‘Non-traditional’ Immigrants in the Political Economy of Ukraine: Ukrainian Afghans

Entrepreneurship and commerce, including small-scale commodity trade, are key economic forces. Ukrainian Afghans possess skills that have helped them and Ukraine to adapt to changing political economies; they can continue to play an important role in the future. Magnus Marsden and HROMADA member Vera Skvirskaja look at the present-day situation of Ukrainian Afghans who, prior to the Russian invasion, lived mainly in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa.

International migration and mobility remain one of the political challenges in (post-)wartime Ukraine. At the time of writing (May 2024), Ukraine is attempting to summon back its able male migrants, including those who have been granted temporary refuge in the EU and other European countries. New laws have been introduced to constrain the national and international mobility of Ukrainian citizens.[i] While men are needed on the frontline, there is also more general concern that mass migration from the country (since February of 2022) has weakened the country’s labour force and may lead to a ‘brain drain’. In Denmark, for example, research suggests that approximately 60% of forcibly displaced people from Ukraine would prefer to stay in Denmark permanently or consider it as their primary place of residence. In this context, it is important to explore how diverse groups of migrants contribute to Ukraine and can play an active role in its reconstruction.

Entrepreneurship and commerce, including small-scale commodity trade, are key economic forces often driven by mobile traders who form extensive transnational networks. Acknowledging the importance of such entrepreneurial networks to the Ukrainian political economy and its reconstruction efforts, in this blog, we deal with a category of migrants who have been designated in Ukraine as ‘non-traditional’ immigrants. The notion of ‘non-traditional’ immigrants is a category used in Ukraine that refers to migrants from beyond the former Soviet Union, including (former) international students, asylum seekers, refugees, as well as legal and illegal economic migrants. In what follows, we first provide a brief historical discussion of ‘non-traditional’ immigrants in Ukraine. We then turn to the present-day situation, focusing on Ukrainian Afghans who, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, lived mainly in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa.

Afghan restaurant, Odesa 2012, photo: Vera Skvirskaja

Background and Context

In the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, approximately 5 million Ukrainians travelled abroad on a seasonal or temporary basis for work (e.g. Braichevs’ka et al. 2003: 9). Prior to 2014, Russia was the main destination for Ukrainian labour migrants. Ukraine also became a transit country for (illegal) migrants on their way to the EU and other countries (Braichevs’ka et al. 2003: 45). Despite its weak economy, Ukraine was also a migrant destination in its own right. Among the first migrants from beyond Soviet borders to settle in independent Ukraine were international students and labour migrants who came to the country during the 1980s. Notably, groups included Vietnamese workers and students from Afghanistan, Cuba, India, Iran, Yemen, Syria, and various African countries. Some opened businesses in the country and employed their compatriots, while others married Ukrainians and established families.  

After 1991, the range of migrants from beyond historically Soviet republics living in Ukraine widened. Migrants entering Ukraine in this period included illegal migrants (many of whom arrived either on tourist visas or by employing the services of smugglers), asylum seekers, business people travelling on formally issued visas, and the employees of joint ventures established between Ukrainian companies and foreign partners in Pakistan, China, Turkey, Mexico, and so on. The majority of refugees and illegal migrants entered Ukraine by way of the Ukrainian-Russian border. Migrants from African countries often came by sea, being smuggled in vessels arriving in the port cities of Odesa and Mykolaiv on the Black Sea.  Another route via Turkey involved migrants entering the country on tourist visas issued in Turkey.

In 1993, the law ‘On Refugees’ was adopted by the government of Ukraine, and, from 1996, Kyiv granted asylum to refugees. Among the first groups to receive asylum in Ukraine were former students and refugees from Afghanistan who, by the mid-2000s, constituted the largest group of refugees to be granted asylum in Ukraine (cf. Braichevs’ska et al. 2003: 11-27; 30). By the end of the 2000s, there were c. 1,300 Afghans living in Odesa, although some Afghans with whom we spoke also suggested that there were as many as 3,000. Many who arrived from the 2000s quickly mastered Russian and Ukrainian and became engaged in small-scale manufacturing activities and the commodity trade. As with many educated Ukrainians, Afghans who had studied in independent Ukraine turned to market trade because their professional training did not allow them to secure a decent standard of living.

