Welfare for the war-ridden

How Europe’s aid for Ukrainian refugees has changed a year into the war

Welfare for the war-ridden

Photo: EPA

“Europe is tired of refugees, aid is being reduced or cancelled completely, landlords are evicting refugees and forcing them to go home.” Lately, Russians have been hearing such claims more and more often, sometimes as rumours and gossip, and occasionally as headlines in Russian state media. European countries are indeed changing their assistance programmes for Ukrainian refugees as well as their legalisation systems. However, what Europe has grown tired of is not protection-seeking Ukrainian women and children but the war, Russian aggression, and the daily news of new victims. What is happening is rather the restructuring of aid: a year has passed, and while at the outset of the war European countries took in refugees in an uncontrolled fashion, passing laws and decrees post factum, many governments are now changing the structures and formats of Ukrainian aid. But they do not deny Ukrainian refugees assistance, do not expel them from their countries, or force them to sell themselves into slavery.

Poland: Refugee status or residence permit?

According to the UN, 7.86 mln Ukrainian refugees have been registered in European countries since the start of the war. Most of them — 1.57 mln — stayed in Poland, which became Europe’s chief refugee reception centre, from which people travelled to other countries where they had relatives, friends, or simply offers of help.

The 1.5 mln Ukrainians that remained in Poland have received not only government aid, but also grassroots help: in the processing centres at the border, mobile network operators handed out SIM cards with free calls to Ukraine and Internet access; ordinary Poles provided free accommodation, brought clothes, food, blankets, and bedsheets to refugee reception centres. Vets examined the refugees’ pets for free. In many towns, doctors, psychologists, and even hairdressers attended to refugees free of charge. Volunteers organised day groups, collected toys and prams, and entertained children while their mothers were dealing with paperwork. There were baskets in every supermarket where customers could put nappy packs, bags of cereals, and hygiene products for the refugees. Websites of government authorities, schools, and retail chains were supplemented with a Ukrainian interface. The way Polish society mobilised itself to help Ukrainians was and is an outstanding social phenomenon.

On 12 March, 2022, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a law “On assistance to citizens of Ukraine in connection with the armed conflict on its territory”. The law stipulated legal stay of Ukrainian citizens in Poland for 18 months starting from February 24, 2022 (and thus concerns Ukrainians who crossed the Polish border after the war started). Each Ukrainian is thereby entitled to a lump sum of 300 zlotys (€65) and access to the 500+ programme (wherein the state pays 500 zlotys (€107) per month for each child under 18), as well as free medical and legal assistance and language courses. Ukrainian citizens were also allowed to work in Poland without providing any additional documents — all they needed to do was receive the Polish identification number, PESEL. All of these stipulations are still valid now, nothing has changed.

But something else has changed. The government has ended payments to Polish families who host refugees. However, this decision was made back in July 2022. Before that, families who gave shelter to Ukrainians received compensation from the state — 40 zlotys per day (€8.7). The programme was initially designed only for two months, but ended up lasting for four. As of 1 June 2022, free travel for refugees on trains and urban public transport was also abolished — till the end of July, only travel to and from the Ukrainian border remained free. However, Ukrainians did not expect eternal protection: in the meantime, most of them were able to find work, enrol their children at kindergartens and schools, or move on westwards.

“The first question these exhausted women with children asked me when they arrived in Poland was about jobs,” says Yulia, a volunteer.

“They did not ask what they were entitled to as refugees, they were immediately concerned with the possibility of earning money on their own.”

Many Ukrainians found work at once, sometimes without understanding what exactly they were signing up for.

“The beauty industry is a huge market, and our professionals are in high demand,” says Tatiana, a hairdresser from Odesa. “I got a job in a beauty salon through online refugee groups almost immediately, without knowing a word of Polish. I deliberately chose a salon belonging to a Ukrainian woman. And only now, when I started collecting the paperwork for a residence permit, I found out that she had me sign not the “umova o prace” (employment contract — editor’s note) but the month-long “umova zlecenie” (commission contract — editor’s note). It turned out that for six months I had been working illegally, without insurance, taxes, and deductions. It is only now that I have started working in a salon owned by a Pole and have learned the language a bit that I have a real employment contract, paid leave, and [the opportunity to take] sick leave if necessary. A surprising fact: we were discussing this in professional chat rooms and it turned out that it was mostly those who went to work for other Ukrainians that ended up in such situations. In the places owned by locals, everything is done strictly in accordance with the law.”

