The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Europe rewrote its migrant playbook for Ukrainian refugees. Some fear it’s not enough.

People from Ukraine arrive at Berlin's Hauptbahnhof railway station on March 9. (Steffi Loos/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

BERLIN — Squat white container homes line the runways of the former Tempelhof Airport, used 75 years ago for the airlift that sustained West Berlin through the Soviet blockade.

Now it’s sustaining Lena, 48, who fled her home outside Kyiv with hopes of reaching Tel Aviv; her 14-year-old son clutched a paper printout with directions to a local health and social affairs office said to be helping with plane tickets.

Different plans preoccupied 29-year-old Vika, who expected to remain in Berlin, find work and send her son to kindergarten. A third mother had her sights set on Stockholm.

“After war, this is very good,” said Lena, a dressmaker. “We have a bed, bathroom and good food. But it’s not forever.”

These mothers and many like them have refuge from Russia’s assault on Ukraine thanks to a vast humanitarian response facilitated by rail companies, international organizations and everyday citizens. But their aspirations depend also on Western governments, whose initial reaction, say critics, was delayed and undermined by wishful thinking.

More than 3 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine; more than half are children. Their parents are trying to explain the war to them. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

As the scale of the crisis became clear, European leaders forged political consensus absent from prior humanitarian disasters, setting aside procedures still being used to block other asylum seekers in a discrepancy shaped by race, geography and geopolitics. Now, the continent is under pressure to manage the arrivals under the terms of its new playbook. And formidable questions loom — about dispersing the refugees equitably across the West, about finding the wherewithal to set them up with meaningful lives and about sustaining the public support necessary for social cohesion.

While Russia wages war in Ukraine, life in much of Europe remains normal, but uneasy

“I think, fundamentally, the resources to accommodate many more people in Europe were always there,” said a European security official speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to address unfolding events. “The political willingness was lacking.”

Under pressure from their citizens, whose displays of solidarity have helped catalyze policymaking, European governments are clearing space for housing in their capitals. They are offering financial assistance to members of the public willing to take in refugees. And, perhaps most notably, they are bypassing ordinary asylum rules and offering Ukrainians temporary protection under a never-before-used directive that guarantees visa-free travel across the European Union and the right to housing, work, health care and education for at least one year.

Together, the acts show how Europe is responding differently than it did to the crisis sweeping across the continent in 2015, when 1.3 million people, many fleeing the civil war in Syria, came in search of asylum. As numerous nations closed their borders, Germany became a beacon, and authorities in Berlin turned to temporary measures like the container homes at Tempelhof. They were going to be dismantled but now have new purpose.

Today, more than 3.3 million Ukrainians have already fled their country, with much of the burden now falling on neighboring Poland, Romania and Moldova — some of the poorest nations in Europe, and ones not prepared with robust programs of refugee integration.

The emergency, stemming from a conflict with the potential to redraw an Iron Curtain across Europe, has inspired some to look to earlier analogues, including previous uses of Tempelhof.

European leaders have a model in the 1948 Berlin airlift, the most important turning point in postwar European history, said Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank with operations stretching from Berlin to Brussels to Istanbul. When Soviet forces blockaded access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin, the United States and Britain responded by airlifting food and fuel to Tempelhof, landing one plane every 45 seconds at the height of the campaign. The operation transformed an airport built by the Nazis into a symbol of liberty and logistical ingenuity.

“Stalin’s blackmail failed, and it was that humanitarian gesture that created the foundation for Western institutions, from NATO to the Council of Europe, we still rely on today,” Knaus said in an interview.

Today, a different sort of airlift should join not just European nations but also the United States and Canada, Knaus said, in a proactive effort to resettle refugees across the West. “A Ukrainian woman arriving in Moldova will not find her way alone to Barcelona,” he said.

His proposal is finding positive reception from Brussels to Germany’s Bundestag, where Joachim Stamp, the refugee and integration minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, this week made the case for such cooperation. Stamp asked the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to work with his French counterpart to evacuate 1 million refugees from Poland and oversee their resettlement throughout Western Europe, and possibly also in North America.

