War in Europe
Ukraine: Together we are strong!

Italien Demos

picture alliance / Kontrolab | Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB / ip


All over Europe, people took to the streets this weekend against the war in Ukraine. An important sign of solidarity to all Ukrainians. Also, to the nearly three million Ukrainians who, according to estimates, are working in other European countries. They fear for their loved ones and are doing their best to support the resistance of their people from afar. An insight using Italy as an example.

In the face of the terrible war of aggression, Ukraine is moving closer together not only on its own territory, but all over the world. The people are demonstrating impressive improvisation and self-organization: while in Ukraine people are fiercely resisting, building Molotov cocktails together in the village square and lining up for blood donations in basement vaults, Ukrainians abroad are tirelessly campaigning for their compatriots. Nearly three million Ukrainians are estimated to work abroad in Europe, making up the largest external labor force in the EU. Ukraine is said to have lost at least ten million people to emigration since the 1990s, and the trend is set to continue with the war.

For a long time, it was mainly people from structurally weak western Ukraine who sought work in the EU; from the other parts of the country, Russia was usually the destination. A turning point was 2014, when Ukraine signed the Association Agreement with the EU, Russia annexed Crimea and the conflict in the eastern Donbass began. Ukrainian migration patterns abruptly shifted westward.

Italy attracts by far the most people from Ukraine in southern Europe. After several waves of migration, there are about 236,000 of them in Italy, not counting people without work or residence permits, according to the latest ISTAT census. The number of unreported cases is likely to be much higher (estimates put the figure at around 600,000). The expected wave of refugees could add hundreds of thousands more. Most of them are women and children who cross the border to Poland (about 280,000) and the number of those who travel on to Italy or other EU states will increase with every day of the conflict.

From north to south, thousands of people also gathered in the cities of the boot over the weekend to protest against the war in Ukraine - Florence, Bologna, Modena, Bolzano, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Padua, Verona, Milan and Rome. In Italy, it is mainly Ukrainian women who demonstrate, call for fundraising, organize relief actions, educate and provide psychological and material support. Italy has been a particular example of the "feminization of migration" for many years. The Ukrainian community has the largest gender gap among all foreigners in Italy; 80-90% of Ukrainians working in Italy are female.

The reasons for this are a combination of factors. Due to demographic changes (Italy is one of the countries with the oldest population in Europe), changing family structures, and a traditionally large informal labor market, the demand in Italy for low-cost labor from abroad is much higher than in other European countries. Domestic care work in Italy continues to be assigned primarily to women. Since Italian women also lead work-oriented lives and there is a great shortage of state care facilities, domestic services are outsourced to - mostly irregular - migrant women. Ukraine is the main exporter of caregivers to Italy; without them, the care sector would collapse.

Gender demand in the Italian labor market is contrasted with an extreme wage gap and difficult socioeconomic conditions in the women's country of origin. Ukraine is a country in transition; the economic situation is difficult and the involvement of oligarchs in corruption and politics blocks the emergence of free enterprise and thus job creation and the formation of a middle class. Corruption permeates all levels of society; in the Corruption Perceptions Index, Ukraine ranks 122nd out of 180 countries surveyed, despite small advances. Unemployment is moderate, but wages in Ukraine are barely enough to live on (average wage in 2021 just under 370 euros). On average, women earn even less than men and their situation is even more precarious.

To secure a better standard of living for their family, many Ukrainian women go to work in nearby EU countries; to renovate the house, buy an apartment or pay for their children's studies. In Ukraine, especially in Western Ukraine, an estimated 200,000 "migration orphans" are growing up without one or both parents. Due to a lack of legal migration channels, many mothers have left their children behind with grandparents in Ukraine, for example. Now they were completely surprised by the invasion of the Russians and fear for the lives of their children and relatives.

From abroad, they work to organize flight and reception in the destination country. The transnational - largely informal - networks built up over the years by Ukrainians abroad play a special role here. They enable flexible and quick reactions to rapid changes and crises, since problems within informal networks can be solved on an individual level and do not have to go through long bureaucratic procedures and registrations. Migration begets migration - i.e., personal networks often generate a "snowball effect" as they stabilize or expand migration flows. As a result, with the help of modern communication and transportation technologies, extensive service systems have developed, such as the network of Ukrainian minibuses, which in peacetime transport not only people but also goods and perform the function of a national postal service between Italy and Ukraine. Now they bring refugees to their relatives and friends in safe foreign countries and donated relief goods to Ukraine. Digital platforms are used to manage in-kind donations, arrange "evacuation rides," and publish bulletins with the dead and wounded.

Dozens of Russians and Belarusians abroad also express their disapproval of Russian actions. In the EU they can express themselves more freely than in their home countries and emphasize: "Not in my name"! Many Ukrainians have Russian relatives and are bilingual. "Surshik" describes the mixed language between Russian and Ukrainian, which is widely spoken in Ukraine. All the greater is the incredulity and horror and about the unbelievable extent of the aggression of the Russian "brother nation". This is also the case with Katya, a teacher from Kyiv, who fled to Irpen over the weekend: "Until the middle of last week, I was still having a completely normal life. I was even still making plans for the weekend". She had known about a possible military offensive by Putin; but she had assumed, like everyone, that it would only be in the east. The war against peaceful citizens accelerates Ukrainian identity formation and unification.

The expressions of solidarity and sympathy from all over the world are of immense importance for Ukrainians at home and abroad. The images of the landmarks illuminated in blue and yellow around the globe are shown up and down on Ukrainian television. Katya has not yet been able to leave the cellar where she is staying, but she wants to visit her aunt in Italy soon. She says: "Please go demonstrate, all of you. The demonstrations have moved many people, something like this gives strength to Ukrainians! The main thing is not to be silent now! Every person who is ready to stand up for Ukraine is important!"