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Is German support for Ukraine refugees waning?

August 8, 2022

The outbreak of the war in Ukraine was met with an outpouring of humanitarian support from volunteers across Germany. How strong is the solidarity with the refugees after almost six months of war?

Olaf Scholz and his entourage checking out donations in Cologne in May 2022
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz paid a visit to Cologne in May Image: Bundespresseamt

For Lesyia, it is day 154 in Cologne, and the 38-year-old Ukrainian has already learned the most important things about her new home: that learning German is the key to getting on here, that it's been easier for her children to settle in Germany than for her 10-year-old daughter has just received a recommendation for a place at a high school –– and that German bureaucracy has its advantages, but also its disadvantages.

On March 3, Lesyia was one of the first 43 Ukrainian women to arrive in Cologne on a bus chartered by the aid organization Blue and Yellow Cross (Blau-Gelbes-Kreuz). Five months later, she is living with her two children in a small apartment. 

Every day, she is moved by the willingness of complete strangers, volunteers, and neighbors to help. 

"The other day, my neighbor was with me and we came up with the idea to all go swimming together. But then I realized that I didn't even have a swimsuit. Later, the doorbell rang and there was a package on the floor. My son opened it and said, 'Mom, look, here are two bathing suits for you!'"

Linda Mai, Lesyia and Oliver Pieper sitting at a table in the warehouse
Linda Mai and the Ukrainian refugee Lesyia met with DW reporter Oliver Pieper to discuss German solidarityImage: Natalie Nothstein

Record donations in March

Lesyia, who was planning to launch an IT start-up in her hometown between Lviv and Kyiv shortly before the war began, does not have the feeling that solidarity with Ukrainian refugees has waned — on the contrary. 

But just a look at the number of donations to aid organizations shows that the huge wave of support in Germany that followed the start of the war has ebbed away.

Thanks to a fundraiser entitled Emergency Aid Ukraine, Germans transferred more than 180 million euros ($183 million) to "Aktion Deutschland hilft," an alliance of over 20 German aid organizations, in March.  

People are still reaching into their wallets to help, but since May only single-digit million contributions have been coming in per month. Now, many refugees are considering returning to their home country, or have already done so.

Why refugees are returning to Ukraine

Voluntary aid in decline

Linda Mai is well placed to assess the state of German solidarity today. Born in Ukraine, she is the chairperson of the Blue and Yellow Cross in Cologne. 

She and her fellow campaigners quickly set up an aid depot for the 3,500 Ukrainians who fled to Cologne, tirelessly drumming up donations at dozens of rallies, and organizing an impressive 170 supply and evacuation transits, carrying 1,500 tons of humanitarian aid.

"We are still drawing on the huge willingness to donate in March and April, with donations in kind and money. But clearly, there are fewer volunteers now. There were also fewer people at our last demonstration. It's probably normal for people to return to their daily lives, but war doesn't take breaks," Mai says. 

The Blue and Yellow Cross has professionalized its efforts over time, and its support for Ukraine is now even more targeted. 

A 10-kilogram Rescue Pack contains bandages for first aid, hemostatic medicines to help prevent bleeding, and tourniquets: enough for a doctor in the field to save the lives of five victims of shelling. 

Higher gas prices dominate the headlines

Young Ukrainian parents who open a Baby Box from Cologne will find hygiene products, baby food and clothes inside. 

With their "Ready for School Campaign", the aid organization also supports Ukrainian families with school-age children. Pencil cases, exercise books, and satchels are stacked on 12 pallets in the warehouse in Cologne, where school resumes after the summer break this week.

More than five months after the war began, Linda Mai says she can sleep a little more now: six hours instead of the three she managed in February, March, and April. 

But the current debate in Germany over higher gas prices, which is increasingly crowding out the suffering in Ukraine in the headlines, is beginning to cause sleepless nights again. 

"What value do we place on a human life? Shouldn't it be worth more to us than paying money to Russia for fuel and gas? Everyone can do something and donate five euros, that doesn't hurt. The suffering in Ukraine is immense."

Almost 1 million refugees from Ukraine in Germany

But if hard figures are a measure of Germany's solidarity with Ukraine, the numbers are impressive: more than 915,000 Ukrainians are now registered in Germany. 

By the end of June, according to the Federal Employment Agency, 353,424 had registered with employment agencies, job centers, and other local authorities. 

More than 146,000 Ukrainian children and young people are now attending German schools –– not for nothing does Federal Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger describe it as an "enormous undertaking."

Private and non-governmental initiatives such as "Unterkunft Ukraine" also report impressive numbers: the grassroots organization has so far been able to arrange just under 44,000 beds for Ukrainian refugees. 

But Germany wouldn't be Germany if bureaucracy did not occasionally complicate the integration of new arrivals.

"Certain districts, such as Mettmann or the district of Potsdam, have now also issued a freeze on admissions. This means that even if private accommodation could be arranged, the refugees cannot take it and have to return to their overcrowded communal shelters in order to be entitled to state support," a spokeswoman for Unterkunft Ukraine said.

baby box content set out on a table
'Baby boxes' are for Ukrainian refugees with very young childrenImage: Natalie Nothstein

Admission freezes, residency requirements and digitalization 

This admission freeze also applies in several districts in Brandenburg, Bielefeld, and even entire German states such as Bavaria or Saxony, which took in very large numbers of refugees in the first few months of the war. 

Refugees were subsequently moved on within Germany because the quota of people who can receive social welfare was exhausted in these regions and also to ensure that schools, hospitals, and local authorities were not overburdened.

Then there's the residency requirement — another headache for aid organizations such as Unterkunft Ukraine. "If refugees have already registered in big cities, for example, they can't just go to rural areas in another state because then they won't be able to get social welfare, even though the housing situation there would be more relaxed."

This is a challenge for agencies that have to find accommodation within a district where a refugee is initially registered. 

Unterkunft Ukraine says that overall Germany needs to become more flexible in dealing with refugees. 

It also has another demand that was frequently heard during the COVID-19 pandemic: "We need flexible, digital solutions that simplify the whole thing instead of stacks of paperwork."

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.
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