Otherwise, certain countries will be overwhelmed, he warned.

“We will do whatever is necessary, but there also needs to be a European solution for this,” Stamp said in an interview.

That kind of high-flown ambition, applied not just to revitalizing military defense but to succoring refugees, Stamp said, would “confront Vladimir Putin with something he doesn’t know: humanity.”

‘At the limits’

On the ground, immigration officials and aid workers still see incomplete cooperation and bureaucratic roadblocks. That’s partly because authorities in Germany, Europe’s largest economy and its de facto leader, failed to anticipate a mass movement of refugees, some argue.

As late as Feb. 16, the interior ministry said there was “currently no evidence of migratory movements.” By Feb. 22, two days before Russia’s full-scale invasion, the interior minister, Nancy Faeser, said any exodus would mainly affect neighboring countries, vowing that Germany would help provide humanitarian assistance.

The interior ministry on Thursday debuted an online portal for those fleeing Ukraine. “Yes, more could have been done by the federal government,” Stamp said, while also maintaining that “it’s impossible to be prepared for a situation of this scale.”

An official in the German interior ministry, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address sensitive matters, said state leaders also dragged their feet, offering “shameful” answers when asked how many refugees they could accept. Authorities are now relying on a quota system based on population and tax revenue.

Burden sharing is made more difficult by incomplete estimates of how many refugees have crossed into the country, the official said, as those with biometric passports are not required to register for 90 days unless asking for health or social support. Officially, 197,000 arrivals have been registered in Germany, according to police figures made public Friday.

With mostly women and children fleeing Ukraine, European authorities fear a surge in human trafficking

Refugees who forgo registration and public assistance also have more say over where they reside. A large group of new arrivals recently brought by bus from Berlin to a town in eastern Germany — part of an effort by the interior ministry to distribute people around the country — were dissatisfied with their destination and asked the bus driver to return them to the capital, the official said.

Meanwhile, officials in Berlin, which is host to the country’s largest refugee office, are overwhelmed simply processing residence permits. The capital was anticipating receiving 100,000 people in short order, in a city of 3.7 million, officials said. “Finding them a place to stay even for a night is a challenge,” said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly address ongoing planning.

Franziska Giffey, Berlin’s mayor, said the city is “at the limits of our capacities.”

More than 3 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine; more than half are children. Their parents are trying to explain the war to them. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Aid groups have sprung into action, relying on muscle memory from the response in 2015. Many expect that Germany’s reputation as a haven will inspire Ukrainian refugees to flock to its train stations and bus terminals.

“I called one of my friends and said, ‘We have to reactivate the network from 2015,’” said Holger Michel, who helps lead Freiwillige Helfen, or Volunteers Help, which has been directing traffic at Berlin’s main train station, slotting new arrivals into temporary housing or sending them on to other cities.

Soon, state authorities took on a larger role, Michel said, and have so far been more receptive to volunteers than in 2015. “If I have a problem, there’s a number I can call 24 hours a day, and someone will at least try to find a solution,” he said. A recent argument broke out over the use of blankets by refugees sheltering in train stations, which authorities said presented a fire hazard, Michel said.

“I’m working with 20 percent children,” he said. “I need blankets.”

‘Refugee disaster’

An interior minister from an E.U. government told associates he had goose bumps when the bloc moved this month to grant general protections to Ukrainians, using a directive created during the 2001 refugee crisis in Kosovo but never activated since.

It was a testament, said Ylva Johansson, the bloc’s immigration commissioner, to the “pace and the scope of our collective reaction.”

“We learned lessons from 2015,” she affirmed in a written statement to The Post.

Inchoate European cooperation offers hope, said Knaus of the European Stability Initiative, but the only alternative to temporary protection was “chaos and closing the borders.” The deeper test, he said, is what happens next.

