A third wave is possible, and this one may be much larger than the previous two. It may occur if the situation at the front worsens and the repressions by Russian troops become harsher. Such reports are already coming from eastern Ukraine. If the situation worsens, Poland could even face a couple of additional million people that would leave Ukraine. Under these circumstances, we should assume that the third wave would include young men in addition to women, children, and the elderly. This scenario is currently very unlikely, but cannot be completely ruled out.
Since the beginning of March, Poland has seen an increase in the activity of both local representatives of the government administration and the central government. Information has been gathered about vacancies in smaller cities and local communities where refugees could be accommodated. This is because large cities are on the verge of reaching their capacity for the number of refugees they are able to manage. In addition, a special law entered into force on March 13, which provides for a catalogue of support tools for refugees. The main issues are:
1. The possibility of obtaining an individual identification number, which will enable the opening of a bank account and grant access to the labor market, education, and social benefits. It will be possible to apply for the ID number from March 16. Certainly, large queues can be expected in the first days, as the procedure is complicated and rather bureaucratic. The government decided to require all the necessary information at the start of the application process, which could be complicated for some applicants and lead to additional delays. Based on recent numbers, up to 1 million Ukrainians may apply for an individual identification number in the near future.
2. Reimbursement of the costs of hosting refugees from Ukraine in Polish family homes and in private hotels. The government has agreed to cover the value of around 8 euros per day for each person. However, receiving this refund requires submitting a special application to the local administration offices, which may again cause various kinds of perturbations, and even resignation from obtaining such support.
3. Ukrainian children can be enrolled in Polish schools. It will also be possible to open school branches in temporary accommodation centers, as well as parallel Ukrainian classes inside Polish schools. At present, however, the preferred model is the inclusion of Ukrainian children in Polish classrooms. Currently, no major problems have been reported with this process, but only around 10% of Ukrainian children have entered Polish schools so far. Numerous challenges connected with this integration process are expected. Part of the solution could be distance learning or hybrid learning. The priority is to involve children in education as fast as possible so that they do not lose time while living in Poland from an educational development point of view.
4. A simplified system of qualifications recognition has been implemented for nurses and doctors. Unfortunately, contrary to the advice of experts, the act does not provide guidelines for a simplified qualification recognition of teachers, educators or psychologists from Ukraine. In his media statements, the Minister of Education and Science did not rule out introducing a simplified procedure in the near future. Such recognition could, to some extent, solve the problem of understaffing in Polish schools.
5. All adults from Ukraine who arrived after February 24 have open access to the labor market.
Until early March, the Polish government did not apply for support from other EU member states. Now, this position has changed. Over the first weekend of March alone, more than 20 trains were organized that made it possible for refugees interested in moving from Poland to countries such as Germany or other destinations within the EU. Additional relocation measures are expected in the near future. However, in contrast to the European migrant crisis in 2015, the relocation scheme of Ukrainian refugees is carried out on a voluntary, rather than a compulsory basis.
It is very difficult to predict what will happen in the next days or weeks. While it should be emphasized that Poland is managing the migration challenge well, this is not least due to the exceptional commitment of civil society. Certainly, in the coming months, Poland will not be able to cope with the integration of more than 800.000 people into the labor market and education system. Of course, it is possible to provide ad-hoc support, but that is completely different than integrating refugees into Polish society. Ukrainians are still treated as guests who are expected to return to their homes when possible. Such an assumption should not be changed until May when the situation in Ukraine will be more predictable. We must also be aware that we are dealing with dispersed families who will want to reunite as soon as possible. It is not known, however, whether this will take place in Poland or in Ukraine. It depends on how the situation develops in the weeks and months to come.
In the coming weeks, the key issue will be the relocation of Ukrainian refugees from large to smaller cities within not only Poland but also the European Union. It is absolutely necessary to coordinate activities both at the level of the Polish government and the European Commission. As far as the Polish government is concerned, a task force should be established to maintain constant contact with the European Commission and the EU Member States regarding the ability to relocate refugees from Poland to other countries. This team should be composed mainly of civil servants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior. It is also necessary to appoint a team coordinating the actions of voivodes, who are responsible for crisis management in accordance with Polish law. It is also critical to ensure the flow of information between local administrations and the government, as well as to coordinate the activities of non-governmental organizations, whose activity is key in dealing with the challenges related to the migration crisis. In the next stages, it will be necessary to adopt a systemic approach to the inclusion of Ukrainian children in the education system (Polish and Ukrainian, but functioning in Poland – remote learning), and adult refugees to the labor market.
In the end, I would like to recall my opinion, which is now popular in the media and among representatives of the central government, local governments and non-governmental organizations: “Helping refugees and managing migration crises is a marathon, not a sprint.” We must keep this in mind.
This brief is based on a section from a large policy report, which investigates to what extent education directly influences major migration decisions. The results indicate that education does not have a clear and persistent effect on most of the migration decisions of Ukrainians — while in 2005-2008 education did not have any effect on the probability of migration at all, in 2010-2012 an inverse relation between qualification and probability of migration appeared. It has been observed that education is positively related to the probability of finding high profile positions, such as professionals, technicians or clerks. Still, the analysis of 2005–2008 data tends to support the “brain-waste”, or better to say, “skills-waste” hypothesis for white-collar Ukrainian migrants but not for blue-collar workers. In 2010-2012 the hypothesis doesn’t hold. *