When it became clear to Liliia Fomina that the war raging outside her hometown of Zaporizhzhia would not just continue for days, but months or even years, she decided to flee to the UK . A sponsor in Windsor was found and on March 18 the 29-year-old applied for a UK visa for herself and her five-year-old son, Lev.
The couple took refuge with friends of friends in a village near Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine, and waited: a week, two weeks, three weeks. By the time her visa finally arrived, after almost a month of uncertainty, the lawyer had changed her mind.
Instead of flying to Britain, Fomina and Lev traveled by coach and train to Berlin, where she had found a family through a Facebook group that had agreed to take them in for six months.
The journey took 32 hours. Less than 12 hours after arriving in the German capital last Monday evening, she had obtained a temporary residence permit, obtained a free SIM card for her phone, opened a bank account and found a free place in a nursery run by the church. for Lev, named after the Russian writer Tolstoy.
By the end of the week, Fomina had also obtained German health insurance and received the first installment of a monthly allowance of €616 (£516) for her and her son, as well as a one-off payment of €294 to buy clothes new, all in cash.
“Word of mouth on the Ukrainian Telegram [social media] groups was that it would be much easier to integrate into German society than into British society,” Fomina told the Observer. “Our UK sponsors seemed very friendly and willing to help, but there was very little information available about the benefit system or how easily it would be possible to find work. “After four days in Berlin, I I’m 100% sure I made the right decision.”
Seven years ago, Germany’s “refugee crisis” captured the world’s attention, when Angela Merkel’s government opened its borders to an influx of asylum seekers, most fleeing the war in Syria, sparking a right-wing backlash that saw the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) enter parliament for the first time.
In the first two months of the Russian aggression, 390,000 Ukrainians arrived in Germany, more than double the number of Syrians who were registered in the German quota system in September and October 2015. Yet this time the word “crisis” is not found.
Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine has seen the German government dither over arms deliveries and an embargo on Russian energy imports, to the frustration of its European allies. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has at times seemed more concerned with respecting the dove traditions of his center-left party and heeding the pleas of German industry than dealing with a rapidly changing geopolitical situation.
But in its dealings with an unprecedented influx of newcomers from Ukraine, Europe’s biggest economy has been unusually unbureaucratic, drama-free and outward-looking.
The number of arrivals in Germany is dwarfed by that of countries directly bordering Ukraine – particularly Poland, where more people have found shelter from war than in all other European countries combined.
Yet in Liliia Fomina’s Telegram groups, many Ukrainians in Poland are voicing fears of being trapped in low-paying menial jobs, and many of her compatriots are expected to use the 90-day visa waiver from the EU to move further west.
According to official figures from national governments, Germany is their most likely destination: there are already more Ukrainians (nearly 400,000) than in other major European states such as France (51,000), Italy (about 100,000) and Spain (135,000). Britain, outside the EU and with a slow visa system, only took in around 27,000, although 86,000 visas were granted.
Unlike Syrians who arrived in 2015, Ukrainians in Germany do not have to apply for asylum but can obtain a fast residence permit valid for up to three years, thanks to paragraph 24 of the German residence law, until then unused.
Unless they opt for Berlin, which relocates those who have not found accommodation for at least six months before arriving in other parts of the country, they are free to choose where to live and can start working almost immediately. People working in unregulated professions such as the care sector are likely to have their qualifications recognized without having to prove them in an exam.
The revised system has helped people like Alina Shchukina, 35, who left Kharkiv with her eight-year-old son amid heavy shelling on March 3. Within two weeks of arriving in Berlin, her host family helped her get an interview to become a legal assistant at a corporate law firm. The job offer arrived the same day. “I was really surprised because it all happened so quickly,” she said. “Germany makes it very easy for Ukrainians to get benefits. But I couldn’t have sat and waited for the end of the war. I’m not that kind of person.
Activists who have spent years campaigning for reform of Germany’s immigration and asylum laws are delighted. “Instead of considering these refugees only as victims who must return to their country of origin as soon as they can, there is a real effort to integrate them into the labor market,” said Katarina Niewiedzial, head of integration into the Berlin Senate. “I dare not say it, but I think we are witnessing a paradigm shift.”
The change is all the more surprising given that immigration authorities seemed to have been taken by surprise by the outbreak of a war that had been threatened for months. When thousands of Ukrainian refugees began arriving at Berlin’s central station in early March, volunteers complained that they had been left to fend for themselves.
Andreas Ahrens, a pensioner from Hamburg, opened his late father’s home on the outskirts of the northern German city to a group of Ukrainians in mid-March. “We didn’t have to think long: it was a decision we made in minutes,” he said. “Syria and Afghanistan, those places seem very far away, but Ukraine is right on our doorstep.”
For other Germans, religion, ethnicity and gender may also have been factors that made them more willing to share their living space with refugees than in 2015.
Seven years ago, two-thirds of asylum seekers in Germany were men, although the gender balance among Syrian refugees in Germany has recently tipped the other way. Of the newly arrived adult Ukrainians receiving benefits in Germany this year, 83% are women.
For the last two years of his life, Ahrens’ father had lived alone in the four-storey house. Since last month, it has been home to five mothers and eight children.
“Every time I walk around the neighborhood now, I can’t help but notice how many houses in our neighborhood are empty and could house more people,” he added. “This is madness.”
Finding empty houses to permanently house the Ukrainian diaspora is going to be a challenge, especially in major German cities that already suffer from chronic housing shortages, such as Berlin. Unlike Syrians and Afghans who arrived before, Ukrainian passport holders are not tied to the municipalities they were assigned to, but can vote with their feet wherever they want to live and work.
“The immigration system that Germany has developed for Ukrainian refugees is in many ways a desired outcome,” said Peter von Auer, legal adviser to refugee rights group Pro Asyl. “We have spent years arguing that free choice creates a fairer system.”
Tarek Alkouatly, 23, arrived in Germany from Eastern Ghouta in October 2015, fleeing the war in Syria as an unaccompanied minor. After arriving, he spent a night at the Fritz-Henßler-Haus in Dortmund, a youth center converted into a temporary refugee shelter.
Seven years later, Alkouatly is back at the same center, this time as a volunteer, helping Ukrainians fill out forms in bureaucratic German and transport food and blankets in his seven-seater car.
“I came to Germany without speaking the language, and it was extremely stressful at times,” said the Syrian, who is currently finishing high school while working as a courier in the evenings. “Now that I speak German, I consider it my duty to help.”
“Ukrainians have seen war, bombs and death like us, caused by the same enemy. If you’ve only seen the war on TV, you might want to help them, but not as strongly as when you experienced it yourself.
Asked what he thinks about the possibility for Ukrainians to participate in German society without having to overcome some of the same legal and bureaucratic obstacles that he and his compatriots face, Alkouatly said: “If I am really honest, it might seem a bit unfair sometimes.
“But of course I’m happy that they have fewer problems. It would be nice if it was the same experience for everyone fleeing war in the future.