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Europe’s unprecedented response to Ukrainian refugees faces new challenges

Governments are trying to find more housing and meet other needs, as the humanitarian situation in Ukraine may prompt more to flee this winter.

People fleeing war-torn Ukraine arrive on a train from Poland at the Hauptbahnhof main railway station in Berlin, Germany, on March 9.
Steffi Loos/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

BERLIN — People fleeing Ukraine arrive at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof on every train from Warsaw, volunteers say. Sometimes seven, sometimes 20, sometimes more — but always, there are people. The volunteers, in safety vests, wait for them at the edges of the platform. They find the ones wearing winter coats on a mild October day, the ones trying to balance rolling suitcases and overstuffed backpacks and the cats they didn’t want to leave behind. The scene repeats throughout the day, so by the end, dozens and dozens have passed through the train station in Berlin.

That number is on top of the more than 1 million who’ve already made their way into Germany, and the more than 4.8 million Ukrainians who have registered as refugees in Europe since February. In total, nearly 8 million people have fled the country; another 6.5 million have moved within Ukraine. It is the spillover of months and months of war, a humanitarian tragedy that has gotten quieter but never stopped.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created the fastest and one of the largest displacements of people since World War II. Civil society and aid organizations immediately stepped up: strollers and winter coats and hot food at train stations, citizens offering up their basements and spare bedrooms. The European Union, too, mounted an unprecedented response, granting temporary protection to most people fleeing Ukraine. The mechanism bypassed EU countries’ traditional asylum processes and granted Ukrainian arrivals immediate residency rights and access to the labor market, among other benefits, for at least one year, but potentially longer.

Ukrainian refugees line up to file for residency permits at the Department of Foreign Police in Prague, Czech Republic, on March 2.
Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

Now, as the war in Ukraine inches closer to the year mark, the situation in Ukraine — and across Europe — is entering a new, unpredictable phase. Organizations, volunteers, and local governments are stretching to support Ukrainians already in Europe, as they prepare for the potential of more arrivals this winter.

In the summer and early fall, with fighting mostly concentrated in the Donbas, Ukrainian arrivals to Europe slowed, and more traffic began moving in the opposite direction, as Ukrainians returned. But this fall, Moscow unleashed a series of all-out assaults on Ukraine from the sky, targeting civilian and energy infrastructure. The Ukrainian government says about 50 percent of its infrastructure is now damaged, and the entire country is facing dangerous disruptions to electricity, heat, and water as it gets colder. The Ukrainian government warned citizens who have already sought refuge abroad not to return.

The violence reversed the summer’s trend, and once again, more people are leaving Ukraine than going back, though it’s nowhere close to the numbers in the first days of the invasion. And those who perhaps thought of returning — to see their family or check on their homes — are now planning to stay in host countries.

The continent has, so far, absorbed millions, with countries like Poland and Germany among those who’ve registered the most arrivals. Local governments are scrambling to find accommodations for refugees. Access to housing is a major challenge, but so is finding employment and child care. Some organizations also say donations and support are way down. Some volunteers, stressed by energy bills and unprepared for the length of the war, are unable to keep housing Ukrainian guests.

The fallout from the Ukraine war is also straining European economies, with high inflation and an energy crisis that threatens to tip the region into a recession. There are signs of some fatigue with the bloc’s generosity, and these pressures threaten to fracture public and political solidarity.

“The war is unfortunately not anywhere close to ending and needs remain substantial, so the support for people fleeing Ukraine is going to remain, and it’s going to need to be scaled up and need to continue,” said Niamh Nic Carthaigh, director of EU policy and advocacy with the International Rescue Committee.

How the European Union responded to Ukrainian refugees

In early March, just days into Russia’s Ukraine invasion, the European Union adopted temporary protection for Ukrainian nationals and some others fleeing war in Ukraine. The mechanism was shaped during wars in the Balkans, when European governments also had to prepare for a rush of people escaping conflict.

Ukrainian evacuees wait for further transport after crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border in Medyka, Poland, on March 29.
Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images

After Russia’s invasion, EU governments understood that hundreds of thousands would cross the border immediately, and countries’ already-overwhelmed asylum systems would implode. By granting Ukrainians temporary protection, they would bypass that bureaucracy, and refugees would get immediate benefits: documentation, financial support, access to the labor market, residency, education, all for at least a year, with the possibility of renewal for up to three years. (Unless terminated, the Temporary Protection Directive will automatically extend for a six-month period twice until March 2024, according to a spokesperson for the European Commission.) Each EU country can implement the scheme slightly differently, and, as some experts pointed out, that has created some disparities and has made some EU destinations more attractive than others. But the underlying goal was the same: quickly give Ukrainians in Europe humane, practical, clear status.

“It has shown that the Europe can coordinate — and can coordinate quite efficiently and quite fast if it kind of wants,” said Jöel Machado, migration researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER).

As experts said, this was a revolution in how Europe approached people fleeing war and seeking safety within its borders — a marked contrast to how some European states responded during 2015 and 2016, when a record number of asylum seekers arrived from Syria and other parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Temporary protective status grants Ukrainian refugees rights other asylum seekers in the EU do not have; for example, Ukrainians can choose the city or country they want to reside in, rather than applying for asylum in the “first safe” country they reach. (Ukrainians also have visa-free travel in EU for 90 days, so they can wait to register in the EU.) This has created an unmistakable divide in how those seeking safety are treated in Europe, and has come with allegations of racism and xenophobia in how the bloc views migration from outside versus within Europe. Some of this is practical; the countries bordering Ukraine would struggle to assist so many people at once. Some of this came from the sense that this war would be a temporary crisis. Some of it is how Europe framed the displacement from Ukraine, which it sees as one component of a broader geopolitical crisis at their doorstep.

“The EU sees the Russian war as a kind of a direct threat to its own security, and the refugee issue is much less politicized,” said Florian Trauner, director of the Research Center for Migration, Diversity, and Justice at the Brussels School of Governance.

Even as the EU acted swiftly, the speed and size of displacement from Ukraine meant some official structures were initially swamped, especially in countries like Germany, which quickly became host to tens of thousands. “So many refugees arrived so suddenly that the official structures for welcoming them were completely overwhelmed, and a lot of private persons stepped in and offered accommodation to Ukrainian refugees,” said Niklas Harder, a postdoctoral fellow who studies migration at the DeZIM Institute.

Inna works with Berlin Arrival Support, a volunteer group that formed on Telegram in the early days of war to help Ukrainians bound for Berlin. (She asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy.) She described an organic, somewhat chaotic coming-together of volunteers: people piling up donations — suitcases, clothes, food — at the train station. Others offered spots in their homes. These volunteers were on the front lines, consoling people, giving travel advice, helping with translation, carrying luggage. They, and other groups like them in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, were the bridge for Ukrainians, from the moment they reached safety to the much longer process of settling in. Even as state and government structures and processes formalized, nongovernmental, civil society, and volunteer organizations continue to fill the gaps.

“We’re like this sort of flexible, liquid-ish mass that can get into every crack,” Inna said.

When the humanitarian emergency begins to get more permanent

In late March, Berlin turned Tegel Airport — the city’s formerly main, sometimes-maligned international hub — into an arrival center for Ukrainian refugees. It is again a transit hub, just now mostly going in one direction. The airline check-in desks are used to register guests. The cafe is open, drinks in those coolers, but everything is free. There is a place to pick up clothes, another for toiletries, and another for pet supplies — so many people came with their cats and dogs. There is a foosball table in the kids’ area, which is wallpapered with drawings, so many of them with blue-and-yellow hearts and blue-and-yellow flags.

Children’s drawings decorate a wall at the former Tegel Airport in Berlin, Germany, in March.
Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images
Donated toys lie in a recreation room for children in the main terminal of the former airport.
Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images
Members of the Bundeswehr help register arriving Ukrainian refugees at an aid center set up at the former Tegel Airport, in Berlin, Germany, on March 25. City authorities repurposed the former airport into a temporary shelter and registration center, as refugees from Ukraine continue to arrive daily in Berlin, many by rail via Poland.
Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images

“They can have a bed, they can have a shower, they get food, of course, they get medical attention, if they need it. But I think most of all, after their journey, they need a space to rest,” Charlotte Knust, communications director with the Germany Red Cross, which helps manage the airport, said on a tour in October.

