In one of the largest mass migration flows in recent history, approximately 3.4 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine since late February. Most are women and children, and many families have been torn apart because the Ukraine State Border Guard Service has prohibited men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country.
European countries have quickly and generously responded to the crisis, but the sheer number of migrants arriving in such a compressed period make it difficult to meet their immediate needs. Additionally, the long-run consequences for those whose lives have just been upended are likely to be just as formidable.
It is too soon to know the full impact of the war in Ukraine. However, social science research on other displaced populations can help anticipate Ukrainian refugees’ short-term needs and long-term challenges. Several Penn State scholars have been conducting research on these topics or have been involved in humanitarian work with refugees. Although they have not yet focused on Ukrainians, displaced populations around the world share many common experiences, including exposure to conflict and violence, family separation, uncertainty, loss, resettlement in a foreign place, and the toll these experiences take on mental and physical health.
Meeting Immediate Needs
Meeting the housing, employment, and schooling needs of over three million displaced people in the span of a few weeks is challenging. However, some of these challenges can be met through innovative use of information technology. IT applications are currently being used to help Ukrainian refugees find accommodations and jobs. For example, Airbnb has partnered with the United Nations to provide free short-term housing.
At Penn State, Carleen Maitland, professor in of information sciences and technology, is conducting research on how information technology can be used in organizations providing humanitarian assistance to refugees. Her 2018 edited volume, “Digital Lifeline? ICTs for Refugees and Displaced Persons,” examines the role technologies play in a variety of refugee support processes, from refugee status determination to providing digital identity.
Her work has a global reach, drawing on field work in the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America, while working with technology firms and humanitarian organizations, such as the UN Refugee Agency and the U.S. State Department (for more information, click here).
People fleeing war also need legal assistance as they seek to cross international borders and make claims for asylum. Much of the legal work for Ukrainians has been occurring in Europe, yet assistance is also needed in the communities where humanitarian migrants settle.
Here in central Pennsylvania, Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion and director of Penn State’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (CIRC), is heavily involved in advocating for those seeking asylum, most recently in their response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
CIRC is educating the local community about the legal options available under U.S. immigration, and assists with asylum and adjustment of status applications for Afghans. CIRC has also created a variety of education resources that include the basics of asylum, humanitarian parole, rights and responsibilities of Afghans (for more information, click here).
At Penn State Law, Wadhia teaches asylum and refugee law as well as immigration law. Her research focuses on the role of discretion in immigration and at the intersection of race, national security, and immigration.
For people fleeing conflict, difficulties do not end after escaping the war zone. Exposure to conflict, especially in early life, can have long-term effects on physical health.
According to Steven Haas, associate professor of sociology, war can have enduring impacts on health by severely altering or limiting what people have available to eat, changing how people’s bodies react to stress, and by limiting people’s ability to work, and access markets, schools, and other material and social resources.
Haas and his colleagues have examined European adults who were exposed as children to hostilities during World War II. His work with recent Penn State doctoral graduate Daniel Ramirez shows that such exposures have substantial scarring effects on children and that they carry these scars throughout their lives. For example, children exposed to war grow up to have substantially worse health in adulthood. This includes higher rates of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, and hypertension, as well as increased risk of physical limitations and worse self-rated health.
War and trauma also take a toll on mental health. Ramirez and Haas found that people who were exposed to conflict during WWII were more likely to experience depression and to take up unhealthy coping behaviors such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Similar patterns have been found among modern-day displaced populations.
Population Research Institute Affiliate and University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor of Anthropology Yolanda Covington-Ward conducts research on Liberian immigrants and refugees in the Pittsburgh area. The small West African nation of Liberia suffered through fourteen years of civil war from 1989 to 2003. Covington-Ward’s research shows that the war had dire consequences for the Liberians who fled.
Liberians in Pittsburgh describe the loss of human life—family, friends, and neighbors—but also the loss of property, educational and job opportunities, entire neighborhoods, and having to face the challenges of physical and mental health consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder. One interviewee explained, “Some of us [are] very traumatized.” Another interviewee described the enduring impact of being shot as a child during the war. “Mentally…I don't like to watch...war show[s] on T.V., even the fireworks because…I’m thinking… is it a gun shot or something?”
