New arrivals and volunteer assistants at Berlin's main station.

New arrivals and volunteer assistants at Berlin's main station.


Hannibal Hanschke / Getty Images

»The Largest Challenges Lie Ahead« Germany Revisits 2015 as Ukraine Refugee Wave Continues to Grow

Europe is currently experiencing the largest movement of refugees since World War II. The willingness to help is vast and armies of volunteers are helping out as governments begin mobilizing resources. But will it be enough?

It was Tetiana Makhovska’s birthday on the Saturday before last. Her 40th. The Kyiv native celebrated by going for a run through Berlin’s Alexanderplatz square and then up Unter den Linden Boulevard to the Brandenburg Gate.

She was alone. Without her husband, who is still in Kyiv just trying to survive the Russian onslaught. Without her adult son, who managed to flee the country before the violence erupted. Without her sister, who was still stuck in Mariupol, surrounded by Russian troops. And without her parents, from whom she has heard nothing for several days and doesn’t even know if they are still alive. "I don’t sleep anymore," said Makhovska. She was wearing jogging pants, but her makeup was perfect.

A bookkeeper by trade, she fled Ukraine a week after the war began with her two youngest children in tow, aged seven and 11. With just three backpacks and a suitcase, they spent five days in overflowing trains as they traveled several thousand kilometers through five countries: Ukraine, Poland, Austria, Italy and, finally, Germany. A volunteer helped her secure lodging in the Friedrichshain neighborhood of Berlin, in the home of a cameraman and his family. They are sleeping in the children’s room.

Her host had registered in a Telegram group in which more than 10,000 people around Europe are offering space in their private homes for refugees. "Everyone is doing what they can, and that is our contribution," says the cameraman. He says he has also joined the volunteer effort at Berlin’s central train station. He can even speak a few words of Russian, left over from school, but generally he communicates with his Ukrainian guests using a translation app.

Makhovska was lucky to find lodging with a family so quickly. Many other Ukrainians have only managed to secure cots in airport terminals or convention halls. A tent city is currently being erected on the tarmac of Berlin’s decommissioned Tegel Airport.

An estimated 10,000 Ukrainian refugees are arriving in Berlin each day, most of them at the city’s central train station, where volunteers provide them with warm food and sanitary articles and where they can obtain tickets for their onward journeys. The German capital has become a primary destination for those escaping the war.

Tetiana Makhovska and her children in their temporary home in Berlin.

Tetiana Makhovska and her children in their temporary home in Berlin.

Foto: Lisa Wassmann / DER SPIEGEL
"Putin is currently authoring a new chapter in the human history of displacement."

Historian Andreas Kossert

More than six years after hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis headed for Europe in the search for protection, German assistance is needed once again. The year 2015 is when Angela Merkel became the refugee chancellor . She spoke that year of a "great national duty" and uttered the controversial sentence: "We can do it." That was the moment when the prognoses for the number of refugees who would ultimately arrive in Germany was raised from 400,000 to 800,000. Ultimately, around 900,000 people would arrive – within a single year.

Now, more than 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country to escape Russia’s war of aggression, the fastest growing movement of refugees since World War II, according to the United Nations. Most are women and children, with the men having been ordered to stay behind and fight.

"Putin is currently authoring a new chapter in the human history of displacement," says historian Andreas Kossert, "by forcing people in Europe to flee their homes by deploying the archaic violence of expansionary war." The shock is so great, he says, "because we are now seeing just how close Ukraine really is. The refugees are a reminder to us that we also cannot be certain of our safety."

The Ukrainian border lies around 750 kilometers (466 miles) from Berlin, not much farther than the distance from Kiel in northern Germany to Munich in the south. In the evening news, German viewers follow the developments in the war, learning the names of Ukrainian cities like Kyiv, Lviv, Sumy and Kharkiv and holding their breaths as yet another aid convoy approaches the besieged city of Mariupol.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, tens of thousands of people from Ukraine have arrived in Germany. By Thursday of last week, a total of 187,428 had been officially registered, but the true number is likely far higher than that. Yet that is but a fraction of the number of refugees that have been taken in by Germany’s eastern neighbors. Some 1.9 million Ukrainians have entered Poland, and the small country of Moldova, the poorest in Europe, has taken in 350,800 people. From there, chartered flights are now being planned to fly refugees onward to Germany and other countries, particularly the elderly and those in need of assistance, as Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told DER SPIEGEL. The first step foresees 2,500 people being flown into Germany.

Several German states, including Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia, have already agreed to take in a specified contingent, while German federal police officers have been dispatched to Moldova to assist diplomats in compiling passenger lists. The German government is hoping to build on the current system in concert with other European countries to establish a "lasting logistical bridge to safety," as Baerbock put it. The goal, she said, is to distribute refugees "around Europe and beyond."

Daily Calls for Help

In Germany, the willingness to help has been overwhelming. Many people have taken refugees into their own homes, with the German Interior Ministry saying that hundreds of thousands of private citizens have provided free lodging to refugees. But the first communities are beginning to reach their limits. Several cities have had to repurpose school gymnasiums into emergency shelters in addition to renting hotel rooms, youth hostels and school camps or putting refugees up in barracks.

Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey, of the center-left Social Democrats, has been issuing almost daily calls for assistance, saying that Berlin can’t handle the huge volume of newcomers on its own. The German capital, she says, is currently taking in as many refugees "as all other German states combined." Giffey has requested additional personnel from the German military, while the opposition Christian Democrats have even called for Berlin to declare a state of emergency. Some refugee reception centers have been forced to expel Syrian and Afghan residents to make way for the Ukrainian newcomers. Some migrants have been living in such centers for years because they have been unable to find more permanent accommodation in Berlin.

The auditorium of a school in Munich

The auditorium of a school in Munich

Foto: Peter Schinzler / DER SPIEGEL

In many cities, the new wave of refugees from Ukraine is far larger than it was in 2015. The interior minister of the city-state of Hamburg, Andy Grote, has said the situation is exceptional, with his ministry noting that in 2015, a maximum of 6,000 refugees arrived in the city each month. But in the first three weeks of the war in Ukraine, 15,000 people have come to the city. Officials are currently trying to find more space to house the newcomers, but Ukrainian refugees will have to stay in interim shelters until then, including repurposed office buildings and hotels. The city has erected army tents on the square in front of the soccer stadium.

In the state of Thuringia, the mayors of several cities took the step of writing a joint letter to the government of Governor Bodo Ramelow. "Thuringia is in danger of losing control if the municipalities are left to deal with the problem on their own," warns Julian Vonarb, mayor of the city of Gera. He has demanded that the government set up clear procedures and a distribution plan "so that we can offer the refugees a well-ordered place of shelter."

A Chancellery Focused on Diplomacy

Meanwhile, the opposition in Berlin has been ratcheting up the pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Janine Wissler, head of the far-left Left Party, is demanding that the federal government open up the purse strings. "Municipalities are dependent on financial support from the federal government when it comes to taking in refugees," Wissler says. "The federal government must cover those costs."

Conservative lawmakers, meanwhile, are pointing to Poland as a successful model for dealing with the influx. A delegation of conservative parliamentarians recently visited the Polish-Ukrainian border, after which there was "even less sympathy for the chaos in Germany," according to Deputy Floor Leader Andrea Lindholz. In Poland, she says, the refugee reception procedures are far smoother, with people being systematically registered and then distributed onward to their preferred destination.

"In Germany, we also need a compulsory registration system immediately upon arrival so that we know who is arriving and what happens to them afterwards," Lindholz says. She also says that women and children need greater protections at train stations and border crossings. Conservatives believe that a standing crisis team made up of representatives from federal, state and municipal governments is necessary to manage the distribution and care of the refugees in the long term.

The Chancellery, though, has thus far been largely focusing its attentions on diplomacy, with Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron having spoken several times on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Dealing with the refugee influx was initially a secondary concern.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2022 (March 19th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

But the problem has taken on more urgency in recent days – in the Security Cabinet, in full cabinet meetings and, especially, in the smaller, confidential meetings that precede full sessions of Scholz's cabinet. Government sources say that one thing has become abundantly clear: the early March estimates that around 225,000 Ukrainians would ultimately find their way to Germany are hopelessly out of date.

Scholz is well aware of the challenges. As mayor of Hamburg in 2015, he and his staff had to find shelter in the city for tens of thousands of refugees. That experience has informed his warnings in internal meetings to avoid shoving responsibility back and forth between the municipalities, the states and the federal government. All levels are essential, he says, and he has promised that the federal government will do its part. His government is currently planning a supplementary budget to deal with the additional costs that have been generated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But until that money begins flowing, many cities will have to improvise, including Munich, which bore the brunt of the refugee crisis in 2015. A school near the city’s main station has even been transformed into an emergency shelter for a week, with students forced to attend classes virtually.

Florian Gastberger, 24, is now rapidly striding through the school building. He doesn’t have much time and speaks in short sentences. "We are essentially here for overflow," says Gastberger, shift leader for the Malteser charity. "We take care of people for 24 to 48 hours, giving them food to eat and a place to sleep and charge their phones." His provisional office is located in Room 044 of the school, on the door of which hangs two signs: "Art Education" and, now, "Red Cross Direction."

A Munich school has been repurposed to take in refugees.

A Munich school has been repurposed to take in refugees.

Foto: Peter Schinzler / DER SPIEGEL

Gastberger walks up to the second floor. An assistant is busy wiping down the cots with disinfectant. The people from Ukraine, meanwhile, are out in the schoolyard, where there is a tent for COVID-19 testing and one for vaccination, with shuttle buses out front ready to take people to the office where more permanent housing options are allocated. What happens to people once they leave the school? "I don’t really know," says Gastberger. The city has managed to rent a number of hotels in the meantime and is planning to put large tents back into use, in addition to housing people in convention centers and gymnasiums.

Back in 2015, there were numerous accusations made that the government had lost control of the refugee situation. The images from overwhelmed agencies and the long lines of people in front of them have not been forgotten. This time around, Germany is still far away from losing control – in part because of the army of volunteers who are helping out at every turn. Without them, the country would have fallen on its face quite some time ago. But the volunteers are beginning to run out of energy, and it is time for the state to step in.

And the state’s role will likely last several months, if not years. The refugees must be fed and housed. They need money, apartments and medical care. The children will end up in daycare centers and schools while their parents need jobs and German classes. If a cease-fire isn't put in place soon, more men will likely start arriving, many of them potentially injured and traumatized.

"Through the experienced gained since 2015, we have a solid foundation to build on when it comes to integration policy," says Petra Bendel, head of Germany’s Expert Council on Integration and Migration. "That is a small bit of light in these dark times."

"Historic Agreement"

More than anything, though, Europe is united this time in its desire to avoid the ugly bickering over refugees that took place in the wake of 2015.

Shortly after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began, all 27 European Union member states reached an agreement on how to deal with the influx of war refugees, providing them with temporary asylum for at least one year. That resolution precludes extended asylum proceedings, and refugees can immediately work, take advantage of healthcare offerings and take part in integration courses. In principle, they are allowed to move freely within the EU.

The hope is to avoid the endless quota discussions that occurred in 2015, the blocking of refugee routes and expulsions at the EU’s external borders. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) praised the EU decision as an "historic agreement."

Still, it hasn’t yet been determined how many refugees each country will take. To manage that debate and coordinate the process, the European Commission has established a "Solidarity Platform." It is, though, only just getting started, as diplomats readily admit.

Janez Lenarčič, the European commissioner in charge of crisis management, estimated in late February that up to 4 million people could ultimately leave Ukraine, a huge number for which the EU is completely unprepared. That was clearly apparent two weeks ago at a crisis meeting of representatives from EU member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament.

Italy, Greece and Luxembourg insisted that long-term planning is necessary, "including for the sustainable accommodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees," as noted in a confidential report compiled by Germany’s EU representation. Rome is expecting more people to begin showing up from Africa, since the war in Ukraine will likely result in food shortages there. Greece reintroduced its old demand for "obligatory solidarity," since resettlement of refugees will become imperative sooner or later. The Hungarian representative immediately rejected the idea, saying that broaching such controversial issues is "counterproductive." In conversation with DER SPIEGEL, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson urged that "alarmist speculation" be avoided, particularly given a possible uptick in migration from Africa.

But the Commission is doing more than just issuing warnings. The countries hit hardest by the ongoing wave from Ukraine are going to receive significant support. Already, some 8 billion euros are available, says Johansson, with up to an additional 10 billion euros from the EU’s multiannual financial framework soon to follow.

The current crisis, says the Commission, is also an opportunity to make progress on the path to a joint, EU-wide refugee policy. It remains unlikely that countries like Poland or Hungary will agree to a distribution plan, says one EU official. "But it could at least become easier to find agreement on a distribution of the burdens involved."

"The largest challenges lie ahead.”

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann

In Germany, there has thus far been no political bickering regarding the acceptance of refugees from Ukraine, with even the right-wing extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD) keeping quiet for now.

"Who, if not us, is able to manage something like this?" asked Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann during a recent visit to a reception center in Munich. In the background, children were kicking around the soccer balls that Herrmann had handed out. Germany, he said, "is one of the best organized countries in the world.” But, he added, "the largest challenges lie ahead."

Fairer Distribution

And the biggest of all is the question as to how the refugees should be distributed within Germany.

Initially, Interior Minister Faeser supported a voluntary system, according to which each state would report how many beds they had available each day. Buses and trains were to be mobilized to transport refugees further from initial reception cities like Berlin or Frankfurt/Oder, a city located on Germany’s border with Poland. A staff unit at the Federal Office for Goods Transport is arranging the logistics, and a train station in Hannover was transformed into a hub for onward transportation.

More recently, though, Faeser has turned toward a system of predetermined quotas, with the interior minister telling DER SPIEGEL that states were no longer reporting enough spots to handle the influx. A new hub is now to be established in Cottbus, also on Germany’s border with Poland, where a system will be set up to record the personal details of the Ukrainians entering the country. From there, refugees are to be divvied up – with a bit of gentle pressure, if needed – to "cities in Germany, but also in Europe," says German Transport Minister Volker Wissing.

At a meeting of German state governors last week, the federal and state governors agreed to divide the refugees up according to a formula which has been used in the past, taking into account a state’s tax revenues (two-thirds of the formula) and its population (one third). Such a formula ensures a fairer distribution.

"Europe must prepare for an extended crisis."

Migration expert Steffen Angenendt

Migration expert Steffen Angenendt, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), is insisting on a more strategic approach to the influx from Ukraine and urging that plans already be laid for the future. Europe, he says, must prepare for an extended crisis, placing a premium on "intelligent distribution policies" to promote integration. He doesn’t believe that the formula used by Germany is appropriate. The system, he says, is too "rigid" in that it doesn’t consider the qualifications, knowledge and needs of the refugees themselves.

The idea of showing great generosity and accepting refugees with little red tape also has its disadvantages: Nobody knows precisely how many refugees from Ukraine are currently in Germany and where they are. Only random checks are being made at the border crossings, with newcomers from Ukraine allowed to enter Germany without a visa. They are allowed to remain in the country for 90 days before they are required to report to the authorities. It is likely that many refugees have found shelter with relatives, particularly given Germany’s population of 331,000 people of Ukrainian heritage prior to Putin’s invasion.

It is reminiscent of other recent crises, from the 2015 refugee influx to the coronavirus pandemic: Once again, Germany doesn’t have reliable numbers – at least not yet. This time, at least, there doesn’t seem to be an accompanying security threat like there was in 2015, when intelligence agencies and police were warning of Islamists who could be coming into the country undetected.

The plan calls for the Ukrainians now coming into the country to be gradually registered by fingerprint, if for no other reason than to guarantee "fair burden sharing," as a document from the German Interior Ministry notes. For the moment, though, there is a lack of personnel and equipment to perform that task. The result is that most of those who have entered Germany recently are not registered in any computer system. The Association of German Cities is demanding that the federal and state governments step in to impose order. In addition, the association says, "it is also in the interest of municipalities to know who is here." For that, "an honest assessment of migration developments, a regulated distribution and a functioning registration system" is needed. "That," the association notes, "is not currently the case."

That means that municipalities are unable to produce reliable planning, particularly when it comes to beds. Many issued warnings to initial reception facilities in their areas, but they were surprised by how quickly they filled up.

In Munich, some of those coming in from Ukraine even had to sleep on the floor in the station because nobody was there to receive them. "Unfortunately, it often isn’t clear how many people from Ukraine will be arriving at the train station overnight," says Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter. "We aren’t receiving any reliable numbers." Munich is currently considering the erection of a tent city.

Less and Less Luggage

In the countryside as well, private citizens have been left to plug the gaping holes that public agencies have thus far failed to fill. In northern Bavaria, the Red Cross and a group of citizens organized three buses to pick up women and children at the Polish-Ukrainian border and take them to Germany. In the Bavarian town of Sulzdorf, Mayor Angelika Götz says she has managed to place almost 60 refugees from Kyiv with guest families in the area. Among them, she says, are teachers who are now holding virtual classes for schoolchildren who are still in Ukraine.

The longer the war goes on, says Götz, the more needy are the newcomers. "The first ones who arrived were carrying suitcases and maybe even came by car. The bags and backpacks of those who are now arriving are getting smaller and smaller."

