15. The labour market integration challenges of Ukrainian refugee women

Jean-Christophe Dumont
Ave Lauren

Amidst the ongoing devastation caused by Russia’s large-scale war of aggression against Ukraine, more than 10 million Ukrainians have become either internally displaced or refugees abroad. In April 2023, there were around 4.7 million displaced Ukrainians in OECD countries. Most refugees – defined in this chapter as persons who have obtained some sort of international protection, including temporary protection or similar national protection status (as in the case of most refugees from Ukraine) – remain in neighbouring countries to Ukraine, but some have returned or moved onward, including increasingly to non-EU OECD countries. As of April 2023, OECD countries with the highest total numbers of recorded refugees include Poland (1 million), Germany (922 000), the Czech Republic (500 000), the United States (270 000), the United Kingdom (193 000), Canada (190 000), Italy (173 000), and Spain (171 000) (data from UNHCR or collected directly from OECD countries).

As host countries are transitioning from reception to medium- and long-term measures, ensuring a swift and effective labour market integration is essential for allowing Ukrainian refugees to rebuild their lives and to achieve stable livelihoods. The unusual gender dimension of the Ukrainian refugees, however, presents challenges for most host countries. The general mobilisation has prevented most men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country, which is why the refugee inflows from Ukraine are comprised mainly of women, children and elderly people. In virtually all host countries, at least 70% of adult Ukrainian refugees are women. In some countries, the figures are even higher. In Italy, Poland, Estonia and the United Kingdom, for instance, the share of women among adults exceeds 80% (Figure 15.1).

This is markedly different from other recent refugee flows. Prior to the start of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, at the end of 2021, there were about 89.3 million forcibly displaced individuals worldwide, out of whom women accounted for about 49% (UNHCR, 2022[1]). Women make up a similar share (53%) among those who have sought protection in Colombia in the context of the Venezuelan migration and refugee crisis (UNHCR, 2022[2]). In other cases, women have been disproportionately underrepresented among refugee arrivals, notably during the 2015-17 mixed flows in Europe. Between 2015 and 2017, according to Eurostat, women lodged only about 30% of all asylum applications and received 35% of all positive first instance decisions in the EU-28.

In the context of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, many women have been fleeing with family members, including children. The available data from host countries suggests that, on average, over a third of Ukrainian refugees are minors and around 4-6% are aged 65 and over (OECD, 2023[3]). Different surveys offer some further insights on this. One is the EUAA-OECD Survey of Arriving Migrants from Ukraine (SAM – UKR), which surveyed 3 932 adults between April and August 2022 online (82% were female with a mean age of 38 years; this survey may not be representative for the overall refugee population). Among its respondents, 9 in 10 travelled with family members (86%), including 38% who travelled with children only and 30% with dependent adults (EUAA/IOM/OECD, 2022[4]). The UNHCR’s survey – whose first round is based on 4 900 interviews with refugees from Ukraine conducted between May and June 2022 in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and the Slovak Republic – found that more than 70% of respondents left Ukraine accompanied by other persons (mainly immediate family) with 18% travelling with infants (0-4 years old), 53% with children (5-17 years old), 21% with older persons (60+ years old) and 23% with at least one person with specific needs (UNHCR, 2022[5]).

Ukrainian refugee communities in OECD countries are thus primarily comprised of female-led households, where women face the pressures of securing families’ basic needs and well-being making their speedy labour market integration that much more critical. Yet, refugee women often have worse labour market outcomes compared to other groups. Immigrant women frequently face a “double disadvantage”, as their labour market outcomes are worse compared to both immigrant men and native-born women; refugee women may suffer from a “triple disadvantage” as the challenges related to gender, immigrant status and forced migration add up and/or mutually reinforce each other (Liebig and Tronstad, 2018[6]). Refugees generally struggle to enter the labour market and it can take up to 10 years to have half the arrivals in employment and up to 20 years to have a similar employment rate as the native-born. Even then, female refugees have notably lower employment rates (45% compared to 62% among male refugees) (European Commission/OECD, 2016[7]).

Ukrainian refugee women, however, have some characteristics that facilitate their integration prospects. First, Ukrainian refugees have often benefitted from immediate labour market access in OECD countries – contrary to the general pattern of asylum seekers who cannot access the labour market for months. The activation of the Temporary Protection Directive (2001/55/EC) on 4 March 2022, for the first time ever, gave Ukrainians the right to work in the EU without delay, and most other OECD countries outside the EU, including Canada and the United States, also granted speedy access to the labour market (OECD, 2022[8]). Second, the educational profile of Ukrainian arrivals is conducive to finding employment. Despite significant variability between host countries, the available evidence suggests that the educational attainment levels of Ukrainian refugees are not only higher than that of other refugee groups but also exceed that of the Ukrainian and EU population averages (OECD, 2023[3]). Third, Ukrainians have been able to leverage existing social networks in host countries. Refugees often lack networks in host countries, affecting their ability to seek jobs and access recruitment channels. Ukrainians, however, had a sizable diaspora in OECD countries before the start of the war. At the end of 2021, according to Eurostat, 1.57 million Ukrainian citizens were authorised to stay in the EU, representing the third biggest group of non-EU citizens, behind citizens of Morocco and Türkiye. Beyond the EU, Canada was home to about 1.36 million people of Ukrainian descent (Stick and Hou, 2022[9]).

Early evidence regarding the labour market inclusion of Ukrainian refugees indicates that their entry into the labour market has, indeed, been faster than for other refugee groups in the OECD (OECD, 2023[3]). As of November 2022, in a few EU OECD countries, the share of working-age Ukrainian refugees (most of whom are women) in employment was already over 40% (e.g. in Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom). Elsewhere, the share was lower but increasing. While the early outcomes are good, they are not necessarily an indicator of long-term success and, despite the relatively swift entry, much of the early employment uptake has been concentrated in low-skilled jobs, which is why skills mismatches are widespread (OECD, 2023[3]).

The provision of adequate childcare facilities is key to allow parents with young children to take up employment. As most arrivals from Ukraine are women with children, often fleeing without their partners, the availability of adequate and affordable childcare is a precondition for refugee women’s labour market integration. Some countries have sought to address these challenges already, for instance, by opening new childcare centres or engaging private childcare centres to expand the number of available spaces for Ukrainian children (e.g. Latvia and Poland), while others offer help with childcare costs (e.g. Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom).

Despite these measures, there are structural challenges that may affect the availability of affordable childcare in the longer term. Most host countries were facing severe shortages of care places and staff already prior to the influx of refugees. Childcare fees for parents can be high in OECD countries, even after rebates, cash benefits and tax reliefs, making childcare affordability a major concern for many families, regardless of their origin or migratory status (OECD, 2020[10]). High fees can substantially weaken employment incentives for parents, particularly for the many Ukrainian mothers fleeing without their partners, as they may not have access to informal networks of care support (Chapter 24).

Many Ukrainian women faced similar challenges already in Ukraine. Prior to the war, about 30% of Ukrainian women between 25-39 were economically inactive compared to about 9% of men (Ukraine LFS 2021). Strong social expectations in Ukraine for women to be more engaged in performing family duties, together with limited access to childcare, likely contributed toward such outcomes. Findings from a survey conducted by UN Women and UNFPA among 6 108 persons aged at least 18 in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine before the war started, suggest that more than half of all female respondents in Ukraine (about 55%) believe that it is better for preschool children to have a mother who is not in paid employment (UN Women/NFPA, 2022[11]).