Residence permits are a new thing for Ukrainian migrants. We are used to calling all of them refugees, but actually, after the 18 months legal stay that Poland provides, Ukrainians have to choose between applying for refugee status or getting a residence permit. Refugee status is not granted automatically — only after an application has been submitted. Of course, the state will not outright refuse a Ukrainian fleeing the war, but there are certain nuances. An asylum seeker does not have the right to work while his or her case is being considered. A residence permit, on the contrary, is granted on the basis of an employment contract or documents proving self-employment. But the point is — Ukrainians have a choice.

On 23 January, Andrzej Duda signed amendments to the law “On assistance to citizens of Ukraine in connection with the armed conflict on its territory”. Now, if a Ukrainian citizen leaves Poland for more than 30 days, he will lose his status and benefits. In addition, since March 1,2023, Ukrainian citizens staying in places of collective residence must cover half of the cost of assistance provided by local authorities (but no more than 40 zlotys (€8.7) per person per day), and since May 1 — 75% (but no more than 60 zlotys (€12.85)).

Polish Vice-Minister of the Interior Pawel Szefernaker has said that Poland has spent a total of 12 bln zlotys (€2.56 bln) on Ukrainian refugee aid in the year since the start of the war. 

However, half a million Ukrainians now work in Polish companies, and some 10,000 Ukrainian firms have been registered during this time. So part of the money spent is returning to the Polish state in the form of taxes.

People’s attitudes towards refugees have not changed in Poland. Of course, from time to time there are comments and posts like “And who will take care of our Polish children?” or “Why doesn’t the US give money to Poland, it’s their policy that led to the war!”, but this is the usual type of gossip that has persisted and will continue doing so regardless of country and century.

Germany: the country of the human factor

In Europe, Germany has taken in the second-most Ukrainian refugees after Poland (922,000 people, according to the UN). A free evacuation train for Ukrainians departs for Hannover every other day from the Polish town of Przemysl — almost right from the Polish-Ukrainian border. And Germany is not planning on cancelling this train or stopping the reception of refugees. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser has pointed out that Europe needs to make an effort to distribute Ukrainian refugees more evenly, but that does not mean that her country will stop taking them in. Germany is also not planning on changing the principles of aid distribution.

Journalist Marina Kuraptseva, who escaped from the Ukrainian settlement of Borodyanka, says:

My family was incredibly lucky. We had an acquaintance in Germany, Serhiy Kosyak, who accommodated us, helped us settle in, and organised the evacuation of Ukrainians. It was a project called “Hospitable German Family”. Serhiy is originally a pastor who had organised and inspired the “Prayer for Ukraine” project in the occupied city of Donetsk. He paid the price for that — he was taken prisoner and only miraculously survived. He constantly travels between the two countries, while his wife and children live in Bautzen.

“We were already in Germany when we learned that he was resettling refugees, so we turned to him. He helped put us into a German family. Here’s how it worked: a local family accommodated refugees and received €10 a day for each Ukrainian. For the four of us — my sister and I and our parents, the host family received €40 a day.

Photo: EPA

Photo: EPA

“The Germans we lived with helped us with our psychological rehabilitation, met our basic (and not only basic) needs, and assisted with registration. I did not understand the mechanism of registration. You have to keep in mind (and this is the case not only in Germany, but also in many other countries) that some people came in through refugee camps, others came over to their relatives, some didn’t bother registering at all because they had money and intended to just sit tight until things calmed down in their hometowns.

“The registration mechanism a year ago is different from what it is now. Back then, in March 2022, when we arrived, everyone was being accepted indiscriminately, and a lot depended on which federal state you were going to. You could get on a bus at the train station in Berlin and arrive in Heidelberg by mistake (this was what happened to us: we ended up at the border with Luxembourg and almost died in the local refugee camp because there was nothing there at all:

this was on March 8, and nobody had expected refugees to arrive so quickly, and the Germans cried with us).

Then Serhiy Kosyak helped us get to Dresden and picked us up from there.

