A year ago, the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine began. As a result, millions of people have fled to Europe in search of protection, many of them to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Ferdinand Mirbach, senior expert at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, spoke to policymakers from Estonia and the Czech Republic about challenges, achievements, and the current situation.
Ferdinand Mirbach: On February 24, 2022, Russia started its war of aggression against Ukraine. The conflict had been in the air for weeks; nevertheless, the exact consequences were difficult to predict. What was the situation like in February 2022, and how well were you prepared for what was to come?
Pavla Novotná: At the Czech Ministry of the Interior, we had already gone through a lot of possible scenarios and crisis documentation some weeks ahead of February 24th. But I must admit that we didn’t expect what then actually happened – regarding both the speed of events and the number of refugees coming into the country. In February 2022, we basically had 20,000 people coming per day. Within one month, 265,000 Ukrainian war refugees had arrived, which was almost 3% of the population of the Czech Republic. So even if we had plans before, reality exceeded our plans by far.
Anne-Ly Reimaa: Just like the Czech Republic, Estonia prepared itself beforehand. Already at the end of 2021, we developed crisis plans and informed our partners and journalists about the actual situation, as there was a lot of fake news in the media at that time. Four days after the war started, the first 300 Ukrainian refugees crossed the Estonian border. By April we had 12,000 Ukrainian refugees in the country, which was one of the highest per capita numbers of war refugees in Europe: Estonia is a small country with a population of only 1.3 million inhabitants. According to estimates now, about 70,000 war refugees are currently in Estonia, of whom about 39,000 have asked for and received temporary residence permits.
Ferdinand Mirbach: In the first few weeks and months, the focus was certainly on emergency aid for the Ukrainian refugees and on granting them protection. In the meantime, the situation has changed. Since the war in Ukraine is still ongoing, the question arises as to the medium and long-term integration of the Ukrainian refugees.
Pavla Novotná: That is why we already started at the end of March 2022 to prepare for the second phase, which is the adaptation and integration of Ukrainian war refugees in the Czech Republic. We have special working groups on education, housing, social healthcare, and job counseling. As many children have arrived, one of the most important goals is to adapt the Ukrainian children to the Czech school system. A big challenge remains the open question of whether these people are planning to stay and settle or to go back to Ukraine. According to the surveys we have done, two-thirds of the refugees are still planning to go back to Ukraine at some point.
Anne-Ly Reimaa: The first thing we did was to offer support to all Ukrainian refugees according to the Temporary Protection Directive of the European Union, which aims at offering quick and effective assistance to people fleeing the war in Ukraine. We offered financial support and accommodation. Regarding our integration measures, we have been pretty successful: by now, 44% of Ukrainians have found jobs. The interest in entering the Estonian school system is very high among Ukrainian pupils. In September 2022, we opened two additional general education schools in our capital city, Tallinn, where we teach in Estonian and Ukrainian.
The school for Ukrainian children was opened in Purkynova Street, Brno, Czech Republic, on Thursday, May 19, 2022, more than 5 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russian troops invaded the country on February 24.
Ferdinand Mirbach: You both mentioned that the number of Ukrainian refugees was much higher than expected, and for that reason quite challenging. I wonder if or how that changed the integration and inclusion policies in your countries?
Anne-Ly Reimaa: Actually, Estonia has always been a very inclusive society concerning integration. We have had integration policy action plans and services for more than 20 years. But yes, we had some changes in our integration policies, and we developed new integration services based on the earlier ones. We offer more Estonian language courses and counseling services, especially online. We intensified the coordination between all state institutions, aiming at improving communication and being quicker and more flexible.
Pavla Novotná: It is not well known, but the Czech Republic has become an immigration country even without the influx of Ukrainian refugees. In recent years we have had around 80,000 people legally coming to the Czech Republic per year: this is one of the highest immigration rates in the European Union. So we already had established integration policies and did not need to start any new systems; but we adjusted them when the Ukrainians came. Some issues of course caught our specific attention, such as job counseling, social protection, and housing. But the entire administration – on the local, regional, and state levels – showed great willingness and flexibility in adapting to that. In my opinion, this was my country’s biggest success in the course of this crisis.
Ferdinand Mirbach: So far we have talked a lot about state measures to support the Ukrainian refugees. My impression is that civil society has also made a very significant contribution. After the outbreak of the war, there was a great wave of helpfulness and solidarity in Germany. Citizens organized transports from the Ukrainian border to Germany with their private cars or provided housing. Many migrant-led organizations, especially Ukrainian and Russian associations, provided support with advice or translations.
Anne-Ly Reimaa: Estonian civil society was also very supportive, and we had a lot of volunteer workers. The local population cooperated effectively with local municipalities, and umbrella organizations contributed a great deal to the offers of help – especially those of Ukrainian and other ethnic minorities in Estonia.
Pavla Novotná: We had a huge impact from civil society, mainly in the first response, when it came to humanitarian aid and support by volunteers. A very important part of the civil society contributions was the solidarity regarding housing – without that we wouldn’t have managed the situation. What was challenging was the coordination of all the volunteers and offers from civil society. So now we have shifted to more coordinated services that are provided by people who are paid through programs that we developed within the first months.
Ferdinand Mirbach: The support of Ukrainian refugees by the state and civil society is a valuable asset in these times of crisis. The question is, of course, whether this is being supported by the general public and how sustainable this support is. The Robert Bosch Stiftung is currently funding a project in Poland in which social issues that are important to both groups are discussed in civil dialogues between Poles and Ukrainians. The aim is to prevent a social split on questions such as housing, schooling or social assistance. What is public opinion about Ukrainian refugees like in your countries, and did it change over the course of the last year?
Pavla Novotná: In the first weeks, public opinion was highly supportive, with basically nobody questioning the support for Ukrainian refugees. But over the months there has been a certain fatigue. So in surveys you see that there is a lower acceptance than in the beginning. But I consider this to be normal. We still have very strong support from the government and the parliament. Of course, the political opposition is saying that we should do more for Czechs themselves, but still they are not saying that we shouldn’t help Ukrainians.
Anne-Ly Reimaa: The support from the public in Estonia was and still is very high. Now 75% of the population considers it to be an obligation to help Ukrainian war refugees. This support rate didn’t change a lot during the last year. I find this quite astonishing, since before February 24, 2022, we had just 332 people who had been granted international protection status, and now we have 39,000 people with temporary residence permits.
Ferdinand Mirbach: The positive public opinion has certainly contributed to the fact that in many European countries, the integration of Ukrainian refugees is being tackled with courage and success is being achieved. At the same time, warning voices are getting louder. In Germany, municipal representatives point out that the reception capacities are largely exhausted: in 2022, in addition to the more than one million Ukrainian refugees, more than 240,000 people from other countries applied for asylum.
Pavla Novotná: Of course we have these debates as well, especially when it comes to housing, as there are objective limitations if you don’t want to put up tent camps. In addition, we have an internal debate over the question of whether we need to reevaluate our services if there should be an even bigger influx of refugees in the future. But this is not a public debate; it's more of a debate between the government, the regions, and the municipalities.
Anne-Ly Reimaa: We have the same problem that there is a lack of places to accommodate these people and also maintain the same level of services. Happily, there is a very good level of cooperation between the prime ministers of Estonia and Finland. We are in the process of planning cooperative activities regarding refugees who have received temporary protection status in Estonia.
Ferdinand Mirbach: We talked about the challenges and successes of the past year. Finally, let’s talk about perspectives: What do you expect for the time to come? Do you think there will still be a high level of acceptance for further reception and integration of Ukrainian refugees?
Pavla Novotná: I would not dare to say what the situation will be in the next months, as things can change so fast. Right now we have two scenarios for the future: the first is that there will be an escalation of the conflict that would also lead to an escalation in migration. The second scenario is that the situation is stable or even improving; then we can work further on the adaptation and integration of Ukrainian refugees. The problem is that our capacities are limited, and the challenge is really not only about money but about capacity.
Anne-Ly Reimaa: There will be parliamentary elections in Estonia on March 5, 2023. So the results might influence immigration policies and foreign policy. For now, my impression is that Estonian society can benefit from the Ukrainians in our country, as many of them are working as teachers or nurses, in restaurants or shops and positively influence the Estonian economy. Besides, Estonians suffered during the Second World War the way the Ukrainians are suffering now, and we know what it means to be under Soviet occupation. For this reason I am convinced that we will always support Ukrainians the best we can!
The interviewees are members of the Integration Futures Working Group. This project, funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, brings together leading policymakers and experts in the field of integration, civil society representatives, and leading private sector actors to address integration challenges in the context of current crises, such as the fading Covid pandemic, high refugee migration, or the war in Ukraine.