In the context of Ukrainian arrivals in host countries, childcare pressures are not restricted to young children as the relatively low shares of school enrolment and preference for remote learning among Ukrainian children can also negatively impact their mothers’ labour market outcomes in some countries. As children account for one-third of all refugee inflows from Ukraine, the start of the 2022-23 school year prompted most host countries to make substantial efforts to scale up their classroom and teaching capacities, including hiring Ukrainian teachers and teaching assistants (OECD, 2022[8]). While the number of Ukrainian children enrolled has increased, it remains challenging to know the exact enrolment rates due to onward and return movements. However, significant variability exists between countries. In Poland and Italy, about 55% of students are enrolled, while the enrolment rates in Ireland exceed 90% (these numbers refer to registered beneficiaries of temporary protection of compulsory schooling age, i.e. from 7 to 17 years old).

Moreover, the absence of their partners and the exposure to various stress factors and trauma due to displacement add to the mental load of their family obligations, including thinking, planning, scheduling, organising, caring and being responsible for family members (Dean, Churchill and Ruppanner, 2021[12]). Yet these obligations are potentially heightened due to uprooting and displacement with additional expectations for psycho-social support care to family members. This leaves less time to mothers to plan and prepare for their employment or to recover from their engagement in paid employment (Craig and Brown, 2016[13]).

All recently arrived refugees have vulnerabilities, but the atypical gender profile can increase different risks faced by the Ukrainian arrivals. Refugee women are under a particular risk of gender-based violence (Chapters 6 and 7) and several host countries are reporting an increase in different forms of harassment, exploitation and abuse (including economic) of Ukrainians since February 2022 (UNFPA, 2022[14]). Some OECD countries, including Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain, have opened investigations regarding trafficking in human beings.

Alongside the atypical profile, the notably larger roles of private citizens and initiatives in supporting the reception of Ukrainian refugees have also increased the risk of exploitation. This has been particularly a concern in relation to housing (OECD, 2022[15]). Most host countries have relied heavily on private accommodation to house new arrivals. In Belgium and Italy, for instance, the share of those housed with private hosts reached 90%. Private offers provided an agile solution in the beginning of the crisis and have helped to cope with the sudden housing demand, yet they also raise concerns about safety. Similarly to housing, many ad hoc matching pages mediating job opportunities from private individuals and business owners have sprung up and come with their own risks, including falling victim to traffickers targeting these sites and engaging in undeclared work (OECD, 2023[3]).

OECD countries have been attentive to these risks from the early stages of the crisis and different mitigation strategies have been put in place. In Poland, for instance, a framework has been developed in co-operation with police for screening organisations, foreign entities and individuals looking to volunteer and provide aid to Ukrainian refugees (CBSS, 2022[16]). In Luxembourg, the Red Cross and Caritas organise house visits because of an identified risk of labour and sexual exploitation. In Germany, the online central support portal for the Ukrainian refugees (germany4ukraine.de) provides information on basic labour rights and directs to counselling centres on assistance in cases of potential exploitation and trafficking. Meanwhile the Danish Centre against Human Trafficking, jointly with the country’s cyber police units and financial institutions, consult with tech companies such as Meta and Microsoft to better detect and prevent trafficking online (CBSS, 2022[16]).

A major challenge for integration is the lack of clarity regarding the potential length of stay of displaced Ukrainians in host countries. Different surveys on Ukrainians’ future intentions reveal a shared uncertainty about the future. Moreover, as the different rounds of UNHCR’s intentions surveys suggest, this uncertainty may not diminish over time but increase instead: in June 2022, about 10% of respondents were undecided about return in the near future, while in September this share had risen to 43% (see details on the first round of the survey above. The second round covered over 4 800 interviews between August and September 2022) (UNHCR, 2022[5]; 2022[17]). High levels of uncertainty can deter refugees from making country-specific investments in host societies, such as learning a language, and hinder integration due to the potentially temporary nature of their stay.

The decisions about return or settlement in host countries are shaped at least to some degree by family considerations, especially among Ukrainian women who fled without their partners. The information on Ukrainians’ return intentions is already scarce, but even less is known about the differences between groups. In Germany, a survey by the Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research (including two waves of surveys of Ukrainian refugees in Germany in June and October), however, offers some insight into the ways in which gender and family circumstances may shape return intentions. The findings suggest that men rather than women (68 versus 51%) and more than two-thirds of those who fled with their partners plan to stay in Germany (Panchenko, 2022[18]). These differences between men and women may be explained by the difficulties of return of potential conscripts but are also due to most Ukrainian men in Germany live with their partners and families.

In contrast, the vast majority of Ukrainian women live without their partners. Among the respondents of the first round of UNHCR’s intentions survey, the large majority (82%) had separated from family members, mainly due to mandatory military conscription (61%) and/or because their family members did not wish to leave Ukraine (48%) (UNHCR, 2022[5]). Reuniting with families is thus one of the main reasons for intending to return: almost half of those respondents who are planning to return to Ukraine in the near future do so for family reunification (48%), just narrowly behind the desire to go back to their home country (49%) (UNHCR, 2022[17]). Family reunification was the main driving factor for return also according to border interviews conducted by IOM (68%, multiple responses possible in a survey to 1 115 people interviewed at three border crossing points in Poland between April and June 2022) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Poland (371 people interviewed who were about to board a train to Ukraine from Warsaw between 4 and 15 July 2022) (IOM, 2022[19]; NRC, 2022[20]). The breakdown of family units and the need to plan for family reunification – whether in Ukraine or elsewhere – deepens the already high levels of uncertainty for many Ukrainian refugee women in host countries and prevent planning for longer-term displacement.

Because Ukrainian refugee women face barriers to labour market entry, they may take on employment that is below their skill-levels. Any gainful employment or income may be seen as satisfactory under the current circumstances. However, in the long term this is not an efficient use of (deteriorating) skills both from the perspective of individual refugee women, as well as host economies.

It is thus necessary to ensure that there are effective support measures in place to promote employment of Ukrainian refugee women in jobs of suitable quality. In recent years, labour market integration of refugees has become priority in many OECD countries, especially following increasing inflows to Europe. Consequently, some host countries have been largely relying upon their existing integration systems during the Ukrainian refugee crisis (OECD, 2022[8]). In some cases, however, countries have added integration measures or modified the existing ones to better address the needs of the new Ukrainian arrivals. Up to date, such adaptations have focused primarily on improving skills transferability and foreign qualifications assessments (OECD, 2023[3]).

Although gender-specific needs and challenges were widely addressed during the reception phase, the adjustments related to the atypical gender profile of Ukrainian arrivals in relation to labour market integration are less common. This is partly because many OECD countries look to support labour market integration through their mainstream integration systems. In several EU OECD countries, including Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands, general migrant integration policies already incorporate gender-sensitive measures or follow a gender mainstream approach (EMN, 2022[21]). Yet this is not the case everywhere and mainstream systems may not be able to support the labour market integration of Ukrainian refugee women in an effective manner. There are some targeted initiatives in OECD countries, focusing mainly on counselling, networking and work placements (for example, Her Mentors project in Canada and #DamyRadę or #WeCanDoIt initiative in Poland), but they remain an exception.

While there have been substantial improvements in refugee integration systems across OECD countries, the available policies and activities have been often developed with different refugee or migrant profiles in mind. As countries are looking to facilitate the labour market integration of Ukrainians, it is important to ensure that the existing measures consider the specific profiles of Ukrainian refugees. Different steps are being taken to account for the unusual educational profiles (OECD, 2023[3]), but the atypical gender dimension also requires attention and policy adjustments, especially in relation to care burdens, exploitation risks, the breakdown of family units and uncertainties about the length of stay that may deter Ukrainian women’s integration otherwise. After all, the Ukrainian refugee crisis is a profoundly gendered crisis calling for gendered responses.


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