Cities need help and solidarity

14 June 2022

“We are facing something we never imagined – a war close to the European border. Peace is threatened. Millions of Ukrainians experienced aggression and were forced to leave their homes and are being welcomed in European cities,” said Thomas Fabian, Deputy Mayor of Leipzig, at the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum hosted by Barcelona 

While many Ukrainians that were living in Europe before the war broke out are accommodating their relatives or friends, local governments also take on the responsibility of welcoming and integrating the newcomers.

Laura Pérez, Deputy Mayor for Social Rights at the City of Barcelona, criticised the exclusivity of Spanish regulations on care, and demanded better access for local authorities to European funding.

National regulations, she said, are contradictory to the needs of those entering the country coming from Ukraine. “An unequal access becomes evident when the response is compared with those migrants who have been in Barcelona for years but haven’t received full access to social rights due to national legislation,” she objects. 

But cities are different from national states, maintained Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas, Researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs. “While states rule territory, cities rule over people.”

Here are some examples of solidarity and people-driven actions at the local level.

Caring cities 

Warsaw is an example of hospitality. The Polish capital welcomed 700,000 people from Ukraine out of the 1.5 million that stayed in the country after crossing the Polish border in February. In a very short period, the council has worked tirelessly to integrate Ukrainians as soon as possible. 

However, every part of the process, such as support, adaptation, or registration cannot be sustained only with Warsaw’s own budget. So far, the local government receives help from international organisations but calls for economic support from the European Union.  

Volunteers organising food for Ukrainians. Photo by Warsaw city council

“We need additional support from the Commission now, special tools, lines (of funding) for us as a city to access directly,” claims Tomasz Pactwa, Director of Welfare & Social Projects at the City of Warsaw. 

Funds may be needed, for instance, to subsidise houses outside of the capital. The number of available flats to rent by Ukrainians is limited while prices rise. The council had to intervene to provide 2,000 shelters and reception centres, a number expected to triple. 

The truth is that welcoming migrants and supporting them in all spheres of life in a new country “takes months, other times years,” Pactwa explains. “We do not have years or months; we have weeks.” 

Overwhelming support 

In the first three weeks, 100,000 newcomers had already registered following special legislation equalising refugee rights with nationals, meaning full access to social security, labour market, or health care.

Those looking for employment can access career counselling and job placement, which is part of the integrating strategy the Polish capital has in place. Thanks to the access to the labour market, 17,000 refugees got a job in the city.  

The council started Polish lessons, psychological support services, and inclusion programmes for accessing online learning or nurseries and schools. 

Children in Warsaw. Photo by Warsaw city council

Indeed, a total of 20,000 children enrolled in educational institutions. 86% of the inhabitants of Warsaw embraced the admission of Ukrainian children to educational institutions, according to a survey the council conducted.  

The support is certainly overwhelming. 71% of Warsawians positively assess the city’s response to the influx of refugees, and almost 90% support free education and transportation for refugees. 

All actions developed by the council are perceived as very positive and approximately 75% of the residents were somehow involved in helping newcomers. The most popular assistance is financial support (43%) and collection of goods (40%). 

Non-profits and volunteers’ work 

Riga received much fewer Ukrainians than Warsaw, but the city still put in place welcoming actions. According to officially recorded data, 14,000 people arrived in the city and 2,000 have been accommodated by the council. Most of them stay in relatives’ and friends’ houses, according to Ilze Meilande, Head of the Society Integration and Participation Division. 

Information point. Photo by Riga city council

Just like in Poland, the national parliament passed legislation on assistance to Ukrainian civilians granting refugees the same rights as Latvians. According to this law, the state will compensate the municipalities for the assistance provided.

Cooperation between the municipality and the national government resulted in a 24-hour helpline that offers updated information and assistance on accommodation, employment, psychological support and healthcare, and legal and social services. Also, the helpline informs Latvians on how they can provide support. 

