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As trains of Ukrainian refugees arrive in Berlin, E.U. offers warm but ‘temporary’ welcome

At Berlin's central station, Hauptbahnhof, passengers exit a platform where a train carrying refugees from the Ukraine-Poland border arrived on March 2. (Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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BERLIN — Anna Svitlyk arrived at Berlin’s central station thirsty and exhausted after four days fleeing the Russian invasion with her five kids.

She stepped off the train to find Germans offering water and places to shelter — “You can stay as long as you want,” read one sign.

Under rules announced Thursday, Ukrainian nationals will be eligible for “temporary protection” within the 27-nation bloc for up to three years, depending partly on conditions in Ukraine.

Those seeking refuge will be able to bypass the normal asylum application process — which can leave people in legal limbo for years, as migrants from the Middle East and Africa have learned.

The scene in Berlin on Wednesday — volunteers in yellow vests offering food, Berliners opening their homes — was reminiscent of the beginning of the 2015 migration wave, when Germans greeted asylum seekers with cheers and homemade crumble.

Local residents offered accommodation for refugees who arrived at Berlin's central train station on March 2, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)

Angela Merkel, the chancellor at the time, offered them a chance to live and work in Germany. Other countries were far more resistant to taking people in. Eventually, political backlash prompted Germany, too, to take a harder line.

But Russia’s assault has led to an outpouring of support for Ukrainians desperate to leave. Ukrainian nationals will be granted residence and work permits within the bloc, and they will have access to housing, schools and medical coverage.

Non-Ukrainians and stateless people who had made Ukraine their home will be granted temporary protection if they are unable to return home to “safe and durable” conditions — a definition that may leave the status of some non-Ukrainians unclear.

More than 1 million people have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), mostly traveling overland to neighboring countries in Eastern Europe. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that up to 4 million people may leave Ukraine if the violence continues.

“At this rate, the situation looks set to become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century,” Shabia Mantoo, a UNHCR spokeswoman, said Tuesday in Geneva.

Most are crossing into Poland, as well as Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova. Some will stay in Eastern Europe; others will continue westward to cities such as Berlin.

“All those fleeing Putin’s bombs are welcome in Europe,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement Wednesday. “We will provide protection to those seeking shelter and we will help those looking for a safe way home.”

Photos and videos show long waits on both sides of border crossings as thousands leave Ukraine

To handle the influx, the E.U. is turning to a special procedure called the “temporary protection directive,” which was first developed in 2001. The measure allows the E.U. to “provide immediate and temporary protection to displaced persons from non-EU countries and those unable to return to their country of origin.”

While Europe is relatively united in its desire to help Ukrainians, some have questioned why similar temporary protection was not offered to fleeing Afghans, for instance, or to assist other asylum seekers reaching Europe’s shores.

In 2015 and 2016, some 2 million people, many of them Syrians fleeing war, sought refuge in Europe. Some of the governments in the central and eastern parts of the continent that were most strongly opposed to letting in asylum seekers then are now leading the charge to welcome Ukrainians.

Suddenly welcoming, Europe opens the door to refugees fleeing Ukraine

The Piliahin family fled their home in Kyiv’s suburbs, spending four days hiding in smaller towns, then driving through the Carpathian Mountains until they reached the Polish border. There, they joined the roughly 400,000 Ukrainians who have sought shelter in Poland in the past week.

The family’s breadwinner, Oleksiy Piliahin, 42, was part of a painters union in Ukraine, with a long list of clients whose walls he’d redo or tables he’d varnish. Now he, Mariya and their three sons have been stripped of nearly all their possessions, at the mercy of forces beyond their control.

“European generosity is making us feel as though we are equals,” said Piliahin, who has a disability that exempted him from a rule banning men ages 18 to 60 from leaving Ukraine. “I do not want to be a burden. I want to continue earning my living, so I can contribute money to the war effort, and eventually rebuild my life in Ukraine.”

He holds special gratitude for Poland, which has mounted a massive humanitarian drive at community, federal and military levels to meet the needs of the new arrivals. At the nearby border crossing in the town of Kroscienko, bleary-eyed Ukrainian families were greeted by a sign welcoming them not just into Poland, but also into the E.U.

In addition to the temporary protection measure, the E.U. has relaxed its usual border controls to help let in people on “humanitarian grounds.” Human rights groups, however, have expressed concern about alleged discrimination at some border crossings. On Monday, the African Union issued a statement urging all countries to respect international law, after reports that Ukrainian border guards were preventing citizens of African countries the right to cross to safety.

E.U. membership and fighter jets for Ukraine remain elusive as Zelensky says ‘prove you are with us’

Sitting on a bench in the corner of Berlin’s central station Wednesday, Olivier Mani and Blanche Bikie, from Cameroon, and Keita Sekou, from Ivory Coast, described their arduous, days-long journeys from Kyiv, where they were attending university.

At the Polish border, they said, White women and children were put in separate lines from the Black men and women.

Sekou said that when he tried to get on a train at the border crossing, police beat him and told him Africans were secondary. He eventually got through at the Slovakian border.

Bikie and Mani said they tried the Polish border a second time the next day, and were segregated again. But they squeezed their way through after standing for hours.

The three said they planned to head on to France, where Bikie has family.

At the Berlin train station, surrounded by six colorful suitcases and wearing a red puffy hat, Umida, 17, said she had traveled from Kyiv with her three siblings and parents for three days, barely sleeping on the way.

As refugees originally from Uzbekistan, she and her family may not be covered by the E.U. protection law. They aren’t sure how long they’ll be allowed to stay, or if anyone in the family will be able to work. It’s hard to think past the next 24 hours, though, she said.

Svitlyk watched her kids draw and paint in a children’s area set up in the train station, while pondering her next moves. She planned to sleep in a hotel next to the train station that is offering free accommodation for a few days, then make her way to Sweden to wait out the war.

“Every European country gave us free food, free shelter. We owe them so much and are so grateful,” she said. “But we want to go home."

Rauhala reported from Brussels and Bearak from Lodyna, Poland.