Germany, like the rest of Europe, is disorganised in the sense that there is no unified system for taking in refugees. That is, there sort of is one, but each federal state does things their own way. For example, here in Saxony we have interpreters at job centres and in social services, there are offices that help fill out and translate documents. But some regions have nothing of the sort, not even interpreters. People come there and have to try on their own to make sense of what is written.

The “Hospitable German Family” project closed in June of last year. But during the four months of living with a German family, we got registered at the migration office and started receiving an allowance. There is no uniform allowance sum in Germany, as in some other countries — it depends on many factors. You have to look for a flat on your own, whereas the job centre only approves the space and the amount of rent since it is the job centre that pays for it. That amount also includes the water bill. We have to pay for electricity ourselves, which costs 192 a month for four people. And, of course, we also pay the Internet bill ourselves.

The amount of benefits depends primarily on whether you have any income in Ukraine. Some Ukrainians hide their income from FOP (the Ukrainian version of individual entrepreneurship — editor’s note), which is a bad idea: they’ll find all your contracts anyway, so it is better not to hide anything. I registered here as a freelancer and legalised my Ukrainian income, which was then deducted from my benefits. So my allowance at the moment is €382. The job centre has estimated my needs at about €600, making sure I have enough for my part of the rent (the total rent is €480 per month, €120 for each family member, paid by the government).

The Germans are generally very clear on how much the state spends on everyone. That is why, for example, I know that gas heating costs €90 per person. Utility bills are generally quite hefty here, and I know that many Germans sit by candlelight in the evening, preferring to save energy. My sister, who has no income in Ukraine, has an allowance of €405. She has also registered as a volunteer and receives an extra €200 a month from the government — this is a fairly popular form of employment. My parents have had their pensions and their benefits recalculated accordingly. Mum ended up with €360, Dad with €200-something, I don’t remember exactly. Luckily, I will soon be going off welfare and begin working part-time at an NGO. Then I will pay for everything myself — €120 for the rent, €90 for gas, my part of the electricity bill — and as for the Internet, the contract is already in my name.

Many say that the allowance system in Germany is a mess. This is not true. Germany is simply a country of the human factor, which is why there are no uniform figures. Some people receive insurance sums of 25,000-30,000 hryvnia (€625-750), so, naturally, they won’t be getting any benefits here. Whereas other people only have a social pension so they will be on welfare. The government is not planning on stopping or reducing aid to refugees.

The only problem is language courses. There are so many refugees that there aren’t enough schools and teachers. [The courses in] Saxony are filled to the max.

And many simply don’t know how to enrol. For instance, for the whole town of Bautzen we have this one Herr Deubner who manages language courses. But where does it say that it is him that you have to go to? We’re constantly complaining about the inability to enrol for a course during registration. My family has been waiting for a course for over a year, and they’ve been promised one only in May. I have, of course, figured out German at a basic level, but I need to be fluent.

Switzerland, Romania, Czech Republic: cars, 50/20, and Lex Ukrajina

Swiss cantons (Switzerland has 83,000 registered Ukrainian refugees), like German federal states, take into account the human factor when allocating benefits, so there is no universal sum. Now, Switzerland is also changing some of its rules for aid distribution. Back in the 1990s, during the war in the Balkans, Switzerland developed a mechanism for granting the so-called Status S to people seeking protection. For Ukrainian refugees, this mechanism was activated on 11 March, 2022.

Photo: EPA

Photo: EPA

Status S offers renewable temporary protection for one year without having to go through the normal procedure of applying for asylum. Ukrainians with this status are allocated to cantons where they can receive social assistance, attend language courses, and get a job. Now, at the end of the first year of Status S for Ukrainians, local authorities in some cantons have obliged refugees to “take stock” of their assets and sell their cars. Of course, such rulings will not affect those Ukrainians who have found a job and do not receive government benefits.

A second option being considered by local authorities is to have refugees park their cars in special spots and surrender their number plates, keeping them until their eventual return to Ukraine. This is not discriminatory — on the contrary, it puts Ukrainian refugees on equal footing with other Swiss residents who receive state benefits.

