Some Ukrainian refugees returning home ‘because savings running out’

Ukrainian refugees are returning to their homes because, in some cases, they are running out of money, according to Foreign Office officials.

Millions of people have been displaced in the eastern European country following Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which started in February 2022.

While western countries, including the UK, took in those refugees fleeing the conflict, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said the humanitarian picture now included providing for those going back to their homeland.

Some who moved to other areas of Ukraine while their neighbourhood was transformed into the frontline are also beginning to return to “their places of origin or nearby cities”, despite the risks involved and lack of basic services available.

Urban areas like Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, situated in the north-east of the war-torn country, witnessed intense fighting in the opening months of the invasion and continues to be shelled by the Kremlin’s troops.

But, with the year anniversary of the conflict set to be marked on Friday, the threat of Russian missiles has not put people off from returning to the city, officials said.

Foreign Office humanitarian adviser Fred Robarts, speaking from Kyiv, told reporters on Wednesday: “What we’ve been hearing here is that numerous displaced people have been returning to their places of origin or nearby cities, like Kharkiv, despite the evident risks and the high levels of destruction in those places and the shortage of basic services.

“And the reason for that is they are running out of savings.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Kharkiv University faculty building following a Russian missile attack in March 2022 (State Emergency Service of Ukraine/PA)

“Obviously it is more complex than that, but that is driving some of those returns.”

The FCDO was reluctant to put a figure on the numbers of people returning.

Alex Stevens, group head of the Ukraine humanitarian team at the FCDO, said the latest figures from January 23 suggested that 5.5 million people had been displaced internally by the war, with that number down from 5.9 million in December.

He told reporters: “While some people are returning to their home areas, others continue to move away from the places where conflict is affecting them the most.

“So most of the new displacements are in the east.”

Mr Stevens said there were “widespread” protection concerns for those who had been displaced, including about human rights abuses, sexual violence and the forced deportation and relocation of civilians to Russian-occupied areas and also to mainland Russia.

Those people remaining in the country faced regular attacks on energy and water supplies, the FCDO said.

Officials said there had been 755 verified attacks on healthcare sites during the conflict and 3,000 strikes on education facilities, with 400 destroyed.

In cities and towns reclaimed by Ukrainian armed forces, 90% of buildings had been damaged or destroyed.

Mr Stevens added: “The invasion is also leading to a significant rise in the cost-of-living by limiting livelihood opportunities and straining social services.

“All of this is of course driving the humanitarian needs.

“The reduced incomes and insecurity are also forcing people to adopt harmful coping strategies.

“That includes reducing how much they eat and how much they spend on medicines and utilities.”

Health services in Ukraine were under “immense strain”, Mr Stevens said, with 26% of people reporting a lack of access to essential medicines and care.

On top of the assaults on public facilities, Mr Stevens said it was estimated that 30% of Ukraine — an area twice the size of Austria — was contaminated with “unexploded ordnance and landmines”, presenting a challenge for aid efforts and population safety.

The UK has provided £220 million for the humanitarian response in Ukraine, with the money being deployed through the United Nations, Red Cross and other non-government organisations.

Mr Robarts said the funding made the UK one of the largest bilateral donors when it came to humanitarian aid, with its contribution helping to reach 13 million people.