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How the E.U. has fallen short on promises to Ukrainian refugees

People carry their bags off a train from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, arriving in Przemysl, Poland. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

As Ukrainians lined up outside the Prague employment office one morning, relief and frustration were only meters apart.

Zoya Valentinovna Vakulenko, 70, said she’d arrived in the Czech Republic in March and considered herself lucky to have found stable housing in a refugee center and paid work as a night receptionist there.

But waiting in a separate line designated for people with young children, Katya, 34, said her family was encountering growing hostility in a country that only months earlier welcomed Ukrainians enthusiastically.

“Our children are often chased from the playground by Czech kids because they speak Ukrainian,” she said.

Katya, Zoya and the millions of other Ukrainians who fled to the European Union have received the same promise through the Temporary Protection Directive: You can live, work, receive health care and send your children to school in whichever E.U. country you want to settle in for up to three years.

Seven months on, the 27 E.U. countries have accommodated these refugees to an extent they claimed impossible during the Syrian migrant crisis of 2015 and 2016. But temporary protection has been far from a golden ticket. Many refugees have had to move from place to place and have yet to secure employment. Within a refugee population consisting primarily of women and children, mothers with young kids say it’s been especially hard to find time to seek job interviews or enroll in language lessons. In some cases, success at registering their children in school and otherwise building new lives has depended on the country, city or even street they chose — or were sent to.

Where have the Ukrainian refugees gone?

As many as 3 million Ukrainians have gone back — because it seemed safe enough, because they wanted to be near home and family or, for some, because life as a refugee was frustratingly hard. But as of mid-October, 4.5 million Ukrainians had registered for temporary protection — more than double the number of people who sought sanctuary in 2015 and 2016.

“Many Ukrainians are going to stay here for a long time. Maybe months, maybe years, maybe forever,” said Helena Krajewska, a spokeswoman for Polish Humanitarian Action, one of the country’s largest aid groups. “We need to help them be able to provide for themselves.”

As the war drags on and the ripple effects are felt throughout the continent, the transition from temporary relief to longer-term support is putting the bloc’s commitments to the test.

Looking for work

For all the distress involved in fleeing a homeland that has become a war zone, this wave of Ukrainian refugees began arriving in the European Union at a somewhat fortuitous time: E.U. countries have been facing labor shortages and are desperate for motivated workers. Governments and business groups moved quickly to court the newcomers with sponsorship programs and job fairs.

And yet finding employment has been hard for Ukrainians who can’t yet meet language requirements, or who have had to get their children settled in a new country, or who ended up in places without prior experience incorporating new arrivals.

About one-third of Ukrainian refugees 16 and older who fled to the E.U. were employed, according to recent surveys conducted by Kantar Public. That’s slightly higher than in a survey by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) conducted in 43 host nations, most of which are in Europe. UNHCR found that 28 percent of refugees were employed or self-employed, compared with 63 percent before leaving Ukraine, and that 47 percent of households were relying on social benefits as their main source of income. In E.U. countries, lack of child care and language limitations were cited far more widely than the absence of employment opportunities as reasons people couldn’t get jobs.

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Alla Borodan, a 47-year-old educator who arrived in Germany with her teenage daughter in early March, was among those who landed work quickly. Within days, she was cleaning and babysitting for Berlin families. Then, after posting her résumé on job sites, she was offered a teaching and speech therapy position at a local preschool that had taken in some Ukrainian children. The job did not require her to speak German. She started in early April.

“If there is a desire, then work can be found,” she said.

Tetiana Laricheva, a 32-year-old tech worker, insists it’s not about desire.

The Larichevs, originally from Donetsk, moved to Kharkiv in 2014 after Russian-backed separatists initiated an armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Eight years later, they fled again, this time for the German capital, hoping the language classes Laricheva took in college would help.