Romania (which has taken in 109,000 Ukrainian refugees, according to the UN) maintained its 50/20 social assistance programme for a long time. While Poland only paid landlords 40 zlotys (€8.7) per day for each accepted refugee during the first four months — until July, 2022 — a similar programme in Romania is still running.

Landlords who provide accommodation to Ukrainian refugees are compensated by the state, receiving 50 lei for accommodation expenses and 20 lei for food expenses per day (70 lei equals approximately €14).

In the near future, there will be changes to this programme: instead of compensating the landlords, the state will now pay a monthly €400 per family for four months, during which time they have to find a job and pay for their housing. The 50/20 programme, however, will continue for refugees studying in Romania and Ukrainians over 65 years old.

“This programme was beneficial to both Romanians and us,” explains Galina, who temporarily lives in the city of Cluj-Napoca. “My sister and I live in a one-room flat. The owners get 28 lei a day for the two of us, which translates into €840 a month. They give us back about €225 — that’s money for food. But that still adds up to over €600. They would never have managed to rent out the flat for that kind of money! And it was good for us because it meant the owners were interested in our stay. Although, of course, I admit it was very costly for the state.”

In late March, the Czech Republic (housing 503,000 Ukrainian refugees, according to the UN) adopted amendments to the Lex Ukrajina, a law that has been in force since March 17,2022. The law provided Ukrainians with a monthly allowance of 5,000 crowns (€213) for six months, and afterwards with 4,860 crowns (€207) per adult and 3,490 crowns (€149) per child. These provisions applied to those without access to free accommodation, food, and income. Landlords who provided refugees with accommodation in their own flats or houses were reimbursed by the government (via the so-called solidarity payments): up to 9,000 crowns (€384) per month for three or more persons if they cohabited with the owners, and up to 15,000 crowns (€640) if they provided the refugees with a separate accommodation.

From April 1, once the amendments enter into force, the financial aid will be reduced to 4,860 crowns (€207) for adults and, after 150 days of such assistance — to a minimum of 3,130 crowns (€133). Children, pensioners, students, and people with disabilities are, of course, not affected by this change. Free accommodation may also be provided for up to 150 days — on the condition that the refugee will lose said accommodation should they leave it for more than 10 days.

Resources and clichés

As we can see, the formats of aid tend to change more in those countries where there are fewer refugees. In Poland, which has the largest number of Ukrainians, the registration system is changing, meaning Ukrainian citizens have to choose between applying for refugee status and obtaining a residence permit under an employment contract. In Germany, which has the second-greatest number of Ukrainian refugees, everything has remained the same so far. Headlines along the lines of Europe stops aid for Ukrainians are merely a product of numerous Russian fantasy media outlets. The main problem for Ukrainians in Europe is not the lack of benefits, but finding a job that would match their qualifications. If a person was engaged in physical labour back in Ukraine, then finding a job in their area of expertise in Europe will be fairly easy — and it will be better-paid. But there is something wrong about a lawyer who ends up laying bricks on a building site in Warsaw (I personally know somebody in this situation — author’s note).

Marina Kuraptseva says:

I am constantly researching this issue with my colleagues from different organisations and can single out the main problem: we are not seen as a resource here.

Europeans see us as savages in a way, although Germans are very impressed when they see our “Diya” website (Ukrainian public services portal — editor’s note) And I tell them that the last time I saw a paper letter was 20 years ago. 

There is a staff shortage in many European countries. And if a person is willing to learn the language and help out in their new country, enrich its culture — why are they not employed in accordance with their qualifications? In Germany, there is a shortage of teachers in Ukrainian integration classes, but they refuse to hire Ukrainians. Getting a Ukrainian university diploma recognised here is more of a hassle than flying to space. So the problem lies not with the benefits — that’s just Russian propaganda — but with the prospects of employment.

I don’t see much competition on the qualified labour market, but it’s very difficult to explain to Germans that Ukrainians are educated people. I get answers filled with clichés from the nineties along the lines of “Ukraine means sharovary pants, salo (cured fatback — translator’s note), and the hopak dance”. Europe gives us every opportunity to heal our wounds and start earning good money by honest work until we can return and rebuild our homes. Let us be realistic: we see how Russian aggression is escalating, and it is foolish to hope that the war will end in the near future — these bastards will not leave us alone.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.