Cities discuss solutions to welcome Ukrainian refugees

25 May 2022

The city of Prague has always been a hub in eastern Europe for migrants. With a population of 1.2 million people, the city hosted around 240,000 migrants before the Ukrainian refugee crisis, meaning that 20% of Prague’s population had a migrant background. About 67,000 of those migrants were Ukrainians living in the city by choice, rather than the need to escape the war.

Today, the city has welcomed over 80,000 Ukrainian refugees – among them, 35,000 are women aged 18-64 and, of the rest, 28,000 are children and teenagers under 18. Several of these refugees are of Roma origin, which means that they face even more hardship due to their ethnic background, and need specific attention.

According to Jan Janousek, Foreigner Integration Specialist at the city of Prague, the city didn’t have “much experience in supporting refugees since it has always been the national government’s responsibility, of the Ministry of the Interior.”

But now every city has to do its part.

Adaptation is key in Prague

Prague. Photo by William Zhang on Unsplash
Prague. Photo by William Zhang on Unsplash

The city had to focus on “adaptation for providing a short-term support with the outbreak of the crisis,” Janousek adds. But challenges are many.

“Luckily, we have our integration policy for 2022-2027 already approved, over the long-term integration is kind of set up with those principles – measures that can be adapted to helping people who will stay here longer. But now we are in a situation where we need to develop some plan to provide services and support in the short-term,” he explains.

So, the city decided to focus on housing and education and Prague has its own characteristics, such as 57 city districts that function as autonomous municipalities with their own political leadership, organisations, and budget.

“And all these districts are somehow affected by this crisis,” says Janousek, adding that “they all need some guidance, some support because within these 57 city districts, only about 11 or 12 have some experience in integration and actively working with migrants. So, at least these city districts have some know-how, but the others have very little know-how regarding the integration and support of refugees or migrants in general. So, we face this one big challenge.”

Prague is setting up a coordination group to advise and provide some assistance to municipalities and to find a way for all the municipalities to work together. The city is also aware of the danger of abuse, both in the labour market as well as sexual abuse of migrants, but they do have experience with this issue.

Therefore, they are “studying how to inform these groups of their rights, where to seek help and how we can set up the mechanisms to inform and train these refugees, how to provide information online to refugees and not only within physical locations,” explained Janousek.

The city is also planning on reaching out to refugees using social media tools, rather than waiting for them to reach out to the city, and the studying how to deal with the rise of xenophobic sentiment. “There is criticism of the support that is provided by the state and also by the city,” notes Janousek, pointing out that the number of volunteers is declining.

The city is planning to offer financial incentives for those offering support to refugees.

Integration and tackling disinformation in Bialystok

The city of Bialystok. Image via Pixabay
The city of Bialystok. Image via Pixabay

In Poland, the country which has received the largest wave of refugees, the city of Bialystok has welcomed about 4,000 Ukrainian refugees. Located near the border with Belarus, the city is not a main hub, however, it faces many challenges and is working to provide the best care possible to those arriving. According to Bialystok’s Deputy Mayor Przemyslaw Tuchliński, 440 refugees are living in places ceded by the administration (not only the city but also government shelters) and the city is itself “responsible for 300 refugees providing housing, food, etc.”

After two months of war, Tuchliński noticed that several Ukrainians decided to return home, while others need further integration policies as they might decide to stay in Poland a bit longer.

“Many want to stay in the city, but they want to go back to their country as soon as possible, but we don’t know when it will be possible, when the war will be finished. We want to help them to make some kind of integration, to give them independence within the city, offering housing, education, work, etc,” explained Tuchliński.

Today, the city faces challenges with the care of children under the age of three because they are too young to be inserted into the educational system and often their mothers need to find work but can’t leave their children alone.

Also, Tuchliński worries about Russian disinformation campaigns that might fuel xenophobia as the Polish state and cities keep aiding refugees and the war continues – local citizens might feel left out, even though, he notes, “we are not taking anything from the Polish people” to help refugees.

Housing and integration in Dusseldorf

The city of Dusseldorf. Image by Pixabay
The city of Dusseldorf. Image by Pixabay

With much more experience in welcoming refugees, the city of Dusseldorf has seen an increase, since 2014, in the number of inhabitants. Over 25,000 foreign citizens arrived in the city, which cannot say how many of them are refugees, given that no separate register exists to demarcate foreigners who decide to live in the city and refugees.

Nevertheless, according to Fanny Köhler, Project Coordinator for Integration in the Social Space, European Networks & Coordination of Welcome Points, before the Ukrainian crisis, the city was hosting about 3,600 people in the process of seeking asylum, plus 3,400 people accommodated in city housing. She explains that during the 2015 migration crisis, “we have put people in tents, gym halls, hotels, empty school buildings, empty office buildings, etc. People were just put wherever there was space.”

