Last winter, Jaroslav Olek, born in Warsaw, spent the first days of the Ukrainian war handing out sweets with his young sons to refugees who arrived in the Polish capital. Soon after, he hosted Ukrainian families rent-free in his downtown apartment.
Europe is preparing to take in more Ukrainian refugees – with less support
In Poland and across Europe, energy and housing costs have soared, while some governments are poised to cut funding as the war progresses. This has left humanitarian groups and volunteers facing the difficult question of how to sustain aid to Ukrainian refugees in the coming year, with new difficulties as winter sets in again.
“This is unlike any other war, any other refugee crisis in modern times, because this is in a very cold place and where there are 14 million people now displaced by violence,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a non-profit organization.
For Olek and others, that means making personal and financial sacrifices to open their homes and show solidarity with Ukrainians, even as local and national authorities take a step back.
Help from private citizens “has limits,” said Olek, 47, who works at a Polish welfare institution.
“I fear that in some time we will face a second wave of migration related to the winter in Ukraine,” he said. “then what?”
About a third of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes since Russia invaded in February, according to the United Nations. Nearly 8 million refugees have registered in Europe, in what the United Nations has said is the fastest-growing displacement crisis since World War II.
Many fled Ukraine during the first weeks of the war, fearing an overrun by Russian forces. The European Union responded with a temporary plan to grant Ukrainians the right of residency, along with additional benefits such as health care and access to the labor market.
Some 4.8 million refugees have registered for benefits, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Individuals have also stepped up, showing a “wonderful” willingness to take in Ukrainians, said Charlotte Salante, secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council.
In Warsaw, some residents took weeks off work to join, while the Germans set up reception points for refugees in Berlin. In Budapest’s train stations, Hungarians handed out hygiene kits and Romanians served hot food to needy Ukrainians.
Latvian volunteers organized transportation for the displaced, which often included trips through Russia. The small Baltic nation, which is used to receiving only a few hundred asylum applications a year, has taken in more than 40,000 Ukrainians.
In Poland, 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees registered for temporary protection. Because of the influx, Anya Deziadon, who manages A The real estate business in the Polish city of Tarnow decided in March to convert a building it owns into a free boarding house, which can host up to 50 people.
Since then, its three floors have been crowded with a changing cast of characters: an accountant from the city of Mykolaiv in the south of the country, whose children study online; Lesia, Alisa, Nikita and Leonzia Mesumi, who traveled with their Pomeranian; and Svitlana and Vitalij Pylypets, who arrived this month from Dnipro in central Ukraine with their two young daughters, one of whom suffers from cerebral palsy.
According to Deziadon, who helps her guests find work or enroll their children in school, the latest arrivals said they left Ukraine because of the cold and the lack of electricity and internet.
Because Deziadon’s building is classified as a “group residence,” it receives about $16 a day from the government for each refugee it hosts. Individual hosts like Olek, meanwhile, receive $9 per refugee per day for up to four months.
The payments are “not much,” he said, but they help cover costs, though those costs are rising as temperatures drop — and more refugees may be on the way.
Aid workers say it is difficult to estimate how many Ukrainian refugees remain in each European country – and how many more may emerge. Many Ukrainians cross borders frequently. Others went back despite the war, and some who remained abroad did not register for defense.
As refugee arrivals declined over the summer, some aid groups reduced their presence and reception centers closed. But in August, Ukrainian officials already began sounding the alarm about the war’s potential impact in the winter, Salante said, when temperatures typically range between 23 and 36 degrees Fahrenheit.
Then, in October, Russia began a months-long campaign of methodical attacks against Ukraine’s infrastructure – plunging cities and towns into darkness and bitter cold. At one point in late December, nearly 9 million people were without electricity, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
Some people are “considering fleeing Ukraine again or for the first time,” said Lukasz Polewski of the Open Dialogue Foundation, a Polish nonprofit that supports refugees arriving at Warsaw’s Eastern Railway Station. In the winter, “it’s just hard to survive if you don’t have an energy supply or heating.”
December temperatures in the capital Kyiv hovered around freezing, while the front-line city of Bakhmut saw temperatures as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit. The Ukrainian government has urged citizens who fled to stay abroad during the winter. But humanitarian agencies are trying to send as much aid to Ukraine as possible because it can be difficult for the elderly to leave.
A recent U.N. survey found that only 7 percent of respondents still in Ukraine indicated they were actively considering leaving. Data collected by national governments does not indicate a significant increase in border crossings in recent weeks, said Olga Sarado-Moore, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Still, neighboring countries including Romania and Poland reported a slight increase, while in other countries, the pace of crossings back into Ukraine slowed.
Mihaela Munteanu, who runs the largest refugee center in the eastern Romanian city of Iasi, said a growing number of Ukrainians are bringing their elderly relatives to Romania. The onset of winter has also brought more refugees to Berlin, according to the German Red Cross.
Aid organizations are preparing to quickly recruit more volunteers and reopen reception centers if necessary. UNHCR is helping the local and national authorities in Central and Eastern Europe to prepare emergency plans – including equipping them with thermal blankets and mattresses and strengthening the capacity of the reception centers, spokeswoman Shabia Mento said.
Deziadon, meanwhile, is renovating the attic of her boarding house so she can take in more refugees. But not everyone who initially signed up to host was as welcoming or flexible as Deziadon and Olek.
More than 2 million Ukrainian refugees have settled in Western or Southern Europe, according to UNHCR data, but many prefer to stay in Ukraine’s neighboring countries, such as Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Romania.
However, these countries are poorer, and the war has raised the prices of energy and primary materials. As a result, aid groups and volunteers say they’ve seen a drop in people’s willingness or ability to provide material aid.
Hungarians who had joined eagerly in the spring were getting tired, said Bela Szilagyi, president of the Hungarian Baptist Relief.
Many Poles “would still like to help but don’t have enough resources to do so, especially since the inflation rate in Poland is more than 17 percent,” Polewski said.
Public funding is set to drop in 2023, when the Polish government wants Ukrainian refugees to start footing part of the bill for government-provided housing and food. But private hosts like Olek will still be eligible for government support.
This support remained stable even as energy prices in Warsaw doubled in 2022. His payments from the government are often late. In Olek’s view, Poland’s leaders have done little to prepare for a possible new wave of refugees.
He was left to absorb the increased cost of heating for his Ukrainian guests this winter. Deziadon also said it may charge rent if government aid dwindles.
In Latvia, some cities ran out of money to house people a few months ago, even though the government recently approved an extension of current aid measures until June. But with prices rising, “people’s willingness to help may be different,” said Agnes Leis, who works for the Latvian group I Want to Help Refugees.
The picture is similar in Hungary and Romania, where the government is discussing changes to its financial assistance program for people hosting refugees. But skyrocketing rents have made it difficult for Ukrainians to move into long-term housing.
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Olek, at least, plans to continue providing a “safe oasis” for Ukrainians in Warsaw, even if it bleeds his resources.
“I prefer to help in this way,” he said. “And also to show my children that it is more important, that there are more important values in life than just a person’s cash.”
Annabelle Chapman in Paris contributed to this report.