Displacement from armed conflict often involves family separation. This is a common occurrence among Ukrainian families and among migrant families more generally, and it has been shown to have substantial impacts on people’s lives.
For example, Brian Thiede, associate professor of rural sociology; James Piazza, liberal arts professor of political science; and their colleagues found that exposure to conflict reduces birth rates in sub-Saharan Africa. They attribute this effect, in part, to the separation of spouses that occurs during conflict.
Even when family separation occurs under the best of circumstances and is not forced by war, it can have significant short- and long-run impacts on children and parents. Jennifer Glick, Hoffman Professor of Sociology and director of the Population Research Institute, recently co-edited a compilation of research comparing children’s wellbeing following different types of family separation in the United States. The authors demonstrated that separation from primary caregivers, particularly involuntary separation, increases children’s psychological distress.
Social networks can also play an important role during displacement. For example, Heather Randell, assistant professor of rural sociology and demography, studied households displaced by a large dam in Brazil. Many households chose to migrate to the same place as family and close friends to maintain social support. Outcomes were not as good when this was not possible. Among displaced households who reported declines in well-being, many attributed moving far from family and members of their old community as a cause.
Refugees from Ukraine are also likely to move to places where family or close friends live and can help them, while refugees who are resettled far from others in their family or community will face greater challenges settling into their new homes and communities.
Conflict and sudden moves can also disrupt school, which has long term consequences for socioeconomic status in adulthood. Glick’s research shows that disruptions to schooling and difficulty entering school following a move to a new country are also associated with lower educational attainment, especially for older children. Adolescents have less time to adapt to their new environments before they are adults and may be permanently derailed from their education. Likewise, Ramirez and Haas found that exposure to war in childhood can disrupt schooling and stunt socioeconomic attainment in adulthood.
Finally, conflict and other disasters (e.g., famines) can disrupt normal migration flows. Some of the most vulnerable people may be “trapped” in place, unable to move away. For example, Dr. Thiede and his colleagues found that exposure to adverse environmental conditions actually reduced internal migration in some parts of South America, especially in the poorest countries where people did not have the resources to move.
In other circumstances, according to Associate Professor of Sociology Ashton Verdery and his colleagues, climate disasters can deter those who would otherwise return home. Prior to 2020, about 3 million Ukrainians lived abroad as labor migrants engaged in temporary, circular migration with a high likelihood of returning within 5 years. But now, many of these circular migrants may not return home, which could substantially increase the total effects of the war in Ukraine, even if such persons are not counted as displaced because they were already residing out of the country.
The Future of Migration and a New Initiative at Penn State
The events now unfolding in Europe represent just the start of a very long road for Ukrainians, both for those who can leave the country and those left behind. Based on what we know about the impacts of conflict, family separation, and disruption, the ramifications of the conflict in Ukraine are likely to spill over into multiple domains of people’s lives for decades to come.
Moreover, events such as the ongoing Ukrainian refugee crisis and its accompanying short- and long-term challenges, will continue to occur in the future. As of 2020, 281 million people, or 3.6 percent of the world's population, lived in a different country from where they were born, and a growing share of them are children.
In 2021 alone, 34.3 million people were classified as refugees, and even more - 48.0 million - were displaced within their own countries. Most migration scholars predict that these figures will increase in coming decades. Multiple forces — population aging and labor shortages in high- and middle-income countries, conflict, and climate change — will likely drive migration for the foreseeable future.
One way the academic community can help meet some of the challenges related to migration is to continue to engage in high-impact research and community-based work. Penn State has a strong history of excellence in demographic, social and community-engaged research on migration and migrants.
To build on these strengths and broaden the reach of scholarship, the Social Science Research Institute will be launching a new initiative on migration in the Fall of 2022 to be led by Van Hook. The primary mission of the new initiative will be to broaden Penn State’s involvement in building a more just and equitable response to the needs of immigrants and their families.
The initiative will invest in high-impact research projects through the provision of seed grants, a new working group, and the recruitment of a postdoctoral scholar. It will also engage graduate and undergraduate students in social science research projects related to migration. Interested faculty members and students are encouraged to reach out to Van Hook for more information about how they can get involved.