How east Europe’s social services cope with Ukraine refugees

Over four million people have fled across borders to Ukraine neighbouring countries. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to one of the most rapid movement of refugees ever witnessed. Its invasion and increasingly intense bombardment are generating a desperate humanitarian crisis.

In the neighbouring nations of Romania, Poland, or the Czech Republic, and countries throughout Europe, private citizens, and volunteers as well as public social services have been welcoming and providing help to those whose lives have been torn by the war.

Annalisa Contu, of ASSOC, a professional association for social assistance in Romania, explained that their organisation has been providing 24-hour support for refugees arriving at the border through staff and volunteers.

They provide food, clothes, personal hygiene products and medicines; pay travel so that refugees can reach other zones of Romania or other European countries. They also man ‘blue points’ where refugees can legally register their entrance in Romania, receive psychological and social support, and access the Internet or prepaid phone cards.

In Cluj-Napoca, Crina Moisă, a local official explained that a partnership between the local authority and NGOs has been set up to centralise the provision of accommodation, food, clothing, mattresses, sleeping bags, medicines, psychological support, translation services and employment support.

According to her department, refugees need information about labour market integration, social benefits, schools, access to healthcare and housing.

Jarosław Wesołowski, director of the European Social Fund Department (ESF) of the Polish region of Silesia, explained that the regional social policy centre was appointed as coordinator and financer of local authorities’ support efforts.

Russian and Ukrainian speaker employees have been assigned to hotlines and railway stations information points, and a bilingual portal was launched for the provision of accommodation.

A social inclusion plan was developed including Polish language classes, legal support, and family integration into the community.

The region’s ESF Department is trying to employ unused EU funds of their previous operational programme, and get new EU funds through the CARE proposal that the European Commission recently launched to support Ukrainian refugees.

From free transport to free housing to work opportunities and other forms of support, help is not far away, but neither are the risks.

Relying on strangers

We have heard from our members at the European Social Network (the leading network of public social services organisations in Europe), that a large proportion of the refugees arriving in the border countries want to move on to friends or family elsewhere in Europe, and many are relying on strangers to reach their destinations.

In times like this when people mobilise, the risk for other people that can capitalise on the pain of these families is very high. Risks can become higher when there are many people involved without the appropriate coordination and lack of knowledge about who does what.

The number of separated child refugees without any family support also continues to rise in an increasingly serious child protection crisis. In the absence of any family support, there are significant concerns for children’s safety, as they are at a heightened risk of threats including violence and human trafficking.

Over 1.5 million children are among those who have fled across other countries.

As the Ukrainian government banned the departure of men aged 18-60, most children are travelling with their mothers.

Indeed, more than 50 percent of the 300,000 refugees that arrived in the Czech Republic are children, and 80 percent of all adult refugees are women.

A key aspect of social inclusion is to promote employment for women and access to nurseries for children.

The Czech government has opened the labour market for Ukrainian refugees and nurseries for children, but many of the Ukrainian children fleeing the war do not have the right vaccinations, which is a requirement to access pre-school programmes.

Midwives and breastfeeding specialists

Social services in neighbouring countries and across Europe need to prepare for fast and vast numbers of refugee women arriving with children into their countries.

This preparation involves the need to reinforce midwives and breastfeeding specialists as well as safe places and the right instructions to support feeding babies and children while on the move or temporary living situations.

There is also a desperate need to provide basic necessities like diapers, baby carriers, food, toys, colouring books, medicine, hand warmers, first aid kits, baby socks, and more.

But a key part of successfully welcoming refugees is to help them integrate into the local communities.

This requires that national governments coordinate with local authorities so that they can put in place a social inclusion plan which revolves around professionals that support and engage with mothers and children so that they can build trust, help them navigate the system in the hosting country to receive the appropriate financing and housing support, and help to go to school with resources in their own language. 

This involves a medium to long term approach through investment in family social workers, psychologists and social services professionals, who can help them deal with the trauma of war migration and building trust to integrate into their new communities.