She spent much of the initial weeks filling out paperwork and getting her two children, Dasha, 9, and Dima, 6, into school. It was tough to carve out time to rewrite her résumé in German. And then, when she was able to actively look for a job, she found most employers didn’t consider her fluent enough for a position in IT. For months, she couldn’t even get an interview.

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Jean-Christophe Dumont, a migration expert at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said the employment level among Ukrainian refugees “is already not bad when you look at other refugee groups” who have taken longer to be integrated.

But employment rates for Ukrainian refugees in the E.U. vary greatly from country to country. On the high end is Poland, where more than half of working-age refugees are employed. It helped that Ukrainian expat communities in Poland mobilized to help connect newcomers with potential employers.

At the low end of the spectrum is France, where language barriers and the lack of a preexisting diaspora has hampered labor-market integration, so that only about 15 percent of working-age Ukrainian refugees may have found jobs.

Among those who are working in the E.U., government data and surveys suggest that many are either precariously employed or overqualified for what they’re doing. Ukrainian refugees in Poland, for instance, are primarily working in lower-wage sectors — logistics, manufacturing, agriculture, construction, hospitality — even though many have higher qualifications.

Tetyana Panchenko, a migration specialist at the German Ifo Institute for Economic Research, interviewed a wide range of Ukrainian refugees this summer. She said many who found work in Germany aren’t filling labor shortages in the broader economy, but are helping with Germany’s response to the refugee influx in positions that often require no or little German skills.

Searching for a home

For some Ukrainian refugees, the housing situation, too, has kept them from feeling settled.

Many people are still living in temporary accommodations — in refugee centers, in hotels, with host families. In the recent UNHCR survey, only a quarter of respondents said they were renting a place of their own.

Now some of those temporary arrangements are expiring. Aid organizations say they are seeing waning interest among private citizens willing to host refugees. It was one thing for people to offer a spare room for a few months. It’s a different proposition when the war has no end in sight. Meanwhile, some countries and municipalities are pulling back support for accommodation.

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In Latvia, several cities that enthusiastically welcomed Ukrainians earlier this year have warned them to stay away, saying they have run out of money to help put people up.

Polish authorities have begun closing or downsizing some refugee centers, and have tightened access to a program that pays families to host refugees.

In the UNHCR survey, 27 percent of respondents said they would need to find new accommodations in the subsequent six months.

“Countries did a very good job in the first phase,” Dumont said. But “shifting from these initial reception centers to the regular housing market is a big challenge.”

The situation is especially tense in Prague, which already had one of the world’s hottest housing markets before the Czech Republic took in 450,000 refugees — more relative to its population than any other country in Europe. The arrival of refugees grew the capital, Prague, by 7 percent, overwhelming public housing and further straining the rental market.

“At the beginning people were relatively open to renting to Ukrainians, but their attitude has changed,” said Petra Vybíralová, a local real estate agent. “Even though the Ukrainians are willing to pay, many landlords have developed aversion to them. A lot of people now feel that the Ukrainians are getting preferential treatment. They are also afraid that they will suddenly leave after a few months.”

Analyst Martina Kavanová, from PAQ Research, found that more than half of all Ukrainians in the country live in cramped conditions. Some lack the privacy of having their own bathroom or the security of having their own key.

The housing situation for Ukrainian refugees in the E.U. is far superior to what many other asylum seekers have faced — like the notorious camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, where a garbage-strewn tent city has been replaced with a complex fenced in with razor wire and conditions are regularly declared inhumane.

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At the same time, the places where Ukrainian refugees are staying often fall short of the “suitable” housing the E.U. promised as a right for anyone receiving temporary protection.

Refugees who arrived after April, and members of minorities such as Ukraine’s Roma community, have had the greatest difficulty securing housing.

Lilia Rusenko and Olha Petrenko were part of a small group of Roma refugees who were initially placed in a dormitory on the outskirts of Prague.

“We didn’t even have a key to lock our door,” said Rusenko, 43.

“It was full of bugs that were biting us during the night,” said Petrenko. “We slept with the light on because we were afraid to turn it off.”