Tegel Airport shows how governments within and across Europe adjusted to Ukrainian arrivals, but also some of the persistent challenges — none of which have easy solutions. Housing is perhaps the biggest one; in Germany, it is one experts, advocates, and volunteers brought up consistently. At Tegel, Ukrainians are now mostly housed in Terminal C; other asylum seekers are now in Terminals A and B. There is capacity for about 1,800 people in Terminal C — inside, and two heated tents outside for about 800 people, though the process had begun to put up more tents. As of the first week of December, about 200 Ukrainians were arriving each day. The average stay used to be 24 hours, maybe a bit longer; now it is 6 to 10 days. People have to stay longer because there is just nowhere for them to go. (About 85,900 Ukrainians refugees are registered in Berlin, according to the Berlin State Office for Refugee Affairs, though not all have passed through Tegel.)

Cities like Berlin already faced housing shortages, which has added to the difficulty of finding longer-term placement for both Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers from elsewhere. This is also happening elsewhere in Europe. Governments are trying to meet this need by providing more temporary housing — on a ferry in France, in hotel rooms in Ireland, in the airport hangars of another abandoned airport in Berlin — but none solve the problem.

A Ukrainian girl plays with balloons the colors of her country’s flag aboard the Corsica Linea ferry Mediterranee in Marseille, France, on April 26. She and other Ukrainian refugees have been provided with temporary housing aboard the ferry.
Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty Images

In Germany, many individuals and volunteers offered space for Ukrainian refugees, but that informal system of housing is also under strain as the war continues. Marvin, who works with Housing.Berlin to find places for Ukrainians (and asked that his last name be withheld to protect his privacy), said now they are leaning more on churches to accommodate refugees because there is so little capacity elsewhere. “We realized that it will be a longer thing, so we also started to look more into longer-term options — but that’s super hard to find,” Marvin said.

Many people who opened up their homes early in the war may have thought those arrangements might last a few weeks or months, at the most. Assistance is available for some who help, but not always. Nine months into the war, shared apartments may feel more cramped, food and utility bills less sustainable. “The supporters don’t get enough support,” said Christiane Beckmann of Moabit hilft e.V, a refugee and asylum support organization in Berlin.

The lack of housing also has ripple effects. As experts said, if refugees have to keep shifting homes, it is a lot harder for their kids to enroll in schools, or for parents to find jobs. Many of those fleeing Ukraine are women and children, as most of the men had to stay behind and fight. According to survey data from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly a quarter of Ukrainian refugees reported a family member who had heightened risk — a disability, or an elderly dependent, for example. The relative ease of travel from Ukraine (compared to, say, crossing the Mediterranean) makes evacuation of the vulnerable a bit more possible (though those populations are still the most likely to struggle to get out). Some parents may be caring for both young kids and older adults, which means access to child care and schooling is even more necessary.

Ukrainians refugees also report that finding and affording accommodation and jobs are among the biggest concerns. Access to the labor market is also fraught, though Ukrainians benefit by being able to work immediately. But, as experts said, employers may be reluctant to invest in hiring people if they are not going to be permanently in the EU. For refugees, they may have to choose whether to start taking language classes and rebuild a career in a place like Germany, or to work a quick job — cleaning houses, for example — to help supplement the financial support they receive. At the heart of all these questions is a deeper one Ukrainian refugees are facing: whether they want to build a life in, say, Germany, or if this is temporary until they can return.

“They can’t know how, when the war will end,” said Lisa Küchenhoff, head of programs at the International Rescue Committee Deutschland. “And then at the end of the war, what would they be going back to in Ukraine?”

What will this winter bring?

This winter will not look like the last, when Russia’s lightning-quick invasion of Ukraine uprooted tens of thousands each day. But Russia has since inflicted incredible damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure, and the continued threat of unpredictable violence and crisis may prompt more Ukrainians to seek refuge in Europe again. The Norwegian Refugee Council has warned that Europe must prepare to accept hundreds of thousands of more refugees.

