Espreso. Global

Ukraine’s demographic apocalypse: millions of refugees, war losses and how to address population challenges

Kate Kikot
2 March, 2024 Saturday

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the country was already facing a demographic crisis. War casualties, combined with millions of displaced Ukrainians both inside and outside the country, have created a grim outlook of Ukraine's demographic prospects

In this article, Espreso has delved into Ukraine’s demography challenges, covering the following points:

  • Pre-war population decline
  • Refugees from Ukraine
  • War casualties 
  • How many people live in Ukraine
  • After-war demography forecasts
  • How to overcome the crisis 

Pre-war population decline

Ukraine has undergone a significant population loss over its more than three decades of independence as a result of low birth rates, high mortality rates and high migration dynamics. Ukraine had a population of about 52 million when it gained independence, but prior to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2021, the country's population was 41 million.

Back in 2021, Ukraine’s demographic situation was so challenging that the UN recognized Ukraine’s population is one of the fastest shrinking in the world and likely to decrease to 35 million by 2050. 

The researchers said that about one third of Ukrainians die before the age of 65 while more than half of these deaths are preventable. 

There were an estimated 3 million Ukrainian workers abroad at that time.

The Russia’s war on Ukraine has only worsened the country's already dire demographic situation, raising the possibility of a demographic disaster. 

Refugees from Ukraine

As Ukraine has entered its third year of war with Russia, many of the Ukrainian refugees face an uncertain future. 

According to Ella Libanova, Director of the Institute of Demography and Social Studies, Doctor of Economics and Ukraine’s most renowned researcher in this field, over 6 million Ukrainian refugees are registered globally. More than half of them have found refuge in Europe. 

  • Poland has taken in 1.5 million Ukrainians,

  • Germany – 1 million,

  • and the Czech Republic has about 490,000 refugees from Ukraine, according to UNHCR figures.

“After two years of full-scale war in Ukraine, amidst massive destruction and ongoing shelling and missile attacks across the country, the future for millions who have been displaced remains shrouded in uncertainty,” Philippe Leclerc, the UNHCR regional director for Europe, said in late February.

Libanova says that approximately 40% of Ukrainian refugees, depending on the country, are children. Another 20% are men of different ages and health conditions. And the rest are women.

According to the latest UN data, only 65% of refugees plan to return to Ukraine from abroad. The share of people with such intentions has decreased over the two years of war – from 77% and 84%, respectively.

If the US House does not pass a new aid package for Ukraine, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country will surge dramatically, says a Forbes article titled Possible 20 Million Ukrainians Will Migrate If Putin Wins In Ukraine.

“Credible estimates project that if Putin wins now, over 20 million Ukrainians will flee westward. Projecting from a Rand estimate of the cost of refugees exiting Ukraine to Europe in the event of a Russian victory, and assuming over 20 million migrants, the cost could exceed 1 trillion Euros per year. And those are just the immigration consequences of the failure of U.S. leadership on the world stage,” the author says.

Germany also makes its own forecasts. If Ukraine collapses, Germany’s government assumes that around 10 million people will leave the country. In this scenario, the vast majority of refugees would head to Western Europe; one destination country would be Germany, says Welt TV channel.

“If we do not change our strategy in supporting Ukraine, the worst-case scenario of a mass exodus from Ukraine and an expansion of the war to NATO countries will become much more likely. Then ten million refugees is a lower assumption,” said CDU foreign policy expert Roderich Kiesewetter.

War casualties

Speaking at a news conference in Kyiv to mark the second anniversary of the war, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that 31,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed in the full-scale war. 

This was the first time he has provided an official data on Ukraine’s military losses. 

During the war, Kyiv refused to disclose how many soldiers have been killed. In August 2022, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, then the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, said 9,000 troops had been killed.

As to civilians over the two years of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the UN Monitoring Mission has confirmed 30,457 civilian casualties: 10,582 killed and 19,875 wounded. The Monitoring Mission emphasizes that the actual number of civilian casualties is much higher, as many of them have not yet been confirmed.

"The long-term impact of this war in Ukraine will be felt for generations," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.

How many people live in Ukraine now

As an independent nation, Ukraine has carried out only one census 23 years ago – in 2001. According to this census, at that time the country was inhabited by 48.5 million people. 

Plans were made to hold another census in 2013, but they were postponed: first until 2016, then to 2020, and next to 2023. Now the ongoing full-scale war makes it impossible to organize a census.

According to the Ukrainian Institute for the Future think tank, as of the beginning of May 2023, the number of permanent residents was 29 million. Only a third of them are employed.

