Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is predicted to create the largest displacement event in Europe since World War II. It makes little sense to cite figures here because they change so frequently, and numbers alone do not tell that much about how and why displacement happens. To give a sense of scale, organisations within the United Nations estimate that by mid-March 2022, almost a quarter of Ukraine’s population had left their homes, and the capital Kyiv has reportedly lost half of its residents due to war.
But does displacement only imply forced migration? While conventionally the term is indeed used almost synonymously with mobility, an argument could also be made that displacement is something that happens prior to, or regardless of, mobility. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, war had been going on for almost eight years in Ukraine’s easternmost regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as Donbas. About half of these regions’ population left following the outbreak of war in 2014. Some four years later, I conducted fieldwork among some of the leavers who had settled in Ukraine and Russia. Almost without exception, they argued that they had been the lucky ones for having been able to leave as more vulnerable people stayed behind either by choice or necessity due to old age, infirmity, lack of resources, or need to take care of relatives. That is, while some people were forced to flee, others were forced to stay.
Arguably then, the drawn-out war in Donbas and the attendant processes of deindustrialisation and depopulation have displaced not only those who moved, but also those who stayed. The condition of those who could not move could be called a kind of “displacement in place,” using Hedda Haugen Askland’s words. As social networks, employment, the Ukrainian state, and sometimes even basic infrastructure left separatist-occupied parts of Donbas and areas near the frontline, the places in which residents had built their lives lost their futures and meaning. For my interlocutors, leaving became a way to avoid displacement in place. That is, perhaps paradoxically, mobility can be a way to escape displacement.
Consequently, I argue that displacement could be conceptualised in two ways: first, as it is conventionally understood as a forced removal from place, and, secondly, as a breakdown of place, whether through mobility or some other process. Both types of displacement were present in the aftermath of the Donbas war, and both can be observed in the current situation as well. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, the first people to leave Ukraine have been relatively young, skilled, and educated Ukrainians with networks abroad, whereas the stayers are (so far) more vulnerable people such as pensioners, disabled people, and those without much money or language skills. However, many people who could leave are choosing to stay due to a confluence of personal situations and principles.
Still, even those who remain often experience their condition as a kind of displacement, as testified by the choice of words a Ukrainian volunteer used to explain her motivation to help others: “It’s not like someone asked us to do this …. it’s just the moment – someone comes to our country and takes away the place [where] we live.” Or as researcher Aliona Liasheva put it: “At the times of revolutions or wars, there also are breakdowns of social structures that have shaped the flow of our lives before … My ideas of the world, both political and theoretical, were ruined along with the other world I lived in.” The loss of connection to place thus comes not with mobility, but with war that breaks down meaning.
A sense of displacement can be combated through agency, be it mobility, volunteering, or something else. Between 2014 and 2022, for my interlocutors from Donbas who settled in other parts of Ukraine, the main method of pursuing (re-)emplacement was becoming homeowners again. Private housing was conceptualised as enabling “normal” living, a meaningful connection to place, and a solution to the problem of ontological insecurity. However, now many of the people who left Donbas due to the 2014 war are being displaced again, and having been successful in the housing endeavour may predispose them to elevated risk. My interlocutors who had managed to buy housing in recent years are now the most reluctant to leave because they do not want to abandon their apartments for a second time. They know how difficult it is to rebuild lives in temporary accommodation or to pay rent without stable employment. This is putting especially elderly people dependent on their pensions in a situation where they postpone leaving despite increasing risks to their safety. Meanwhile, some of my interlocutors who were renting their dwellings were quicker to make the decision to get out this time around. Some of them have decided to go much further afield this time, some as far as Canada.
There are thus similarities between the current situation unfolding in Ukraine and previous occurrences of displacement: displacement in some form is experienced by virtually everyone, and the most vulnerable people are being forced into staying, despite the risks. It can be predicted that as Russia’s attacks get increasingly brutal, more people from vulnerable categories such as pensioners begin to leave. Even when they do, they are less likely to travel very far. One couple with whom I am in touch fled the heavily shelled town of Irpin near Kyiv to a place in Western Ukraine but are reluctant to travel any further because they cannot physically move very well, and they have never been to EU countries.
Also, judging by interviews with refugees in the media, many newly displaced Ukrainians relate to the situation unfolding now in a remarkably similar way as my interlocutors from Donbas described doing in spring 2014: they make short-term plans and expect to go back home in a couple of months’ time. However, in the case of my interlocutors from Donbas, around August and September 2014, most made the decision not to go back and to start rebuilding their lives wherever they had ended up. Yet others who could not find their place went back to Donbas, only to leave again in many cases. Depending on the military dynamics on the ground, such non-linear migration could be expected this time around too. Whatever displaced Ukrainians decide to do in this abhorrent situation, all of them will need support to overcome displacement, whether in place or on the move.
This blog is part of the forum: Making sense of the war in Ukraine