Historians' Watch

Ukraine: Histories and Boundaries of a Refugee Crisis

Less than a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) launched an emergency appeal. In the coming months, they suggested, 4 million Ukrainian refugees could require protection and assistance in neighbouring countries while 12 million more may require relief and protection within Ukraine. Rolling news and social media has made the plight of families crowding into railway stations and desperately waiting to cross borders highly visible to those like me who witness the war from afar, anxiously watching estimates of refugee numbers climb to more two million. The Wall Street Journal has suggested this represents the ‘biggest movement of people in Europe since World War II’. Comparisons with historical episodes of displacement are fraught with difficulties, but it is impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the speed and scale at which people have been forced to flee Ukraine since February 24th 2022.


Sign featuring ‘Accept Refugees’ against a Ukraine Flag background. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Displacement has been part of life in Ukraine for almost eight years. The conflict which followed the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed creation of the People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014 has resulted in the displacement of around 2 million people. Around one million fled to Russia. By 2021, more than 1.4 million were reported to be displaced within Ukraine. These internally displaced peoples (IDPs) have struggled for recognition and assistance, and quickly faded from international consciousness. Thus, what is framed in the western media as a ‘new’ or ‘unprecedented’ crisis is, for many Ukrainians, part of a longer trajectory of displacement and dislocation. For some, the displacements of the last eight years are inseparable from longer histories of forced migration. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thousands of Crimean Tatars left their homes following Russian imperial annexation and the Crimean war. In 1944 the entire Crimean Tatar population was deported to Central Asia under Stalin’s orders. The end of the Soviet period provided a chance to return, though the homeland did not always offer the reception they hoped for. The events of 2014 led thousands of Crimean Tatars to leave their homes once again, seeking security in other parts of Ukraine. As journalist Maxim Edwards put it, for Crimean Tatars, ‘being a refugee runs in the family’.

For other Ukrainians the events of the last two weeks have recalled the trauma of past violence and displacements during two world wars. During the First World War Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and Jews were among those displaced by the clash and collapse of empires and attempts to forge new states in their aftermath. The Russian Revolutions and civil war prompted further flight. Two decades later Ukraine’s population was subjected to mass killing and forced migration again. More than a million Jews and Roma perished in Ukraine during the Holocaust. After 1945 Ukrainian forced labourers, concentration camp prisoners and prisoners of war were among those gathered in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps of the Allied occupation zones. Some returned to the Soviet Union by choice, others by compulsion. In the aftermath of war, the redrawing of borders and incorporation of western Ukraine into Soviet territory was accompanied by state sponsored ‘transfers’ of hundreds of thousands of Poles and Ukrainians, designed to promote the ethnic consolidation of the borderlands.


Frequent references to the Second World War have played an important role in the international media’s framing of the invasion of Ukraine as a European crisis. This framing may be intended as a basis for solidarity and assistance, but it also obscures experiences of war and forced migration from the more recent past, not least the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. This is a reminder that the imaginative and the political boundaries of Europe are unstable, that people and places considered liminal are claimed or cease to matter as ‘crises’ pass and political agendas shift. Over the course of the twentieth century the place of Eastern European migrants and refugees in Europe has remained precarious. The care and attention accorded to refugees in regions imagined as ‘peripheral’ to Europe continues to be deeply uneven. For example, the displacement of up to 90,000 Armenians as a result of the second Karabakh war in 2020 seemed to pass with little remark beyond Armenia and its diaspora.

The framework of a ‘European refugee crisis’ does not fully capture the implications of current displacements in and from Ukraine. The mobile and interconnected nature of late Soviet society created deep cross-border personal, familial and cultural connections. In consequence, many families and individuals have experienced a continuum of crisis, repeatedly affected by ostensibly separate episodes of displacement. To complicate matters further, sanctions, media closures, the victimisation of anti-war protesters and rumours of border closures have already prompted some Russians to leave their homes. Some have travelled to the South Caucasus, a region already  experiencing its own issues of protracted displacement and where welcome has been somewhat uncertain. For Central Asian communities which rely heavily on remittances from migrant labour in Russia the conflict raises other sets of concerns. These phenomena are not the same as the flight of Ukrainians in the face of extreme violence, but they are a reminder that the war will have consequences for people on the move far beyond Ukraine.

