How do Ukrainian exiles in France feel about the assistance they receive? How do they use it to plan for their future? These are the questions addressed in a research study by political scientist Denys Gorbach. A Ukrainian living in France, he was able to interview his exiled compatriots in several French towns and regions.

The specific assistancethat is provided to Ukrainian refugees, and thought to be very generous, has aroused criticism and envy from some non-profit associations, due to inequalities in care provision. What is your position on this point?

It is unquestionable that Ukrainian refugees, compared to other exiles, have benefited from more extensive aid and other advantages: better access to health services, emergency accommodation, schooling for children. The refugees have been granted the freedom to work and to move about. Many have been taken in directly by host families.

However, unlike many other refugees, they have been unable to rely on existing social networks. Their arrival in Lille, Nice, or Paris was totally haphazard. People who have been displaced can manage to survive thanks to their networks. Friends, family relations, and cultural ties contribute to their survival strategy. These networks, plus other informal dealings that might even be illegal, help them to integrate. I was surprised when they said they weren’t moonlighting.

How do you explain this, and why is it a problem?

Presumably, it makes perfect sense to seek informal employment opportunities when the labour market is hard to access. Even so, in order to land an undeclared job, language proficiency, cultural skills, and the much-touted social network of relations are still necessary. Ukrainian refugees claim, though, that they do not really hunt for such jobs, given that socio-economic interactions in France are highly formalized. To rent an apartment, one must present a valid employment contract, which serves, as well, to demonstrate to the prefecture one’s level of integration. In short, although it is tempting to earn undeclared wages, the incentives to be formally employed remain strong, even for those whose livelihood is insecure.

Finally, getting a job as a housekeeper after working as a civil servant or a shopkeeper is hard on a woman’s self-esteem. Most of the Ukrainian women in France are overqualified for a job they would otherwise be qualified for as non-French-speaking refugees. The fear of being downgraded is consequently another hurdle.

Additionally, some support programmes may discourage refugees from looking for formal employment. In a five-member family, made up of two grandparents over 70 years of age, and a mother with two children, the mother is discouraged from taking a job, because by doing so, the whole family could risk losing their allowances.

How do the Ukrainian refugees you have met feel about their situation?

Many are deeply dissatisfied. Aware of the efforts that have been made to accept them, they do not want to seem unappreciative. They are ready to go through the motions of following the rules and respect the path that has been laid out for them. However, by giving them enough to meet their needs through a legal and official framework, the relief they receive places them in a position of waiting over the long-term. The empathy and solidarity, which characterized the reception of Ukrainians in France in 2022, is gradually running thin: there are fewer and fewer French households willing to host refugees in their homes. Yet refugees are still present, unable to rent a home or find social housing.

Many of them complain about what they refer to as bureaucracy. It is true that the thick files of printed documents that are usual for any procedure in France are astounding for a foreigner, just as are the long waiting times which might take months. But these are the usual standards of French society that all residents must abide to regardless of their nationality.

In the end, the refugees dream of doing what society expects of them: to become independent, work, build a future for their children, etc.  

According to your research and the answers of the people you interviewed, what are the weak points in the process of receiving Ukrainian refugees in France? What solutions would improve the situation?

The Ukrainian exiles first raise the issue of housing. It corresponds to a fundamental requirement for stability, so that they can make plans for their future. They don’t realize that the difficulty of finding accommodation for refugees is part of France’s broader housing crisis.

Similarly, French language proficiency is an essential prerequisite to enter the job market. However, Ukrainian exiles have the impression of belonging to a special category. Language courses are often designed for exiles who, due to France’s colonial past, are already familiar with the French language. The issue of language courses does not only concern Ukrainians. An increasing number of non-French-speaking refugees — Syrians, Afghans, etc. — face this same challenge.

In Germany, the reception process is more closely monitored: language courses are compulsory, and the freedom to move about and the place of residence are regulated. Finally, these restrictions offer time for taking a breather and settling in. Let’s not overlook the real trauma, the psychological shock that these refugees have gone through. In France, the freedom to move about and work immediately after arrival becomes practically a command to start living normally and take on financial responsibility, when the refugees are actually not ready to do so. Which causes more frustration.

Top photo: @Jenelle Eli / Pologne