Explained: Impact of Russia-Ukraine war on Europe’s demography

The European Union has been plagued by a demographic issue for a long time — the region is getting older and more people are dying than being born.

Europe’s median age of 43 is nearly four years older than that of North America, the next-greyest region. The population of the European Union is expected to peak at just shy of 450 million within the next few years, then dip below 424 million by 2070. Andrej Plenkovic, Croatia’s prime minister, called declining population “an almost existential problem for some nations”. And the Croatian PM’s concern is well-founded in the fact that the issue of dwindling numbers in the formerly communist countries of eastern Europe is compounded by outmigration.

However, things began to change radically since Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, with over 5 million people taking shelter in nearby countries. In the weeks since the start of the invasion, all of Ukraine’s borders, except those with Russia and Belarus, have remained open. Most refugees used one of the 31 border checkpoints in western Ukraine and entered Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. We take a look at countries which have taken in the maximum number of refugees and how that might have an impact on the demography of the continent.

Where are the refugees going?

Some 5.6 million people — the bulk of them women and children — have fled Ukraine since the war began, the vast majority to countries bordering it on the west. Poland, which until recently exported more people than it received, has taken in more than half of these. The population of Warsaw expanded by 17 per cent in weeks, according to figures put out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Hungary, whose population had shrunk from 10.7 million in the mid-1980s to 9.8 million in 2020, has received more than 500,000 Ukrainians.

For countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and possibly the Baltic states, the crisis is a moment for them to shift from becoming immigration countries rather than outmigration countries.

Countries to the west of Ukraine look like demographic gainers, although the influx is putting a strain on some, especially Moldova, which has received more than 400,000 refugees — equivalent to 15 per cent of its population. For Poland, where around 1.4 million Ukrainians lived and worked in 2020, the arrival of millions more turns the demographic clock back to before the second world war, when the country had a large Ukrainian minority.

This comes at a time when the ruling Law and Justice Party has been keen to increase the number of Poles. In 2016, it is sought to raise the birth rate by giving families 500 zlotys ($115) a month for every child after the first. The effect was mainly to women already planning to have children to have earlier lest the benefit them withdrawn. The number of births rose in the scheme’s first two years, but dropped in 2020 to the lowest level since 2003. The Ukraine war has, however, added more than a million children to Poland’s population temporarily.

Other European countries, especially those with a large Ukrainian diaspora, stand to gain. Around 1.5 million refugees have moved to countries farther west, including Germany, Italy and France, according to an estimate by Gillian Triggs of the United Nations refugee agency. Before the war, about 250,000 Ukrainians lived and worked in Italy, where the median age is four years higher than in Europe overall and the fertility rate is among the lowest. In the first three months of this year, Austria’s population increased by half a percentage point to more than 9 million — 83% of that growth was from Ukrainian immigration.

The map shows the countries where refugees from Ukraine have migrated to in the face of war.

How does it look for Russia and Ukraine?

It’s a demographic disaster, to say the least, for Ukraine which was already fighting a shrink in population thanks to emigration and fewer births. Since February more than a quarter of the population has been forced to move, including 7.7m people displaced within the country.

With its birth rate already falling, Russia, too, is bound to suffer. Educated Russians have left the country since the invasion as they believe that the current regime has very little to offer. Putin has been splashing out cash to encourage women to have babies. In 2020, he extended a one-time “maternity capital” payment worth $7,600 to families when they have their first baby. Before this, it was available only to those who already had a child. Putin hoped to boost the fertility rate from 1.5 to 1.7, but the tumult caused by the war will probably push it in the opposite direction.

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Is the demographic change long-lasting?

Most of the refugees who have fled Ukraine in the face of the war are women and children as men in the age bracket of 18 to 60 have been compelled by the government to remain in the country. Thus, if the war is short, women and children will probably return quickly to Ukraine to reunite with husbands and fathers.

However, all of that depends upon how long the war lasts, and on how much damage is inflicted on their home country. During the Kosovo war of 1999, when Nato bombed Yugoslavia to prevent the brutalisation of ethnic Albanians who make up Kosovo’s majority, hundreds of thousands fled, or were forcibly moved, to neighbor Albania and Macedonia. But it lasted 78 days, after which the Kosovars quickly returned. By contrast, during the Bosnian war, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, around 700,000 refugees fled to western Europe and beyond, and far fewer returned. As such, Bosnia’s population now stands at around 3.2 million, down from 4 million before the war.

If the war drags on, and the Ukrainian economy reaches a point of no return, it would be just a matter of time before the men of the country head westwards to join their wives and children. Added to that, if the governments of the countries they move to provide jobs to the newcomers, the migration might become long-lasting. Ukraine, thus, is on the brink of where the Balkan states were during the one-year-long war which robbed some of the brightest and best of a generation.

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