Looking for long-term housing solutions, the city developed a project with modular buildings, consisting of “containers that can be put together in a modular way,” she explains, adding that “families of four or more people have their own cooking and sanitary facilities. Single people receive a single room and they share cooking and sanitary facilities. So, 10 people share cooking and sanitary facilities.”

Also, “the areas are always secured by a fence, and you can only enter through the gatekeeper who’s there 24/7, and there’s always people so you are never alone there. So there’s the gatekeeper who’s always there and also always approachable in case of emergency. During the week there are social workers for consultation and casework.”

Now, over 6,000 Ukrainians have already reached the city.

About 4,000 refugees have already been accommodated in hotels and apartment buildings all over the city, but Köhler notes that “4,000 people needed to be transferred to other communes simply because we didn’t have the capacities to house them here.”

Köhler says that refugees must also be considered agents of their own life, not just passive recipients of help.

Once they are settled, “they have a house, they have food, they have money, they know how to cover their basic needs, they can start getting active in their communities. And we have had really great experiences with people who have done exactly that. They received help and afterwards they realised that they have options to actually become active in their communities and give back to the people who’ve helped them before.”

Coordination is key in Athens

The city of Athens. Image by Pixabay
The city of Athens. Image by Pixabay

Greece faced a dire situation when the 2015 refugee crisis broke out. Thousands of people arrived in the country and, according to Panagiotis Psathas, Head of Department for the Support and Social Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees, “it was not just a refugee crisis in the sense of the humanitarian situation, but was actually a management crisis over the basic functions of the city.”

“Imagine that we have thousands of people living in open squares. So it was a situation that could lead to a collapse of basic municipal services – not only the social services. So we had to act quickly and without having previous knowledge: our first response was to become partners and to discuss with basic actors in the field. First of all, with the central administration and the government,” he further explains.

The city managed to find a temporary accommodation site and emergency support for those arriving in Athens as well as partnered with international organisations such as IOM and UNHCR and also private partners ceded apartments for refugee families. The ACCMR operation, or the Athens Coordination Centre for Migrant and Refugee Issues, was fundamental to supporting the city’s work and coordinating partnerships and offers.

First of all, explains Psathas, the ACCMR “led us to the reorganisation of our own municipal services. Until then, the directory of social solidarity in Athens didn’t have a specific department on migration and integration.” Also, the ACCMR became a cooperation point with over 100 organisations working together, mapping the situation of refugees, and matching them with the city’s services and partner’s offers.

“So, the municipality and, for example, NGOs that had an orientation on education or on health issues, started having a more detailed cooperation concerning who does what, where are the needs, how they provide it,” explained Psathas.

Utrecht is working to provide housing

The city of Utrecht. Image by Pixabay
The city of Utrecht. Image by Pixabay

Differently than with the Syrian refugee crisis, when the national government was the one dealing with the influx of refugees, the Netherlands now delegated the responsibility to 25 safety regions all over the country and the municipalities within these regions to welcome Ukrainian refugees.

The country was already home to 35,000 refugees before the current crisis, and cities had to make an effort to find room for the newcomers. All over the country, 50,000 new housing places were secured. The city of Utrecht was able to offer 1,000 units, says Jan Braat, Senior Policy Advisor on Migration, Diversity and Integration at the Municipality of Utrecht.

Refugees arriving in the city have 200 beds immediately available and then they can be spread throughout the city, the region, or other parts of the country after talking to the social services to assess their needs.

“We have 90 people in hotels, we have more than 150 people in small reception centres and we have 420 people living in Dutch and Utrecht citizens’ houses,” he says, adding that about 250 refugees are also living with friends and relatives all over the city but without the city’s direct intervention.

The city is refurbishing office buildings to offer more permanent housing solutions and thinking ahead: new housing solutions are not just planned for Ukrainian refugees, but for all refugees and even local citizens who might also need accommodation or housing.

Utrecht is also helping asylum seekers to find a job and making sure children have access to the educational system – providing extra classes to ensure they can learn Dutch and integrate – as well as offering psychological support.

Crisis management meeting
Crisis management meeting

Prague, Bialystok, Dusseldorf, Athens, and Utrecht exchanged their experiences during a Crisis Management meeting organised by Eurocities on 19 May 2022 within the framework of the  CONNECTION and UNITES projects. Utrecht is a partner of CONNECTION and will host the next Integrating Cities conference on 16-17 November; Prague and Dusseldorf are both UNITES partners; Athens is a CONNECTION and UNITES partner.

CONNECTION and UNITES are European funded projects led by Eurocities focusing on transnational learning, implementation of integration policies and the co-design of integration strategies with several stakeholders and migrants themselves.



Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer