Cities and Migration: How Markets Change Integration Policies


Who are the people who come to Ukrainian cities from other countries, why do they often work in the markets and what should be the state policies for the integration of migrants.

Illustration of a person standing at a table with products in the market

A three-room flat that Dilya (the name has been changed) rents for herself and her compatriots is situated in Troieshchyna, a residential Kyiv neighborhood. The neighborhood hosts the city’s biggest market of consumer goods. In fact, it consists of several markets, however, people used to call this place ‘the Troieshchyna market’.

Dilya sells women’s clothes. She came here in 2011 when war broke out in her homeland. According to her, the day we interviewed her for research was ‘good enough’: she earned five hundred hryvnias. The day before she barely got two hundred. Her sister works in an Uzbek restaurant at the market, washes dishes, and rarely earns more than 300 hryvnias a day. Dilya’s sister recently came to Kyiv to earn some money for her three-year-old son, whom she left with her family in Kyrgyzstan. Dilya has lived in Ukraine for almost ten years. One of the Tajiks who works as a loader in the market is thinking of going to Belgium for work. Dilya is planning to call her brother to take his position.

There are now 10-12 people living permanently in Dilya’s flat. She rents one room for herself, her children and her sister. She rents out two other rooms to her compatriots who also work at the market. It takes fifteen minutes by public transport to get to the Troieshchyna market. Every day the people who work there—sell things, load goods, cook food or wash dishes, hawk street coffee and buns at the market—get on the tram and go to work.

This article is a part of the Ukrainian Urban Forum 2020 which was hosted online due to the quarantine and pandemic and was first published on Mistosite. The forum is organised by the Cedos Think Tank with the support of Heinrich Böll Stiftung Ukraine.

Why Ukrainian cities are attractive for migrants

Little is known about migrants in Ukraine. We are more aware of Ukrainian immigration abroad than that of people who come here. Generally, the presence of foreigners of both sexes is associated with medical universities, selling spices, dried fruit, and, recently, with taxi-driving in big cities.

In total, there are about 400 thousand foreigners living in Ukraine. Most of them live in cities. According to the State Migration Service, about 60% of temporary and permanent migrants are registered in the city of Kyiv and Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv oblasts. Cities offer more economic opportunities and therefore are more attractive for both internal and external migrants. Cities have universities, which now host quite a lot of foreign students. In the academic year of 2019-2020, around 80 thousand foreign students studied at Ukrainian universities, which makes them one-fifth of all registered foreigners in Ukraine.

Apart from universities, there are big markets in big cities where migrants have been working since the 1990s: at Barabashovo in Kharkiv, the Seventh Kilometre market in Odesa, and several markets of consumer goods in Kyiv. Studies show that migrants who need to work hardest to integrate in Ukraine work there: people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In this article, we will try to figure out why this happened, what the risks are, and what happens next.

Ethnicisation of trade in Ukraine?

Everyone who grew up in the 1990s remembers going to the market before the beginning of the school year. A mere curtain substituted a fitting-room to let us try a white blouse for September 1, a sports uniform, and jeans, while you would try sports shoes on a piece of cardboard on the ground. Clothing markets, the practice of trying clothes behind improvised curtains, and bargaining as a form of communication in markets still exist today. However, their presence in our lives has diminished, if not completely disappeared.

Markets are no longer the only place where you can buy clothes or other goods. Selling and buying clothes has moved to shops, shopping centres, second-hand stores, and online marketplaces. People employed at markets in the 1990s, if they have stayed in the trade, moved to supermarkets or shops.

The situation of foreigners who have been working at the markets in Ukraine since the 1990s is different. First of all, many more migrants from the Middle East and the Near East, and Africa are now employed in trade compared to the local population. Among the Ukrainian population, 23% are engaged in trade, while the figures are higher among migrants. According to the Kennan Institute, 47% of economically active migrants indicated trade as their main source of income. The 2007 survey showed that more than half of the migrants were entrepreneurs or self-employed, most of them working in the trade sector. Almost half44%—of employed refugees and asylum seekers in Ukraine were employed in trade and services.

Moreover, they were not just employed in trade, but in specific areas of this industry. Usually, these are markets and other places where informal employment is common and where other migrants already work. You will not likely see men from Central Asia, China, Vietnam, or African countries working in Ukrainian chain supermarkets. However, they are much more visible at Kyiv markets, Kharkiv Barabashovo market, or Odesa’s Seventh kilometre.

Migrant men and women are concentrated in certain sectors of employment. This is a classic example from studies of the employment of migrants in different countries. If one looks at where Ukrainian men and women work in EU countries, we can see a similar situation. In Poland, they are concentrated in the sectors of manufacturing, services, and construction. In Italy, 80% of all people from Ukraine with residence permits are women. More specifically, women working in the sectors of home care and housework. In each destination country there are specific sectors with a demand for foreign labour. In addition, there are established social networks and the willingness or unwillingness of migrants to switch to other sectors, especially if it requires a command of the local language.

The ethnicisation of certain sectors of the labour market is often the result of specific state policies and business activities. They engage foreign workers in the sectors with a demand for labour that cannot be satisfied by the local population.

However, migrants who have been working for a long time among other migrants need more time to learn the local language, establish new social contacts with the local population, and get integrated in general. Migrant men and women are often involved in low-paid, physically hard and hazardous work. As a result, class differences in society overlap ethnic differences. This is how ethnicized poverty, i.e. poverty that takes root among ethnic minorities, appears. In order to prevent the consequences of the ethnicisation of poverty, states try to impose measures that reduce the barriers for migrants in the labour market and let them switch easily to other sectors.

The situation in Ukraine is somewhat different. Migrants are predominantly employed in trade, but it cannot be said that there is a demand for foreign labour in Ukraine specifically in this area. They come to Ukraine for a variety of reasons, which are often not employment-related. However, labour market barriers for foreigners lead to the situation that the only way for them to generate income in Ukraine is to sell something at the market.

Undocumented people, students trying to combine work and study, asylum seekers—in most cases these categories cannot work legally in Ukraine. Markets become the only possible place of employment for them. Moreover, migrant male and female workers join their compatriots for work because they do not know the local language and have no connections with the locals. Eventually, with no support from the state, they keep working at the markets.

The rise and fall of markets

The era of markets in independent Ukraine is over. However, the two largest markets in Eastern Europe still exist and even compete with online marketplaces. These are the Seventh Kilometre in Odesa and the Barabashovo shopping centre in Kharkiv. At these markets, many people from China, Vietnam, Pakistan, Afghanistan and African countries work shoulder to shoulder with locals.

The presence of foreign women and men at these markets has been known since the 1990s. They come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, as well as Central Asia and Africa. Some migrants had already been living in Ukraine when it got its independence. For instance, some of them were foreign students receiving higher education in Ukraine. Others came to work under the international agreements between the USSR and other countries of the socialist camp. One more group were migrants who came to Ukraine after independence was proclaimed. There is a common idea among researchers that migrants from the Near and Middle East and Africa chose Ukraine as a transit country on their way to Europe. Those whose status was not regulated lived in Ukraine for some time and tried to obtain it, and some eventually stayed.

In the emerging economy of the 1990s, foreigners felt more self-confident in entrepreneurship than Ukrainians who had long lived in a country without private ownership. Markets, in particular the establishment of international supply of various goods, were the main place for such business. Those migrants who came later were more likely to become hired workers. For example, immigrants from Vietnam, who worked at factories and received vocational training under corresponding contracts back in the 1980s, did not go home after the collapse of the USSR. They actively started to establish a supply of goods from Vietnam and to sell goods at the markets. At the same time, Uzbek men and women from Kyrgyzstan, whose number had increased significantly since the outbreak of the inter-ethnic war in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, mostly became hired workers.

Over time, it became more and more difficult to work at the markets. First, because of growing competition. Later, due to the strengthening of regulatory mechanisms for market workers and changes in employment legislation for foreigners. Along with the gradual move of trade to shops, the position of migrants in markets was complicated by additional barriers. To take the business out of the market meant starting to operate not only according to different rules but also in a completely new environment for migrants. This required knowing the law, having contacts and a good command of the local language. The barriers for hired workers were similar. While locals were able to switch to other sectors or at least to shopping centres and supermarkets, this path was closed for migrant workers. The inability of certain categories to work according to the legislation, a lack of knowledge of the local language, a lack of contacts with locals and a lack of understanding of how to look for a job in Ukraine—all this prevented migrants from making this transition.

If the market doesn’t sort things out — what’s next?

This is the question migrant men and women ask themselves. Due to the drop in profits from selling goods at the markets, some of them moved on while others decided to return home. Some of those who stayed got the opportunity to change their employment sector, others continue to work at the markets. At the same time, newly arrived migrants use their connections with their compatriots when looking for a job and also end up at the markets.

Dilya does not hope to move or to find another job. She cannot imagine herself working as a saleswoman in a supermarket — she says she needs to speak the language more fluently to do so. “As long as the market works, I will keep working here. [...] And then,” Dilya says, “maybe I’ll go to work in a restaurant.” She means the Uzbek restaurant.


When it comes to the migration situation in Ukraine the ironic saying: “the market will sort things out” takes on an additional meaning. No, “the market won’t sort things out”. The lack of integration policies has its consequences not only for migrants but for the state too.

It is important to understand that the mentioned difficulties are not only a problem of vulnerable migrants. The state should have the pragmatic interest to involve foreigners in the formal labour market. It is difficult to overcome the problems of labour shortages in certain employment sectors and the consequences of an aging population without engaging foreigners in the labour market.

Employment at markets neither solves the problem of access to decent working conditions nor encourages integration. In order to work beyond the market, migrants need additional support: the opportunity to learn the language, to re-skill for a new occupation, and to learn how to write a CV if necessary. Access to the labour market is one of the key conditions for integration, although integration support by the state should not be limited to employment.

By Anastasiia Fitisova, migration researcher at Cedos