How Ukraine Accession to the EU would Benefit Refugees
Samantha Libraty 15 September 2023

As the Russia-Ukraine war nears two years of fighting, the largest refugee crisis inside Europe in recent history continues on through difficult months. The status of some 7.6 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe, reported by the United Nations in October 2022, remains unknown.

This war coincides with Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, which has been years in the making and now possibly on the fast track. Internal EU debate centers around large scale enlargement to the East and benefits to the bloc with the ever-evolving Ukrainian issues. If Ukraine joins the EU, will this shift the opportunities and possibilities for refugees?

As of March 2022, the European Council began the Temporary Protection Directive, allowing Ukrainians to work and access social welfare across the EU. Since then, over 4.2 million Ukrainians have registered for temporary protection across the union. Without further protection, Ukrainian refugees will have increasing issues working in host countries and integrating into the EU.

Under the Temporary Protection Directive, which was extended through early 2024, Ukrainian refugees can live, work, receive health care and send their children to school in whichever EU country for up to three years. While a temporary solution, trends expect return rates to Ukraine will be low: a RAND study found that only about one-third of refugees worldwide return to their home countries a decade after hostilities ended.

With the expectation that Ukrainian refugees will remain in EU countries, there is a need for more permanent solutions. EU status would allow Ukrainian adults to join workforces and Ukrainian children to enroll in education.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Ukrainian refugees provided skilled labor in markets that lacked – EU countries face labor shortages and are in need of motivated workers. Governments and business groups moved quickly to court the newcomers with sponsorship programs and job fairs initially. While overall support for Ukrainian refugees is declining across Central and Eastern Europe, governments benefit from this skilled workforce and could benefit further from EU protections.

However, it is reported that most Ukrainian adult refugees are not working on account of issues such as the lack of recognition of non-EU diplomas and certifications, language barriers, and need for childcare. Another major hurdle of refugee workforces is the need to match refugee populations with job markets in need of labor – currently, there is no plan for distribution of refugees to job markets. EU bloc movement would provide expanded opportunities for a better match of labor to job markets.

Ukrainian adult refugees are more highly educated than the EU workforce with 69 percent of adult Ukrainian refugees with some higher education, compared with 29 percent overall in Ukraine and 33 percent of the entire EU workforce (Centre for Economic Strategy). RAND reports that this should give Ukrainian refugees opportunities in the EU labor market; however, only 20 percent of Ukrainian refugees are employed full time and 12 percent part time.

While EU accession does not solve all workforce hurdles, there is hope that EU accession would provide additional avenues for Ukrainian refugees to obtain work throughout the EU – benefitting both the EU bloc and refugee livelihoods. Additional refugee protections, such as childhood education and language training, would codify necessary investments in refugees during and post-conflict in Europe.

Without the necessary investments in refugees in the current moment, the EU will have a long-term aid problem and hosting children and adult refugees without future opportunities. The EU bloc will benefit from the Ukrainian refugee workforce and other contributions to their communities. The EU must work now to support the Ukrainian refugee population as the issue will only rise as the conflict continues and more refugees are fleeing Ukraine.


Samantha Libraty is a graduate student at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.

Cover photo:  refugees from Ukraine stand on a platform at Messebahnhof Laatzen (Germany) after their arrival. Photo by Michael Matthey/DPA Picture-Alliance via AFP.)


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