When they complained, officials inspected the facility, acknowledged the infestation and promised help. The women were asked to hand over all of their clothing — including, humiliatingly, what they were wearing. Officials promised to wash, disinfect and return the clothes, Rusenko said, but never did. The group eventually moved to a dormitory run by a nongovernmental organization for Roma.

An hour’s drive from Prague, in Germany, spare rooms offered up for refugees sit unused.

States and cities in Germany are in some cases refusing to accept more than their official allocation of refugees, saying they have reached their capacity, said Georgia Homann of Accommodation Ukraine, which connects refugees with private hosts.

In theory, refugees are free to move anywhere in Germany. But in practice, they only receive state support if they accept being distributed to one of the country’s 16 federal states based on a quota system. If they settle in a place that has blocked new arrivals, they won’t be able to access state funds.

Seeking a school

Also among the E.U.'s promises to Ukrainian refugees: access to education.

More than 671,000 Ukrainian children had been integrated into E.U. school systems by mid-October. That’s more than the entire student population in primary and secondary schools in Finland.

But the bloc hasn’t said how many children are still not enrolled. Some estimates put it in the hundreds of thousands.

Lack of space in local schools is the most widely cited reason that refugee families haven’t enrolled their children, according to UNHCR.

School systems in some of the countries that have accepted the most refugees, including the Czech Republic and Poland, were under pressure even before the war in Ukraine. “There were not many teachers, not enough resources, not enough space,” said Lucie Cerna, an OECD education analyst.

How Ukrainian children understand the war

In Prague, some refugees report having had to go from school to school to find spots for their children.

“It’s like: Are you lucky or not lucky?,” said Tatiyana B., 44, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition that only her last initial would be used, out of concern for her safety. She had searched anxiously for schools for her 10-year-old daughter, who has a hearing disability. It was only with the help of aid workers that she found a school that could support her daughter’s needs.

Other refugees say they were hesitant to register their children in schools knowing that their housing situation was only temporary — and not knowing where they’d be relocated next.

Requirements for enrollment can be cumbersome and difficult to navigate, too. “Schools in some countries request medical reports, proof of vaccination and authenticated translation of academic records written in Ukrainian as a precondition to enroll children, which refugees often struggle to provide,” UNHCR reported.

Once students are enrolled, countries have taken different approaches to their education.

In Poland, the vast majority of Ukrainian students have been mainstreamed into regular classrooms, a form of teaching that can help integrate newcomers but can be challenging for students who don’t yet speak the language.

Germany relies on a different model of separate “welcoming classes” that provide language instruction and support (and don’t slow German students down in their studies). Although the goal is to integrate students as soon as possible, many expect to remain in separate classes for months or even years.

The possibility of virtual school presents a further option. About 20 percent of parents told UNHCR that they would prefer to keep their children in remote learning, following the Ukrainian curriculum.

“Often for older kids, it’s harder for them to learn new language, join a new school,” said Hugh Reilly, a spokesman for UNICEF’s emergency response office in Poland.

Initial reluctance, though, may be fading. Whereas many Ukrainian families initially “were expecting that they could return home,” some are now prepared for a longer stay, said the OECD’s Cerna.

But as Europe’s welcome for Ukrainian refugees enters a new stage, some worry about what’s next. From Berlin to Prague, protesters have demonstrated against E.U. sanctions on Russia, with some arguing that their government is prioritizing support for Ukraine over its own citizens.

Government aid for Ukrainian refugees has so far “been buttressed by really tremendous public solidarity,” Reilly said. “But for that to continue, it’s going to need sustained and significant support.”

Noack and Rosenzweig-Ziff reported from Berlin, Bauerova and Kelly from Prague. Florian Neuhof in Berlin, Darima Batorova in Prague, Annabelle Chapman in Paris, Julia Alekseeva in Warsaw and Rennie Svirnovskiy in Washington contributed to this report.

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