17 million people are economically inactive,

  • of which 8 million are pensioners,

  • 4.8 million are children under the age of 15.

12 million are economically active population:

  • 9.1-9.5 million are employed

  • 2.5-2.9 million are unemployed

The Ukrainian Institute for the Future notes that there is a threat that in several years, Ukraine will simply have no one to create GDP and rebuild the country. 

After-war demography forecasts

In August 2023, the Ptukha Institute of Demography and Social Studies of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences has predicted the population of Ukraine by 2037.

“We estimate that by the beginning of 2037 there will be 30-31 million people. Moreover, we made the forecast for the entire territory of Ukraine, including Crimea and certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions occupied until February 24. We made separate estimates for these areas and used Russian statistics for Crimea, and they were also adjusted to reflect the available information,” Oleksandr Hladun, PhD, Deputy Research Director at the Ptukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies, said in an interview with Espreso correspondent Valeria Pashko.

The Ukrainian Institute for the Future adds that it is currently difficult to predict how many people will be in Ukraine in two or three years, considering those who left the country because of the war.

"It all depends on the news from the front and on government policy. If the war ends this year or early next year, and there are opportunities to rebuild the country, then the current 29 million Ukrainians in Ukraine will be joined by 4-5 million from other countries. Much depends on economic recovery and job opportunities. 30% of Ukrainians are currently unemployed. Many people will return from the front. Not everyone will have a job right away. Some will go abroad to their families," says Anatoliy Amelin, co-founder and director of economic programs at the think tank.

When the war stops its hot phase and post-war recovery begins, then Ukrainians will be very much needed, says Ella Libanova.

“And every day that Ukrainians stay abroad reduces the likelihood of their return, because they are already adapting there. More than half of Ukrainians are already working abroad. Children attend schools or kindergartens, because in most countries it is compulsory,” Libanova adds.

The scientist also predicts a second wave of migration after the war ends, because some men are likely to go to their wives who have settled and adapted abroad. 

According to forecasts for 2037, there will be 16 million women and 14.5 million men. Ukraine had a deficit of men even before 2014. There were 85 men per 100 women. Analysts say the war will deepen this crisis, because the mortality rate of men during war is much higher. 

Research funded by the Council of the European Union estimates that Ukraine’s population will shrink by 24–33%, depending on the war’s duration.

How to overcome the crisis 

The Ministry of Social Policy is preparing a strategy for Ukraine's demographic development until 2040. Oleksandr Hladun, Deputy Research Director at the Ptukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies, says the strategy sets out specific tasks and goals to change the situation.

The first goal is to create conditions for increasing the birth rate and support families. Creating favorable conditions for combining parenthood with career, providing comprehensive support, which will include both financial instruments and various forms of social support for families with children.

The second goal is to reduce premature mortality. The task is to promote the skills for self-preserving behavior, such as proper nutrition, regular medical check-ups, and reacting to air raid alarms. 

The issue of the quality of medical care is also being considered, which involves adapting the network of health care facilities to the specific needs of the population. Moreover, the social and medical sphere should adapt to a significant rise in the number of people with disabilities. This consequence of the war is already being felt acutely.

The third goal is to ensure migration growth of the population. This means the return of refugees who left Ukraine as a result of the full-scale war and those migrants who left the country before it began.

Ella Libanova believes that Ukraine should rely not only on the newest wave of those who left after February 24, 2022, but also on the return of those who left earlier.

“These may even be children of migrants. It is possible, they can be brought back. It seems to me that this is the direction of our actions. And if we are able to return them, we should turn them into a kind of Ukrainian agents, so that they contribute to the image of Ukraine and improve it,” she says.

The fourth goal is to ensure the optimal distribution of the population across the territory of Ukraine. This applies to IDPs, facilitating their return to home cities and villages or integrating them into the local communities where they live. 

The fifth goal is to adapt society to demographic aging and create conditions for active retirement. This includes maintaining health and creating the right conditions for older people to be able to work or to have an active lifestyle. 

While Ukraine’s demographic trends are not positive, the Ukrainian people have proven to be incredibly resilient during trying historic times, even going so far as to stop some seemingly inevitable processes. 

Ukraine’s main researcher, Ella Libanova, even says that in 2022 the Institute for Demography and Social Studies made a serious mistake in its estimates of deaths and births, underestimating the number of newborns and overestimating the number of deceased. Therefore, the situation is slightly better than social scientists expected.

Ukrainians currently live in incredibly harsh conditions, yet they show a strong faith in their ability to defend themselves, and optimism about the future of their nation.


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