Meanwhile, there are strains. In virtually every instance, public pressure has been necessary for governments to deepen their international commitments.

Nowhere is that dynamic more apparent than in Britain, said Alf Dubs, a member of the House of Lords and a former child refugee. After sustained criticism, the government loosened rules providing safe haven only to immediate family members.

“There are enormous demands from the public that we should do more,” Dubs said, lamenting that Britain’s exit from the E.U. makes its position, especially on visa requirements, out of sync with the bloc.

But among E.U. member states, too, resettlement efforts have been ad hoc. Some jurisdictions are offering cash incentives to shelter refugees; others are not. Religious congregations and activist organizations are pursuing specific aims. One of the buses sent from Portugal to retrieve refugees marooned in Poland was operated by an animal rescue group, which brought medicine and other materials to Warsaw and returned with children, adults, cats and dogs.

The interior ministers of Poland, Germany and France have established an informal team to coordinate refugee assistance, but buy-in from other Western powers stands in question. The German interior ministry is seeking to broaden the dialogue to all of Europe, according to the interior ministry official, and to secure a “real pledge from every European country of how many people they’re willing to take, of how many trains they’re going to send.”

Johansson said she was encouraged by delegations of French, German, Czech and Austrian transit officials who were joined at the Polish border by rail executives. “This network will need to grow as capacities in specific locations are reached,” she said.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, during a recent visit from Vice President Harris, pressed Americans to shoulder a bigger burden, including by expediting visas for Ukrainians with family in the United States.

For his country, Duda warned, the influx could quickly become a “refugee disaster.”

Ukrainian refugees arrived weary but relieved at the Polish border on March 9. They then boarded buses that would take them to the next stop on their journey. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

In Warsaw, which has received more than 300,000 Ukrainians in a city of about 1.8 million, the mayor, Rafał Trzaskowski, appealed for a “relocation system whereby we start relocating people in Europe and in the world.”

But the mayor wasn’t waiting for an official E.U. program, he said in an interview, instead communicating directly with municipal officials in France and Austria about sharing Warsaw’s burden. “This is just a huge improvisation,” Trzaskowski said. “It can’t work like that much longer.”

Poland’s position stands out because of its staunch refusal seven years ago to accept an E.U. quota system to resettle mostly Muslim refugees. Even today, Poland is turning back migrants from the Middle East at its border with Belarus, part of a geopolitical standoff with that country, while throwing open its border with Ukraine, “showing the discrepancy in policies,” said Adam Bodnar, a professor of law at SWPS University and a former Polish ombudsman for human rights.

The exigencies of a land war in a neighboring country required a different response, said Bodnar, but the political calculations were distinct, too. “Migration from Ukraine was never regarded by the Polish government as a political opportunity,” he said. “Because we respect the Ukrainians — because they already have family here and look very similar, I’m sorry to say it — the government cannot play the ‘other’ card.”

Still, the government will have no shortage of challenges, Bodnar said. And public opinion could shift, too, he warned, if Poles tire of their burden and politicians capitalize on nationalist tensions that have flared between the two countries in the past.

In the short term, expectations about immediate access to housing and work could provoke conflict, he said. Medical needs may be exacerbated by rising cases of the coronavirus across swaths of Europe. The rental market in major cities is already tight. And a language barrier in certain industries will create frustration, predicted Bodnar.

In Warsaw, as across Europe, authorities are resorting to unusual methods of expanding the housing stock. In the Polish capital, there are plans to convert apartment buildings that once housed Russian diplomats, known locally as Szpiegowo, or Spyville, into quarters for Ukrainian refugees. Italian authorities say they will shelter refugees in seized mafia properties.

National governments will have financial backing through special funds made available by the European Commission. How they choose to distribute the resources could vary widely. In Germany, a working group will find answers on costs by April 7, officials said this week.

“We need something better and faster,” Knaus said. “Countries need to inspire each other.”

Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff in Warsaw contributed to this report.

Loading...