FEATURE31 January 2024

A new place: Researching Ukrainian refugees

Europe Features Impact Public Sector Telecoms Trends

Almost two years since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, a longitudinal survey with refugees is documenting their migration paths, needs and expectations for the future. By Katie McQuater.

IStock-1378597307_Joel Carillet

Mothers carried children in their arms. Crowds of people waited in train stations. Families were separated. In February 2022, the world watched as people fled Ukraine, but those first days were only the beginning of what would be the largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II. Russia’s invasion triggered an ongoing refugee crisis with, according to UN estimates, around 5.9 million Ukrainian refugees registered in Europe.

In June 2022, public policy evidence and advisory business Kantar Public (formerly part of Kantar, the business has since rebranded to Verian as of November 2023 ) began its ‘Voice of Ukraine’ research with displaced Ukrainian people. The company has since produced several more quantitative waves. It is worth noting that the panel is 88% female, with men aged between 18 and 60 deemed fit for combat prohibited from leaving the country.

The research, with panellists in the 27 European Union member countries, aims to assist policymakers and organisations to meet the needs of displaced communities. As well as better understanding of the migration pattern, it offers insights into daily challenges.

“At some point, we decided that we had to do something,” says Yves Fradier, director of surveys and methods at Verian. “Nearly 100% of our work comes from our clients – clients ask us to produce surveys and that’s how we make a living. But in this situation, we decided that we had to go on our own, produce some data, and find some potential sponsors after.”

The company sought to cover all of Europe, rather than focusing on individual countries, and wanted to take a longitudinal approach to examine the issues over time. The researchers used an online survey, partly because of language considerations – a lack of Ukrainian interviewers in Europe – and partly because of the prevalence of the smartphone, with displaced people either already owning one or receiving one from a charity when they entered a host country.

“The smartphone is considered one of the basic needs for refugees,” says Fradier. “For us, it is an opportunity to reach them – to try to make contact to produce surveys, and to give them a voice.”

To recruit participants, the researchers ran Facebook adverts in Ukrainian and Russian (the language of 10% of the panellists), targeting countries with a high prevalence of Ukrainian refugees, including Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, France and the UK, and defining the target group through Meta’s advertising manager.

Visuals for the ads featured a logo created with the stars of the European flag, says Fradier. “We wanted to give the impression of security, of being sheltered in Europe. The most important message was: ‘We are not Russians.’ I don’t know to what extent it worked or not, but with that first wave of recruitment we had more than 12,000 interviews across Europe.”

The end of the initial questionnaire included a recruitment question and, once people became panellists, the company began incentivising them and interviewing the same sample over time. As well as being able to keep the payment for taking part in interviews, panellists can opt to donate their incentive to associations such as the Ukrainian Red Cross. The percentage of panellists choosing the latter? 70%. “The question of the incentives is revealing of their mindset,” says Fradier.

In addition to the quant, the researchers invited 500 panellists to take part in a qualitative study via WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, with 62 agreeing to participate. The chat apps added a personal dimension, with participants sharing their thoughts, photographs and videos in a conversational setting. According to Fradier, the level of engagement surprised its researchers. “Ukrainian women – because they are mostly women – clearly want to be heard,” he says.

One testimony stood out in particular, he adds: “I remember this verbatim from a woman who told us: ‘I am not brave, but when I heard the bombs falling on my city, I packed a bag with basic things, documents and money in just 30 minutes’.”

Addressing barriers

As the war persists, however, encouraging political decision-makers to listen to the findings has been challenging. The most recent research at the time of writing suggests displaced Ukrainian nationals have become more uncertain about the possibility of returning. The third wave, in January 2023, for example, found 45% of participants ‘definitely’ wanted to return to Ukraine to live after the war is over; down from 49% in October 2022. A third ( 34%) reported actively preparing to return.

Fradier says: “The difficulty is to be heard by the politicians. What we see and document, wave after wave, is the fact that they are here to stay for a while. They don’t go back to Ukraine for different reasons. First, the war is not over; second, their country is destroyed. Third, they left with children, and the children are back to school for the second year, so they are settling in the host countries. But politicians in France, at least, still think they will go back. We keep telling them our data shows they want to stay.”

In addition to being in touch with politicians at various levels across different countries, Verian has formed partnerships with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Ifo Institute, based in Germany.

The business is also in contact with the University of Sussex, which manages the Mass Observation archive, to explore a potential joint project that would compare the experience of women in Britain during World War II with displaced Ukrainian women today, with a focus on the impact of migration on relationships.

Fradier explains: “What we observe with the Ukrainian women is, after the first wave – a migration wave – we now have a wave of divorces, because they are away for more than one year. Life is completely different.”

Of course, in the post-war period, Mass Observation participants wrote letters and diaries. “Now, they write text messages,” says Fradier. “It is basically the same thing, but with modern tools.”

The company hopes to continue the survey as long as the war lasts, and Fradier says its methods could be replicated with other displaced groups.
“The phenomenon of displaced populations is only growing. We have people from Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, South Sudan – all over the world this phenomenon of displaced populations grows, and now we know how to produce such surveys, so I think, once again, our responsibility is to give them a voice.”