Meilande adds that since the first day of the war, NGOs and volunteers have been actively helping. Volunteers give invaluable contributions to running the support centre for the Residents of Ukraine.  

There, newcomers can receive essential state and municipality services and consultations – resolve issues related to accommodation, apply for a visa or residency, receive social benefits, consultations on employment, enrol a child in nursery or school and others. Also, donations from entrepreneurs and businesses provide significant support in the day-to-day running of the centre. 

Besides involvement in crisis support, NGOs created various online support forms. One of them contains all the necessary information for both Ukrainians that look for relocation and Latvians who want to help. Another platform provides support and brings together in one place the offers of assistance from legal entities and non-governmental organisations.

Welcoming programme. Photo by Riga city council

The City of Riga goes the extra mile considering long-term integration. The council plans to improve and adjust existing services upon necessity, including language courses, social inclusion activities and non-formal learning activities.

Focusing on children 

School Förskolan Paletten in Stockholm. Photo by Stockholm city council

Stockholm has based its welcome actions on its experience from the previous refugee crisis. But the first challenge is that this time “we don’t actually know how many Ukrainians are in Sweden,” said Rebecka Glaser, Strategic Advisor, International and EU affairs.  

“Some have entered with tourist visas, but there might be a surge during the summer of refugees requesting temporary protection,” she added. 

To welcome and accommodate the refugees that arrived in Stockholm, the city pledged €3.7 million. So far 3,133 Ukrainians have arrived. The budget will boost the support which is available through “Welcome House” where the municipality assists with initial guidance and wider integration of newcomers into the Swedish society. 

The welcome house includes one way in for contacts with a network of employers. “Companies in the city are keen to employ the refugees,” says Glaser. 

However, many Ukrainian women should stay at home since their daughters and sons attend online Ukrainian school plans (around 600 children). Since the war broke out, 400 pupils have applied to attend school in Stockholm. Educational institutions have more than 1,000 places ready for the youngest Ukrainians. Indeed, all children have a right to receive education and access to healthcare in the country.

This is a very essential coverage since Ukrainian children have unexpected health problems, says Glaser, such as lacking vaccinations against measles. Measures to combat an outbreak in Sweden are ongoing. 

And Stockholm has also the support of CONNECTION, a European-funded project led by Eurocities aimed at promoting transnational learning and implementation of integration policies where cities can learn from the experience of others on how to better welcome and integrate refugees.

National support wanted 

Ukrainian children in Stockholm. Photo by Stockholm city council

To overcome these challenges, Stockholm counts on a new law.  So far, the state contributes a €7 daily allowance for all refugees who get the permit to stay. “We’ve had a lot of applications for social services for emergency and municipal emergency funds for these refugees because €7 a day doesn’t last very long,” objects Glaser. 

This challenge, she says, adds up to the unclear financial compensation from the state to the municipalities, with low fees. 

The truth is that cities depend heavily on the national government and face many challenges in welcoming Ukrainians. Local governments call for the European Union and national governments’ economic and legal support to overcome challenges and adequately assist newcomers. 

From the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, mayors across the EU have condemned the Russian attacks, engaged in solidarity actions to maintain public pressure against the war and received millions of refugees.

Last March, the Malaga city council held an Extraordinary Plenary Session that agreed to show support and solidarity with the Ukrainian people. The local government “firmly and explicitly condemns the invasion of Ukraine ordered by Putin’s government and the use of force against a sovereign country, which contravenes what was agreed in the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of the United Nations.”

Malaga went the extra mile and offered the collaboration of municipal architects to reconstruct public buildings recently destroyed in the Ukrainian city Zhytomyr.

On 9 June, during Eurocities Annual Conference in Espoo, mayors gathered to best coordinate support and reconstruction interventions in Ukrainian cities. The war is still ongoing, but the exchanges about how best to support the Ukrainian cities to rebuild their education facilities, hospitals and other essential infrastructures as soon as possible have started and elicited strong interest and commitment from many cities.


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer