Repercussions of the Russia-Ukraine War on Global Migration

By Sarah Baughn, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

On April 18, 2023, the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program and the Henry J. Leir Institute for Migration and Human Security hosted a panel discussion titled “Repercussions of the Russia-Ukraine War on Global Migration.”

The panel consisted of Fletcher professors John Cerone and Karen Jacobsen; Olga Gulina, co-founder of the RUSMPI-Institute on Migration Policy in Berlin; and visiting scholars Stanislav Stanskikh and Maxim Krupskiy.

The event discussed the findings of a research project conducted by Gulina titled “Germany’s la Petite Russie: Russian émigrés’ exodus to metropolitan Berlin.” The conversation examined “the human impact of forced displacement” overall, focusing on Russians settling in Berlin and elsewhere. Gulina’s research was funded by the Russia and Eurasia Program and conducted through the Refugees in Towns (RIT) project at Fletcher, which is hosted by the Leir Institute and headed by Jacobsen.

Cerone explained the international legal context of forced displacement. “Certain relevant rights are conferred on all those subject to the jurisdiction of the state party–in particular, the freedom of movement.”Migrants are allowed freedom of movement in countries they are lawfully allowed to be in, but if someone is unlawfully in a territory, they do not benefit from that freedom of movement. 

Digging further into the legal definitions, Cerone explained a provision on the evacuation of children in the first Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention: “No party to the conflict shall arrange for the evacuation of children other than its own nationals to a foreign country, except for a temporary evacuation where compelling reasons of health or medical treatment or their safety so require.”

Cerone discussed the way Putin and the Russian government have violated this provision by relocating Ukrainian children to Russia. He also explained the International Criminal Court charges brought against the Russian government, noting the difficulty the court and observers face examining the realities of the war within Ukraine.

Gulina then provided a more sociological perspective, outlining the three scenarios most Russian migrants fall into since February 2022.

The first scenario she called “returning to a historical homeland,” or Russian migrants going to Israel, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Much of this migration occurred because of the ease of gaining citizenship in those countries. The second scenario was one of transit, in that many Russian migrants traveled through Kazakhstan and other neighboring countries before going to different destinations. The third scenario is what she called the “business scenario” to explain the many companies that relocated to Central Asia and Turkey when the war started. From January to October 2022, over 800 companies with Russian owners or that use Russian capital were registered in Kazakhstan. Gulina also mentioned that even labor migrants who had come to Russia decided to leave the country when the war broke out.

Two main waves of migrants left Russia on February 24, 2022, right after the war broke out, and after September 20, 2022, following the announcement of the partial mobilization.

“People who left Russia, they are not refugees; they are forced migrants.” Gulina said, “They don’t have any intention to return to Russia, but they can do so if they wish.”

Krupskiy introduced the legal mechanisms and realities in place that affect human rights defenders in Russia. He illustrated the harsh reality of life in Russia and why many of the migrants need to leave. He described teenagers going to jail for calling the conflict a “war” instead of a “special military operation” and going to prison for years for posting anti-war pictures on social media.

Krupskiy described how living under the law on “foreign agents” within Russia was almost impossible. A person labeled a “foreign agent” is practically unemployable, not allowed any privacy as a citizen within Russia, and often pushed out of the country simply because they cannot live a normal life.

Stanskikh asked Krupskiy how he describes himself. Krupskiy responded, “I do not see myself as a refugee. I see myself as a forced migrant.”

In response to an audience question, Cerone explained the difference between forced migrants and refugees, saying, “Forced migration is not a legal term; it just describes a phenomenon. Refugee describes a specific legal population.”

Responding to a question about Russian LGBTQ+ migrants and their legal status, Gulina answered, “The LGBTQ+ community is a special community that exists by supporting each other. Even though they qualify for asylum, they don’t tend to apply for it, and instead enroll in local universities [in Berlin] or college programs and au pair jobs.” 

Gulina concluded by disagreeing with her colleagues from Russia, stating, “All current immigration waves have less to do with the draconian legislation from Putin. Russia had an anti-gay propaganda law passed in 2013, but we did not see massive migration until after the war broke out. The main reason for migration outflow is the war…do not expect another massive outflow of migration from Russia. Instead, please support the existing Russian migrants because they need our help.”


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