In the northwest Berlin suburb of Reinickendorf, the sprawling, tree-studded grounds of a former hospital have been transformed into an arrival centre for hundreds of Ukrainian refugees who are fleeing escalating attacks by Russia.
On Tuesday, some of them carried small bags or rolled suitcases that lolloped along the cobbled pavement. They walked past cars with Ukrainian licence plates and children laughing as they kicked a soccer ball among themselves.
Red arrows on large, white signs point the way to the rectangular orange and yellow brick building where refugees first register with the government.
By Tuesday, about 800 people had made their way through the gates of the arrival centre. Activity is only expected to increase as more Ukrainians flee their homes, or those who have already arrived in Poland – which is starting to show the strain of welcoming nearly 400,000 refugees – make their way west into Germany.
The European Union is expected to grant those refugees the right to stay and work in member states for up to three years, after a proposal Wednesday to grant automatic temporary protection.
Irina Bondas, a member of the Ukrainian diaspora who lives in Berlin, was pleased with news the EU is considering the emergency proposal, though it worries her to think about a protracted conflict.
“I feel that most of the people fleeing are not thinking about staying here for long right now,” she told The Globe and Mail.
Pointing to other conflicts, such as wars in the former Yugoslavia, she said “people back then also thought it would last only a couple of weeks. So now it is impossible to think in longer terms.”
The proposal in front of the EU comes on the heels of various European governments pledging help to resettle displaced Ukrainians. Italy, for example, has allocated €10-million for refugee centres and pledged to increase their capacity by up to 16,000 places.
Estonia has lifted all visa requirements for Ukrainians, ensuring that people with expiring permits can stay and removing barriers for those who wish to go to the northern Baltic nation. The visa exemption is indefinite, according to Estonian Police and Border Guard spokesperson Ilmar Kahro, and the federal government is also considering changes to make it easier for newly arriving Ukrainians to work while they’re in the country.
While Estonia doesn’t have controls along its border with Latvia, police have set up checkpoints to track the numbers of Ukrainians coming to the country and share information. About 200 have crossed into Estonia since the checkpoints were established, Mr. Kahro said. More are expected as the crisis escalates.
The Estonian Refugee Council is also co-ordinating evacuation buses for people at Ukrainian border crossings with Poland and Slovakia. As of Wednesday the group had five buses en route or about to start their multiday trips.
In past refugee crises, displaced people have tended to stay close to their home country, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
The agency expects that trend will hold true. So does the German government, according to Ministry of the Interior and Community spokesperson Sascha Lawrenz.
About 875,000 people have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24, according to data complied by UNHCR. About 5,300 of them have entered Germany, the country’s federal government said Wednesday.
The volatile situation “does not allow any reasonable planning in terms of numbers,” Mr. Lawrenz said, but he added that “Germany has the competence and means to deal with all realistic scenarios.”
That competence stems from past experience. Former German chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to more than one million refugees in 2015 and 2016, many of them fleeing the Syrian civil war at a time when other EU countries weren’t so willing to put up their hands.
Most of the Ukrainians who have arrived at the Reinickendorf centre so far were already in Germany visiting friends and family, and left stranded when Russia invaded their homeland.
Sascha Langenbach, spokesperson for the Berlin State Office for Refugee Affairs, which runs the centre, has no idea how many refugees will make their way to Germany.
“Nobody can tell at the moment,” he told The Globe as families filed by to speak with officials inside one of the buildings.
“We do have information from the border from Poland to Ukraine – also from Romania and Moldova in the south – that there are thousands of them coming, especially women and children. The men return and go back to to fight in the war.”
His team is expanding capacity as quickly as possible, but he said the primary focus is securing enough beds, food, social workers and psychologists to help people “who have basically lost everything.”
Refugees who register at the Reinickendorf arrival centre are given temporary accommodation in one of the 85 houses run by the government, which together have capacity for 1,300 people. By Tuesday, Mr. Langenbach’s office was in the midst adding space for 1,200 more.
Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey told The Globe in an e-mail that the city is expecting up to 20,000 refugees. She said additional arrival centres will open soon.
As Ukrainians flee worsening attacks by Russia, the non-profit arm of online accommodation hosting giant Airbnb has started reaching out to hosts in nearby countries, asking them to take part in a mammoth housing effort.
Airbnb.org says it is working closely with non-governmental organizations and other partners to support larger resettlement efforts and offer free, short-term housing to up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
Jennifer Bond, a member of the Airbnb.org board, told The Globe in an interview that the foundation is initially reaching out to hosts in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Germany, but she expects that effort to broaden in the coming days and weeks.
“There will be an immediate, urgent need in those countries immediately surrounding Ukraine, but really this is a global crisis,” Ms. Bond said.
“As Ukrainians start to move into new destinations, our response will be activated in other countries as well.”
The effort builds on a similar program Airbnb.org rolled out to help house 20,000 refugees who recently fled Afghanistan.
– With reports from Marieke Walsh in Estonia and Reuters
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