Recognition and Rights

On March 3rd the EU announced temporary protection for refugees from Ukraine, allowing them to remain for three years with access to employment and education. Such measures are undoubtedly necessary to protect and assist those fleeing Ukraine, but they also have thrown the lack of protection and challenges regarding ‘legitimacy’ faced by refugees from the global south in Europe into even sharper relief. In other places rights and protections for displaced Ukrainians remain uncertain. The British Government’s unwillingness to suspend visa regimes reflects the realities of Britain’s deeply unequal treatment of those fleeing violence or persecution. This contrasts with the ‘proud tradition of welcome’ evoked by government and press in recent years. Deborah Kang has meanwhile shown how the selective nature of temporary protected status in the USA has left refugees in other parts of the world vulnerable, both past and present.

The exclusions and inconsistencies in refugee protection exposed by mass displacement from Ukraine have long histories. While the definition of the refugee enshrined in the 1951 convention appears universal, it was primarily imaged in terms of refugees from Europe, and its application to other settings has been gradual, contested and remains uneven. As other posts in History Workshop Online’s Moving People series have shown, the contemporary system of protection and assistance for refugees continues to reflect the colonial and cold war contexts in which it emerged. Racism faced by people of colour trying to flee Ukraine may be contextualised in terms of the racialised nature of the ‘refugee regime’ as much as it is in terms of local contexts of racism. Engaging with these issues now can feel uncomfortable for those who, like me, comment from the comfort of our homes, but it does not have to come at the expense of an urgent response to the suffering of those fleeing Ukraine. As Ervin Malakaj writes in a powerful reflection on the relationship between histories of displacement in the Balkans and in Ukraine, ‘it is possible to hold up multiple solidarity commitments at once without disrespecting each individually’. Refugee histories can be expressions of empathy and compassion and at the same time expose and challenge inequalities embedded in refugee protection and relief.

New Histories, New Archives?

A number of historians have demonstrated that refugee histories rarely provide straightforward lessons from the past for policymakers, but that they can play other vital roles. In the case of Ukraine, critical moments in the nation’s history have occurred in contexts of displacement. At a moment when historical narratives have been deliberately distorted, these histories contribute to a more complex picture of Ukraine  as a plural, diverse space, without minimising the fractures and tensions that this has entailed. Equally importantly, histories of displacements past can provide frameworks through which refugees make sense of their experiences and help determine the routes they follow in rebuilding lives and communities.

Refugee histories remind us that those displaced by war were not simply victims. As the ‘Unlikely Refuge’ project shows, Eastern Europe has not only been a site of violence. It is also a space where local humanitarian projects for relief and reconstruction have developed. While the history of diasporic involvement in refugee relief remains relatively understudied, it is clear that shared histories of displacement or migration shape conceptions of solidarity, humanitarian responsibility and practices of relief. In my hometown, Rochdale, a vigil for Ukraine was held on ‘Lviv Bridge’, a site commemorating the roots of the Ukrainian DPs who settled in the town through the European Volunteer Worker schemes after the Second World War.

The invasion of Ukraine poses multiple threats to archives of its migrant and refugee histories, from the abandonment and loss of family photos and mementos to the deliberate destruction of national archives, cultural heritage and sites of memory. At the same time, refugees in and of Ukraine are producing different kinds of archives, documenting their experiences in real time with smartphones. This practice  is by no means unique to Ukraine, but it brings to the fore new questions for historians who have grappled with the methodological and ethical questions raised by engaging with refugee voices. To what extent do these personal archives enable refugees to tell autonomous stories, and narrate their own pasts? Do they challenge representations of displacement shaped by humanitarian organisations or the media? How can records be collected or catalogued? In the longer term, what are the ethics and responsibilities for historians accessing, and analysing images which appear to be shared freely but are in fact created in moments of crisis and great suffering?


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *