The Attack on Ukraine Germany Begins Preparing for a Possible Wave of Refugees

The EU is preparing for hundreds of thousands of refugees to arrive from Ukraine. Many German states have already begun preparations and Poland has pledged to assist all those who need help.
A pro-Ukraine demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin earlier this week.

A pro-Ukraine demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin earlier this week.



It’s shortly after 8 p.m. on Wednesday evening in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin and the Space Meduza bar is slowly filling up. It’s movie night and, appropriately, Ukrainian short films are on the program. The bar is a beloved meetup for the German capital’s Ukrainian community. And it’s still several hours before Russia will launch its broad offensive against the homeland.

Vladislava Vorobyova is standing behind the bar. The 18-year-old lives with her father and sister in Berlin, having emigrated to Germany from Kharkiv four years ago. Most of her family is still in Ukraine, though, and panic there is growing by the hour, she says. "My mother has a suitcase packed just in case," she says. Friends and relatives are also ready, she adds. "They have gassed up their cars and set aside money so they can react quickly in an emergency."

Just eight hours later, that emergency had arrived. Early on Thursday morning, the Ukrainian interior minister reported detonations of rockets and artillery shells on Ukrainian territory. War has returned to Europe, and in the early morning hours, roads leading out of the capital Kyiv were choked with traffic as people sought to drive to safety. And many more are likely to flee as well, some to Germany. The question, though, is: How many?


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 9/2022 (February 25th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

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The European Commission estimates that a million or more refugees could come to Europe from Ukraine. American government officials believe it could be as high as 5 million. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, issued a clear warning: "If Russia continues down this path, it could – according to our estimates – create a new refugee crisis, one of the largest facing the world today."

In Germany, such rhetoric awakens memories of 2015 and 2016 when a huge number of refugees, most of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, made their way to Europe. They pushed the EU’s asylum system to its limits and put wind in the sails of right-wing populists.

A Good Reason to Be Afraid

Now, Germany is again preparing for a rising number of asylum-seekers. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, a member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), called a meeting of German state interior ministers on Thursday to discuss the situation. Faeser told the group that she assumed that most of the refugees from Ukraine would initially find shelter in Poland or other neighboring countries like Romania, Hungary or Slovakia. But, she added, because of the rapidly changing nature of the situation, it was impossible to say how many of them might ultimately end up in Germany. State authorities in the country have begun preparing to boost their refugee registration capacities. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Friday that the EU is currently in the process of coordinating efforts to assist Ukrainian refugees. "We will accept all of those who choose to flee," she promised.

After all, it is becoming clearer by the hour that people in Ukraine have good reason to be afraid. Olena K., a 36-year-old Ukrainian scientist living in Berlin, wants to be sure that her 66-year-old mother Galyna is in safety. Her mother has been living in Kyiv for the past several years and hasn’t visited her real home in the Donbas region since pro-Russian separatists took control of the Donetsk and Luhansk areas eight years ago. She has been unable to visit the graves of her parents or her relatives who still live there. Now, Olena K. is afraid that her mother must bid farewell a second time – this time to Ukraine.

Even before Putin launched his attack, her mother landed in Berlin, loaded down with photo albums full of black-and-white pictures and a number of rushnyki, traditional Ukrainian embroideries. She has since traveled onward to visit her son in the United States.

Olena K. is in constant contact with her acquaintances in Ukraine. "My friends with small children are trying to get out of Kyiv and head for western Ukraine. But my brother says that he is staying and will do all he can to defend Ukraine and Kyiv. He plans to volunteer for civil defense. My feeling is that a lot of people are planning to stay and hold out for as long as they can." Many are hoping that the worst will soon be over.

Refugees at the Kyiv train station on Thursday

Refugees at the Kyiv train station on Thursday

Foto: Emilio Morenatti / AP

And what if they’re wrong? "Even then, everyone wants to go back as quickly as they can. Nobody wants to stay in Western Europe for a long time, they all have their lives back in Ukraine."

