Refugees fleeing war-torn Ukraine are creating global migration crisis

Since the start of the Russian invasion in late February, fighting has displaced nearly one quarter of Ukraine’s population — mostly women, children and elders. The United Nations says more than 6.5 million people have moved to other locations within the country, while another 3.2 million have fled to neighboring countries.

What does this mass exodus mean internationally? Researchers with UNC Charlotte’s Migration Research Network (MRN) offer insights about the political, social and economic implications.

Beth Whitaker, professor of political science and executive director of the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies; Heather Smith, professor of geography; and Lan Kolano, professor and chair of the Department of Middle, Secondary and K-12 Education, co-lead the network. Migration and diaspora studies is among Charlotte’s research areas of focus and distinction.

Neighboring countries will bear the brunt of housing refugees from Ukraine; why is this a concern?

MRN researchers: Poland has admitted the largest number of refugees, followed by Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova. Media reports indicate that Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed, with many locals opening their homes to entire families. But as the conflict in Ukraine continues, its Eastern European neighbors will likely become less welcoming due to the economic strain on their support systems.

For example, in Tanzania, Kenya, Turkey and other countries that have hosted disproportionate numbers of refugees as a result of sharing borders with countries in (previous) conflicts, initial hospitality often has given way to frustration and animosity. As the media spotlight shifts to new global crises, international aid to support refugees and their host communities declines, increasing competition for scarce resources like housing, food and water. Host country politicians often blame the refugees themselves, amplifying xenophobia.

What is the likelihood of the United States and other Western nations accepting large numbers of refugees?

MRN researchers: Experience from other mass migrations shows that less than 1 percent of refugees are resettled in countries beyond the neighboring ones to which they fled, such as the United States and Canada, though initial signs indicate that Ukrainians may have more resettlement options than other refugees.

The United States has indicated it will admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. This would be more than the total number of refugees the U.S. has admitted in any year since the mid-1990s. The overwhelming majority of refugees and asylum seekers around the world stay in other countries in their regions until it is safe to return home, which can take years or even decades, and returnees often encounter resentment from people there who opted not to flee.

How could the mass exodus from Ukraine lead to a reassessment of the international refugee system?

MRN researchers: Host countries have called for reforms to share the burden of hosting refugees more broadly. Because economic scarcity increases the likelihood of war, a disproportionate number of the world’s conflicts take place in developing countries. Refugees flee to neighboring countries that often are similarly disadvantaged.

The United Nations relies on voluntary contributions from member states to support its refugee operations, putting it at the whims of budgetary constraints and democratic pressures in wealthier countries that are governed more democratically. As these countries step up to provide unprecedented support to Ukrainian refugees, they will face pressure to adopt a more equitable approach toward refugees from other countries in the future.

Why is UNC Charlotte especially well-positioned to lead research efforts related to migration and diaspora studies?

MRN researchers: Today, nearly 1 in 6 people in Mecklenburg County is foreign born, up from 1 in 100 in 1990. Globally, 272 million people live in countries other than where they were born, which is three times more than in 1970. No matter where they settle — Nairobi, New York or Charlotte — migrants, their hosts and the communities they leave behind must find ways to adapt to these transformations.

UNC Charlotte has a critical mass of scholars who conduct research related to migration and diaspora studies in topics such as migration patterns and flows, public opinion on immigration, immigration policy past and present, immigrant reception and inclusion, immigrant education and language learning, migration and climate change, and the social determinants of health and immigrant communities, to name a few. The network’s interdisciplinarity enables us to investigate the complexities of global migration through different lenses, allowing for richer analyses and more sophisticated problem solving.

From what we are seeing play out in Ukraine, migration is often an urgent issue. In many cases, it requires immediate response from a range of different constituencies: governments, non-governmental organizations, relief agencies and others. Such responses are far more likely to be effective if they are thoroughly considered and take into account multiple approaches and perspectives at the onset. Data-driven research that considers the people and systems involved, such as that done here at Charlotte, is crucial to informed decision making.

About the Migration Research Network co-leaders:

Beth Whitaker, a political scientist, focuses her research on the politics of migration within Africa, especially attitudes and policies toward refugees and migrants in host countries. She has conducted extensive field research in Tanzania and Kenya, sharing the results with local and national policymakers. Several Kenyans are currently using her research about diaspora voting to lobby for more overseas polling stations in the country’s August 2022 presidential election. Recently, she started researching migration attitudes in the United States, including how different characteristics of undocumented immigrants affect support for deportation.

Heather Smith, an applied geographer and engaged researcher, has partnered with immigrant-serving organizations to investigate access to health care and other critical services for immigrants. She has researched patterns of immigrant neighborhood settlement and experiences of receptivity and integration as well as the connection between, and consequences of, concentrated immigrant poverty. A community outcome of her research about the evolution of New South cities as emerging immigration gateways contributed to the development and assessment of exhibits and community programming at the Levine Museum of the New South.

Lan Kolano, an educational researcher, focuses on the academic, language and identity development of immigrant learners; the fostering of critical multicultural efficacy in teacher preparation programs; and how classroom innovations can promote productive discourse on race, language and power. Her recent research highlights the work of several local grassroots nonprofit organizations and the ways they have created transformative spaces that uplift the lives of immigrant communities in North Carolina.

Photo, left to right, Kolano, Whitaker and Smith.