How Germany is preparing for an influx of Ukrainian refugees

In comparison with the crisis of 2015, the EU has shown a rare level of unity when it comes to the question of Ukrainian refugees. But what is Germany doing to prepare - and will it be able to cope?

Asylum centre Berlin Reinickendorf
A sign directs people to the asylum centre for refugrees in Berlin Reinickendorf. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Estimates about the number of people who may have to flee Ukraine in the coming days and weeks have drawn comparisons with the refugee crisis of 2015, when hundreds of thousands fled war-torn Syria and headed across the Mediterranean into Europe. At the time, disunity in Europe over the crisis led to former Chancellor Angela Merkel accepting more than a million asylum seekers into Germany, a move that prompted years of debate and fierce criticism from the hard right. 

This time, however, the European Union seems fully unified in its approach and has declared that Ukrainians should be given the right to live and work in any member state for at least three years in light of the crisis. 

With Germany among those declaring its willingness to accept refugees, the pressure will be on to ensure that it is fully prepared and able to provide people with an acceptable quality of life. 

How many refugees are there?

So far, the United Nations estimates that more than 500,000 people have been forced to leave Ukraine after Russian troops invaded the country. Many of these – an estimated 350,000 or so – have fled into neighbouring Poland, and some will continue on to Germany. 

To put this in context, this is a snapshot of the number of people who have left Ukraine within the first five days of the crisis. The UN believes around four million displaced Ukrainians could seek refuge in other countries during the conflict. 

The scale of the crisis has led to some to talk of a historic wave of refugees. “The EU is really doing a 180-degree turn on its previous immigration policies,” Wiebke Judith of refugee advocacy organisation Pro Asyl told Tagesschau. “This is due to the overall geopolitical situation. There is greater solidarity with neighbouring countries than was the case in 2015 with the majority of those who fled at that time.”

How many people are entering Germany?

So far, the number of refugees crossing the German border has been relatively modest compared to the influx in places like Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. According to the most recent estimates, approximately 5,300 Ukrainians have reached the German borders so far – with many heading to eastern cities like the capital.

In Berlin alone, about 400 people arrived over the weekend, with a further 1,300 arriving on trains from Poland on Tuesday, according to the State Office for Refugee Affairs. However, more are expected every day. 

At present, there have been no targets set for the acceptance of refugees, and none of the EU countries neighbouring Ukraine have so far asked for Germany to do more. “For us, the main thing now is to find unbureaucratic solutions to get people to safety quickly,” Interior Minister Nancy Fraeser told ARD. “It’s less about distribution, it’s about seeing how we can help the neighbouring states.”

READ ALSO: Hundreds of Ukrainians arrive in Berlin after fleeing war

Is it easy to cross the border?

Technically, people should be in possession of a biometric passport in order to cross the border, but in reality, this is highly unlikely to be enforced at present. This is partly because both Poland and Germany are in Schengen – meaning no regular border checks – and partly because officials are likely to waive initial requirements for full paperwork during the current crisis. 

To facilitate travel from Poland into Germany, rail operator Deutsche Bahn also announced on Sunday that it would be offering free train travel for any Ukrainian national or resident heading from Poland to Germany. It said it was working with Polish railways to put on additional services. This should make it easy for more refugees to carry on to Germany after entering Poland. 

A person holds a placard reading “Stop Putin” as she waits for a train with people arriving from Ukraine via Wroclaw in Poland as they fled Ukraine after Russia’s invasion on Ukraine. Photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP

How long can they stay?

Under current rules, Ukrainian nationals are allowed to stay in any EU country for up to 90 days, and the German government has confirmed that this could be extended for another 90 via a residence permit application if the situation in Ukraine were still ongoing. 

However, the EU is currently looking into making sweeping changes that would allow people fleeing Ukraine to receive a right of abode in member states without a lengthly asylum process. At present, officials have floated the idea of a permit for three years that would include a work permit, access to social welfare, medical care and, under certain circumstances, family reunification. 

A concrete proposal will be put on the table at a meeting of EU interior ministers on Thursday. 

Is there enough accommodation available?

According to the Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), the government is already coordinating closely with the federal states “to ensure the even distribution of war refugees arriving in Germany”. Due to the overwhelming willingness of the federal states to take in refugees from Ukraine, officials don’t currently expect bottlenecks in accommodation, BAMF told Tagesschau.

The latest reports from Berlin suggest that the city is reviving infrastructure from 2015 and 2016 to allow it to cater for a greater number of asylum seekers. The city has already prepared 1,300 emergency beds for refugees and is planning to add 1,200 more in the coming days.

Just across the border from Poland in Brandenburg, accommodation is being readied for 10,000 people, regional interior minister Michael Stuebgen told RBB.

Ukrainian refugee family Berlin

A Ukrainian couple with a young child, from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, procede to their temporary lodging at a refugee center in Berlin on February 25th, 2022. Photo: John Macdougall / AFP

Meanwhile, a number of cities in North Rhine-Westphalia, including Cologne, Essen and Düsseldorf, have expressed their readiness to take in refugees. According to recent statements, 850 free refugee beds are available in Essen at present, though many facilities are occupied by people from Afghanistan. 

As the number of refugees grows, it’s likely we’ll see German states putting their old refugee accommodation from the mid-2000s back into use – assuming there is any available. 

Many people around the country have also been using online forms to express their readiness to host Ukrainian refugees in spare rooms and empty accommodation. The government is also hoping that the some 330,000 Ukrainians and people of Ukrainian heritage will be able to support friends and relatives arriving from the country. 

READ ALSO: How people in Germany can support Ukraine

What are the other issues?

Following reports that African students in Ukraine were prevented from crossing the border into Poland along with white Ukrainians, there are concerns that non-European refugees will receive a much less warm welcome when fleeing the war zone. 

Refugee advocacy group Pro Asyl has welcomed the willingness of the EU to help Ukrainians fleeing war, but has cautioned that all residents of Ukraine should be able to seek refuge elsewhere, regardless of their nationality. 

“Ukraine itself has offered many people protection from war and persecution in recent years, for example from Syria, Chechnya and Somalia,” the organisation told Tagesschau. 

In addition, it said, there were Afghans evacuated from Kabul and students from all over the world.

“The bombs don’t differentiate as far as nationality and skin colour are concerned, and just as little differentiation should be made at the borders,” said the head of Pro Asyl’s Europe department, Karl Kopp.

READ ALSO: EU warns bloc nations to brace for millions of Ukraine refugees

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Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.