Several hundred protesters gathered on Thursday morning at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin waving flags, holding up signs and chanting in opposition to Russia’s war of aggression. The Ukrainian community in Germany is under shock. People are crying and hugging, and almost all of them have friends and relatives in Ukraine. "My parents in Kharkiv were woken up by the attack this morning," says Jan, 27. "The situation is simply horrifying." He wants his parents to come join him in Germany. Almost everyone he knows has packed a suitcase and prepared their documents so they can flee at any time. But the roads are all clogged up and traffic jams several kilometers long have developed at border crossings. Others, say the demonstrators, have decided to stay, or they feel they are too old to start all over again. Plus, its more dangerous on Ukrainian roads than it is at home, they say. Many are thus planning to seek safety in rural areas, initially at least.

In the city-state of Berlin, a crisis team has been established to address the situation. It is estimated that several tens of thousands of people from Ukraine could show up in Berlin with little advanced warning, since so many Ukrainians already live in the German capital.

That would overwhelm Berlin’s current capacities. The city would have to set up emergency housing like it did during the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016. The city of Bremen is also wary of what might be coming. Of the 5,400 initial reception spots available in the city, only around 10 percent are currently unoccupied, says a city spokesman. Still, the spokesman allowed, the fact that the coronavirus is currently ebbing gives the city "a bit of slack" to house more people in the facilities than was possible at the peak of the pandemic.

Poland Offers Help

The state of Hesse is planning on boosting its capacity to accept asylum-seekers, and North Rhine-Westphalia currently has 3,500 spaces open. "As a general rule, NRW always shows solidarity with people in need," says Joachim Stamp, the state minister in charge of refugees.

Saxony, which shares a border with Poland and is thus a likely stop on a possible refugee route, believes it is prepared. It’s initial reception facilities still have plenty of capacity available and buildings that have stood empty since the refugee crisis could be quickly reactivated, say officials. Tents and containers could also be rapidly erected, should the situation call for it. Such measures, they say, could quickly make room for an additional 2,000 refugees.

Poland has already offered its assistance. Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński says his country is able to quickly provide shelter to a large number of people. "In these difficult days, we have to show solidarity at all levels," he says. People are fleeing for their lives, he says. "We will do all we can to ensure that everyone who needs help finds it here." Poland has already opened up nine reception facilities in the southeast of the country where refugees will receive food, medical care and transportation to other facilities as needed. The Interior Ministry in Warsaw says that the number of people showing up at the facilities began climbing on Thursday, adding that up to 50,000 people per day can be processed at Poland’s border crossings with Ukraine. German Foreign Minister Baerbock said on Friday that she is working with Poland to coordinate the distribution of refugees.

The German government has also indicated that it wants to help in an unbureaucratic manner. Ukrainians are already able to enter Germany without a visa. But instead of going through an asylum approval process, refugees may be granted "temporary protection" status, say participants in the Thursday meeting of state interior ministers. Germany also provided 5 million euros in immediate funding on Thursday to refugee aid organizations.

The Situation Remains Unclear

The legal basis for that option was added to German immigration law in the 1990s as a lesson drawn from the wars in the Balkans, but it has never before been applied. "This rule has the advantage of rapidly and efficiently granting Ukrainian refugees protection status," says Daniel Thym, a law professor at the University of Konstanz. However, Thym adds, Germany is unable to activate the legal provision on its own. "It would need an EU resolution to do so. That allows for an agreement among EU member states regarding which country will take in how many Ukrainians."

All scenarios relating to the refugee situation remain rather vague for the time being. Yana Lysenko, who is originally from Donetsk, now works at the Research Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. She has been speaking regularly with people in the Donbas since 2021, and on the basis of those interviews, she believes that not many refugees will be coming to Germany, at least from eastern Ukraine. "The people in the 'people's republics' have become jaded to the dangers facing them, since they have, for example, become used to artillery fire," she says.

Still, the debate in Germany has produced some rather strange results, even at this early stage. The Ukrainian-German politician Marina Weisband found herself facing criticism on Twitter for the fact that she hasn’t already brought her family to safety in Germany. Many of the 40 million people in Ukraine, the Green Party politician wrote, couldn’t leave their homeland "even if they wanted to." She ended her tweet with an urgent plea: "By all that is dear to you," she wrote, "refrain for just a single day from casting aspersions at people who are worried about their loved ones."