A local resident, living in a modular town after her house was destroyed, sits in a tent for warmth as temperatures dip below zero in Borodyanka, Ukraine, on December 4. Repeated Russian attacks have left Ukraine’s energy grid teetering on the brink of collapse and have disrupted power and water supplies to millions over recent weeks.
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

But so far, even as winter is basically here, that scenario is not yet playing out. According to data from the UNHCR, neighboring countries like Romania and Roland have reported slight increases in arrivals recent weeks. Neighboring countries have also noted that the number of people going back to Ukraine has also declined.

But the scale of the infrastructure damage poses a real threat. Millions are facing disruptions to heat, hot water, and electricity, including in homes and apartments damaged by war. Eastern European countries on the border with Ukraine are preparing to reopen reception centers and replenishing emergency food supplies. In Berlin, the government is trying to build more temporary housing, between 8,000 to 10,000 places for Ukrainian refugees by the end of the year. They are now repurposing hangars 2 and 3 at another abandoned airport, Tempelhof, and putting up more tents there, too.

According to Berlin’s State Office for Refugee Affairs, the number of Ukrainian arrivals has stayed pretty consistent in recent months. About 4,000 registered in September, and in October, but only about 2,700 registered in November. For the first week of December, though, about 1,400 people registered — a pace that would put December back on par or even ahead of those earlier fall months.

“It’s getting cold. People will come. And right now [Putin] is attacking so many cities. ... So we don’t know what happens. And he knows how to how to fight a war. He has 10 years experience with Idlib [in the Syrian conflict]. He knows how it works,” Beckmann, of Moabit hilft e.V, told me last month.

Europe is also under strain because of its own competing inflation and energy crises. The EU — along with other Western allies — is trying to provide more humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, including money and tools to help repair Ukraine’s infrastructure. In late October, the European Union set aside more than 100 million euros to assist front-line states, in addition to 400 million to support Ukrainian refugees.

But there is fear of a broader fatigue setting in, that once this emergency turns into a prolonged crisis, support among governments and their populations will flag. Right-wing parties have seized on inflation and energy crises to try to exploit divisions around Ukraine support. These sentiments are not yet broadly shared, though. In Germany, a poll in September said 74 percent of the population still supported access to state-funded programs for refugees. But in Poland — which has welcomed more than 1.5 million refugees — a commitment to support Ukrainian families fell from more than 60 percent in March 2022 to 40 percent in September 2022, according to one poll.

At the same time, the number of asylum seekers coming from other parts of the world has also increased, because of continued instability and the easing of Covid restrictions. That is also likely to test EU solidarity and resources that may bleed into feelings on Ukraine.

Lagging enthusiasm is what Putin is banking on to divide and strain the West.

“The aim of Putin is to create a refugee crisis and to put even more pressure on us,” Ylva Johansson, the EU’s migration commissioner, recently told the Financial Times.

And the needs of those here, and those yet to arrive, are huge. Who is coming now, a year into war, is also different. Ralph Achenbach, the CEO of IRC Deutschland, said that at first, many individuals and families were relatively well-prepared — had anticipated fleeing and were packed up to leave. As the war dragged on, they saw more people more directly impacted, leaving active warfare. “I would anticipate that that is going to be amplified further yet as we approach winter and that ultimately we will see a population at greater need also of psychosocial support, and other ways of assisting and really overcoming the trauma of war,” Achenbach said.

Citizens shelter in a Metro station in Kyiv, Ukraine, on December 5, as Russia launches another missile attack on the city.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

All of this requires readjustment in real time. And many see Europe’s approach to Ukrainian refugees fleeing war as a potential opening, as well as a potential risk. The temporary protective order showed Europe’s potential for generosity and solidarity, and a way to be more expansive to all kinds of vulnerable people fleeing war. But if weariness sets in, if the largesse is temporary, they worry the systems might not change but instead harden, even as global instability rises and more people seek out safe havens.

Across Europe, there are signs of people still fleeing — welcome kiosks with pamphlets at airports, flyers in Ukrainian posted throughout train stations. They are the small signs of the millions and millions of Ukrainians who have been uprooted because of war, and of a continent being transformed alongside it.

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