Adapting to and Succeeding in Ukraine

Before moving to Ukraine in 1990s, many Afghans had traded in Central Asia and they deployed the skills in overland commerce they learned there in the new settings. They imported goods from across Asia to Ukraine’s wholesale markets (Marsden 2021). In Kyiv, Afghan migrants were ‘the vanguard’ in developing open-air marketplaces outside the official city boundaries in the wake of the city’s authorities purging informal trade from the city centre (Braichevs’ka et al. 2003). In Odesa, more than 90% of Afghan men worked as wholesalers, retail traders, and sellers in the city’s retail and wholesale markets, especially in the largest in Ukraine ‘Seventh-Kilometer’ market (Skvirskaja 2012). Afghan traders also ran substantial import businesses at Kharkiv’s ‘Barabashoeva’ market and retail stalls in smaller markets dotted across the country.

Seventh Kilometre market, Odesa 2019, photo: Vera Skvirskaja

The trading networks connected markets in Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv via national and international supply chains of varying commodities to China, Turkey, Poland, Dubai, India, Afghanistan and Russia. Open-air markets not only enabled Afghans to make a livelihood, but they also generated (illegal) rents for Ukrainian political elites. More broadly, such markets were crucial for Ukraine’s economic and political stability as they provided employment and income to Ukrainians and immigrants alike. Over time, the markets created a basis for the social mobility of younger generations. Market traders often invested the capital they earned through trade to secure higher education and professional training for their children. Doing so created a new, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional Ukrainian middle class with a global outlook. Successful ‘first-generation’ Afghan market traders sent their children to international schools in Ukraine and then to China or the West for higher education. Take for instance Mustafa Nayyem. The son of an Afghan educated at Soviet universities who ran a stall selling bags in Kyiv, Nayyem rose to become a media personality and politician in Ukraine. Today, he is a deputy minister in the country’s government; his brother, Masi Nayyem, ran a successful legal firm in Kyiv before joining the front line to fight against Russia, where he was seriously injured in 2022.  

The Russian War and Migrants’ Trajectories

The Russian invasion of February 2022 has resulted in the outflow of both migrants and native Ukrainians. Many Afghans who were active in long-distance trade left Ukraine for the UK, the European Union, and North America. In these settings, they have attempted to integrate within pre-existing Afghan communities. Odesan Afghans – whom we know personally – have moved to Germany, the UK, Belgium, and Canada. Networks of kin and friendship originating in Afghanistan have helped them to adapt to life in these countries against an immediate backdrop of the loss of business, savings, and settled lifestyles in Ukraine.

At the same time, leaving Odesa has not equalled the end of their relationship with the city. Migrants who lived legally precarious lives in Ukraine – including those possessing temporary resident permits and others recently registered as refugees – may have found a greater degree of stability in the settings in which they now live. The story is very different for those who hold Ukrainian citizenship. For these families, leaving Odesa meant that they became ‘twice refugees’. Forced dispersal has led to the loss of economic stability, social status, and political citizenship. This is true even in cases where a male kin member has stayed in Odesa to take care of properties and businesses or families have handed control of their commercial activities to trusted Ukrainians. It has also attenuated their sense of cultural belonging or citizenship. Fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, part of ethnically mixed friendship circles, and not infrequently married into local families, they, like millions of other Ukrainians, have faced innumerable barriers to re-establishing life outside Ukraine.

Farid is a man in his mid-forties who ran businesses in markets in Kyiv and Odesa between 1992 and 2024. He moved to London with his wife and young children in the spring of 2022. He was welcomed in the city by a large network of Afghan friends, some of whom he had studied alongside in Kabul during the 1980s, others he came to know in Ukraine. Regardless of his immersion in these social relationships, Farid has found adapting to life in the UK hard. As Farid remarks: ‘I have never been jobless for so long in my entire life’, and ‘…it is very tiring and if I could I would return to Odesa at the first opportunity’. Another Ukrainian Afghani, Reza in his early forties is similarly keen to return to Ukraine but for a different reason. Reza, who established a successful trade in footwear at the Seventh Kilometer market, moved to Canada with his Afghan wife and three children. In a year, he has managed to be in business again. Yet, despite this apparent economic success, he and his family have difficulties adjusting to a new society and lifestyles. Reza says that ‘life is simply very hard, very expensive and less joyful here for us. It would be great to go back to Ukraine’.
Seventh Kilometre market, Odesa 2019, photo: Vera Skvirskaja

Many male Afghans have returned to Ukraine. Often leaving their families in cities in Western Europe, they have returned to Odesa to recommence work in the city’s markets. In this way, they contribute to Odesa’s reconstruction as a critical node in long-distance commercial networks. Those who have done so have adapted to new scenarios by shifting the focus of their businesses. Having imported parasols for use on the city’s beaches by locals and tourists in the summer months, they now import torches and generators. Their skills in long-distance trade have allowed them to bring goods to the country using new routes. Their durable connections with manufacturers in China and reputations of trustworthiness cultivated over decades allow them to import goods on credit.

Gulzar is a trader in his fifties. He moved to Ukraine in the 1990s, having initially traded across the Pakistan-Afghanistan-China border region. In Odesa, he imported small commodities from China. By 2020, he was increasingly exporting Ukrainian products such as sunflower oil and sparkling wine to China. Gulzar lived a good life in Odesa, owning a substantial property in a pleasant neighbourhood in the gardens of which his wife cultivated green chilies and okra for use in Afghan dishes. He left Odesa for the UK with his wife and children in 2022, having been supported by his UK-based brother. Gulzar returned to Ukraine with his entire family a year later. He found life in the UK with his large family difficult to afford. The father of three small children, Gulzar could work in the Seventh Kilometer market without fearing being conscripted to the Ukrainian military.[ii]

The experiences of returning Afghan migrants illuminate the connections Afghans formed with the city in particular and Ukraine in general. These migrants built lives, families, and businesses in the decades following Ukraine’s independence. The durability of their connections to Ukraine in the context of war and flight undermines the notion that Ukrainian national identity as lived and experienced on the ground is either rigid or exclusionary. Ukrainian Afghans’ participation in transnational trade connecting Odesa to the wider world reveals the ongoing relevance of their skills and business networks for Ukraine.

Concluding Remarks

Ukraine’s business community regards entrepreneurship as central to the country’s reconstruction and economic development. At a time of war, Ukrainian entrepreneurs have invested in translating leading business studies texts into Ukrainian. Ongoing tensions between Ukrainian businesses and the country’s military and government are, in turn, expected to be addressed by the recently established Council for Business Support during the War. [iii]

On the regional level, the Odesa Business Club (est. 2017) – comprising representatives of big and medium-size businesses – focuses on the region’s historical diversity and intends to give greater visibility to the city’s status as a city ‘built by businessmen’. In doing so, it hopes to attract future residents and much-needed domestic investment. In the context of the strategies of Odesa’s business community, the contributions of the city’s ‘non-traditional migrants’ also need to be acknowledged. Ukrainian Afghans possess skills that have helped them and Ukraine to adapt to changing political economies; they can continue to play an important role in the country in the future. Amidst the migration of millions of Ukrainians, it is easy to overlook the experiences and trajectories of the country’s migrant population. Yet such actors also need the support of international and national actors both inside and outside Ukraine. Beyond the country’s borders, the work of Ukrainian diaspora and refugee organisations, as well as the country’s consular offices, can develop activities that reflect the voices and experiences of all Ukrainians, regardless of their prior migratory histories.

The current attempts by Odesa’s business community to position the city as a model for the creation of culturally vibrant and inclusive forms of urban life remind us of an important observation made by Ukrainian scholars in the early 2000s – an observation that, unfortunately, has been largely overlooked by the country’s political elites in recent years: ‘Ukraine is a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional and multi-lingual society’, Braichevs’ka and colleagues argued, ‘that in order to sustain its independent statehood has to build upon a civic, not an ethnic identity’ (Braichevs’ka et al. 2003: 412). It is vital to recognise and actively encourage the contributions of Ukraine’s migrants, especially in wartime. Doing so sends a powerful message about the nature of the Ukrainian polity and, as we have argued here, also has the potential to offer a tangible contribution to the country’s reconstruction and economic development.


Braichevs’ka, O. et al. 2003 ‘Netradytsiini’ immigrant u Kyevi (Non-traditional immigrants in Kyiv). Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Kyiv: ‘Stylos’

Marsden, Magnus. 2021. Beyond the Silk Rods: Trade, Geopolitics and Mobility across Eurasia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (open access).

Skvirskaja, Vera. 2012. At the City’s Social Margins: Selective Cosmopolitans in Odessa. In Humphrey C. and V. Skvirskaja (eds.), Post-Cosmopolitan Cities: Explorations of Urban Coexistence, Oxford and New York, Berghahn Books, pp. 94-119.

[i] E.g. In the latest development of 4th April 2024, Article 2 of Protocol 4 ‘right to free movement of persons’ under the Council of Europe Convention was suspended due to Russian aggression. 

[ii] Ukrainian Afghans have also been present on the frontline and some have become local ‘legends’. See e.g. Masi Nayem has become the face of the Ukrainian brand | Buna Time (bunatimes.com) and https://www.currenttime.tv/a/nayem-brothers-afghanistan-ussr-history-family/29759317.html

[iii] Rada pidtrymky biznesu pid chas viiny, signed by Zelensky 26.01.2024.

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