The huge volunteer effort that has helped Germany get through these initial weeks, though, won’t be enough in the long term, as experienced aid workers know full well. "We are all aware that our society is facing an immense challenge," says Andrea Betz, director of the charity organization Diakonie in Munich and Upper Bavaria. "The new arrivals are full of fear about their futures." She also points out that those now offering to help are themselves emerging from an exhausting few years. "In contrast to 2015, we are still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic," Betz says.

Plus, the pandemic promises to become a significant problem in the mass shelters. Only 35 percent of Ukrainians have been vaccinated.

In order to help refugees get vaccinated as quickly as possible, the town of Solingen has set up a reception facility for new refugees, complete with a vaccination station, in the ground floor of an empty department store. But only very few are interested in taking advantage of the offer, says Carla Adelmann, a doctor working at the station. The new arrivals are exhausted, she says, and are more focused on other things for the time being. And many of them, she says, are also afraid of the vaccination.

The coronavirus testing area at a registration center in Solingen

The coronavirus testing area at a registration center in Solingen

Foto: Dominik Asbach / DER SPIEGEL

But the city has at least found some success when it comes to registering Ukrainian refugees, with computers, printers and fingerprint scanners at the ready. Almost all of those who have been registered have had their passports with them, says one official, along with birth certificates for their children – which marks a significant difference to the refugee crisis of 2015-2016, when many arrived without identity documents.

Escaping Irpin

The hope is that Ukrainian children will quickly begin attending school, and in several German states, they have already begun attending classes. In the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, more than 300 Ukrainian children have started school, such as the two Ukrainian brothers, aged six and 11, in the town of Schönberg. They are sitting with six other children in a circle around their teacher. "My name is Ms. Kitzing and I am from Germany," says the teacher, clapping along with the syllables. The children then say their names and where they are from: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Russia, Eritrea and Ukraine.

Svetlana Wochnik works as a translator at the registration center in Solingen.

Svetlana Wochnik works as a translator at the registration center in Solingen.

Foto: Dominik Asbach / DER SPIEGEL

Regina Kitzing-Treichel has ben teaching immigrant children for the last 10 years, initially helping them learn German before they are slowly integrated into the general school population. While the individual classes tend to be small, large influxes of refugees are an enormous challenge for schools. They have been charged with state governments with accepting children with as little red tape as possible, but it is largely left up to the schools to determine how to do so. The hope is that teachers among the refugee population could help plug some of the gaps, with several states having said they intend to follow this path. "But incoming students have to be offered the opportunity to be introduced into the normal school population and not remain in the integration classes forever," says Kai Maaz, an education expert.

Many German companies are now also wondering if they might be able to fill jobs with refugees, particularly in gastronomy, childcare and elderly care. Herbert Brücker, of the Institute for Employment Research, though is a bit more reserved on the issue. In 2015, he says, many refugees came from a country suffering from years of civil war, and they had little hope of being able to return home anytime soon. This situation is different this time around, he says. "Most of them want to go back and are not initially looking to put down roots," he says.

If the majority of the refugees do end up staying in Germany for the long term, he says, he is optimistic that they could be integrated into the labor market. In the past, he notes, immigrants from Ukraine have tended to be well qualified and up to 50 percent had university degrees.

"I was extremely afraid."

Anzhelika Sorokina, an anesthesiologist from Irpin

That includes people like Anzhelika Sorokina, a 32-year-old anesthesiologist from Irpin. The town on the outskirts of Kyiv has been pounded hard by the Russian advance, and the news has been full of images of people trying to escape the carnage across a destroyed bridge across the Irpin River.

On Feb. 24, the day the war began, Sorokina showed up for her shift in a Kyiv hospital not far from the Presidential Palace. She only had her handbag with her, along with keys, ID and a bit of cash. She never returned to Irpin. After 10 days at the hospital, she decided to flee westward in her car, still wearing the same jeans and sweatshirt she wore to work 10 days earlier. "There was a huge explosion as I was leaving Kyiv. I was extremely afraid."

For the last week, she has been living with a doctor friend in Stendal, a town just east of Berlin. "I am grateful," Sorokina says. "I am now in safety, that's the most important thing. I just can’t concentrate on anything and spend the whole day watching the news." She says it’s not easy being a refugee. "In Ukraine, I had everything I needed to be happy," she says. "Now, I have nothing."

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