The unprecedented nature of the refugee crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strained the accommodation capacities of many European Union countries.
It is unprecedented in speed and size - 4.6 million refugees fleeing Ukraine have arrived in the EU in less than a year - and it is also the first time the EU has ever triggered its temporary protection directive, a rule originating in response to the mass displacements of the Balkan wars which had never been used before.
The rule means that people fleeing Ukraine due to the conflict have the right to live, work, and study across the EU for up to three years.
This means that Ukrainian refugees skip the usual processing system for people who claim asylum from elsewhere, and in many countries the majority have found their own accommodation without being housed by the state.
Article 13 of the temporary protection directive states that the responsibility of states is to ensure “suitable accommodation or, if necessary, receive the means to obtain housing” for temporary protection beneficiaries.
But the novelty of temporary protection and different interpretations mean that provision of accommodation for Ukrainian refugees is a patchwork that varies not just from country to country but also depending on the local or regional authority.
The use of spare rooms and empty houses offered by ordinary members of the public has been a major part of the response across the EU.
What kind of housing is provided?
Ukrainians tend to be offered emergency accommodation in large reception centres on first arrival and there informed about available supports and housing options: these may include homes offered by the public, private rentals, or state help.
To accommodate new arrivals without other options, local and national authorities have got creative.
The Netherlands, like Ireland, has a housing shortage. Municipalities have housed Ukrainians in a monastery, a holiday camp, empty office buildings, and on boats - including a cruise ship and a gun boat dating from the Cold War that has been retrofitted to house 23 people.
In Germany, the disused Tegel airport has been turned into a reception centre for both asylum seekers and refugees from Ukraine with temporary protection. They stay in partitioned rooms erected inside the old terminal, and in large tents that have been erected where planes once taxied outside. Elsewhere, local authorities have turned sports halls into accommodation; in Dresden, a trade fair hall was converted.
These are temporary accommodation facilities for those who have nowhere to stay until a more permanent place is found. About two-thirds of refugees from Ukraine registered in Germany managed to find private accommodation or rent their own apartments. In Germany, refugees who have a residence permit and work, but do not earn enough to afford rent, could qualify for housing benefit, or a social housing flat.
The provision of accommodation depends on what is available. In Ireland, the prevalent role of hotels in accommodating Ukrainians is unusual - reflecting the availability of hotel rooms, and the shortage of other options, including ordinary homes.
Do Ukrainians always stay in hotels?
Ireland is particularly reliant on hotels. It’s more usual for countries to use formal accommodation centres. But it’s not unheard of.
In Bulgaria, the government announced last May that refugees staying in hotels in Black Sea beach resorts would have to move to make way for the summer tourist season, and cut the subsidy paid to hotel operators per refugee. The refugees were offered alternative accommodation, though many were reluctant to move, saying they and their children had put down roots.
Latvia provides free accommodation and meals for 90 days. This was extended to another month last May. The parliament also chose to reduce the fees paid to tourist accommodations for accommodating people from Ukraine to €15 per day from €20 and to €10 per day from €15 for meals. Some tourism businesses stopped hosting Ukrainians as a result.
Refugees sleeping rough
In Belgium, a lack of capacity means that hundreds of people who have applied for asylum are homeless, particularly single men, while people have slept in long queues in the open air waiting to register their claims for asylum. A building intended to be renovated to accommodate Ukrainian refugees became a squat for hundreds of asylum seekers who had no shelter, in conditions described as “appalling”.
According to the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) “the lack of available reception accommodation means that Ukrainian nationals are sleeping on benches and in the street” in Belgium as of November. Of roughly 100 Ukrainians that register each day, about 40 do not receive shelter from the Belgian state.
Charging Ukrainians for housing
In November, the Polish government announced a plan to charge Ukrainian refugees who stay in accommodation centres for more than four months.
Poland is host to more Ukrainian refugees than any other EU country at over 1.5 million, and Ukrainian refugees may struggle to find their own flats and houses, with many staying in collective accommodation centres, state-funded hotel rooms and school dormitories.
“Citizens of Ukraine who stay in Poland in collective accommodation centres will participate in the costs of housing and meals,” the statement issued by the government read.
Those who stay in collective accommodation would have to pay 40 per cent of the cost, up to €8.50 a day per person. This would be increased to 75 per cent or €12.75 after six months. Elderly, pregnant and disabled people would be excluded from this requirement.
Is there a time limit?
The nature of temporary protection is that it has a flexible time duration: it is initially granted for one year, and can be extended afterwards up to three years. As it is the first time this status has been used, EU countries have been figuring out how to manage the situation as the war in Ukraine evolves.
Different interpretations of the temporary protection directive have “led to the emergence of divergent practices and policies” according to the European Council for Refugees and Exiles, which says that “uncertainty about the legal situation persists in many cases”.
This situation means that accommodation for Ukrainian refugees is designed to be temporary, though it sometimes does not have a formal time limit.
So far, only Poland has confirmed plans to place time limits on access to accommodation provided by the state, but it is being discussed elsewhere.
In Lithuania, Ukrainians can apply for three months free accommodation through the Stronger Together programme, which brings together people fleeing Ukraine with citizens offering places to stay. Hosts are paid €150 for the first person and €50 for each additional person for a maximum of three months.
The ECRE considers access to housing to be one of the greatest challenges for refugees in terms of socio economic rights.
In a statement, the council said “posing further limits in this problematic area is extremely problematic. States should find durable solutions to provide access to adequate longer-term accommodation which also decreases the vulnerabilities of migrants and facilitates their inclusion.”
How does the number of Ukrainian refugees in Ireland compare to elsewhere?
In absolute terms, Poland has taken in the most Ukrainian refugees by far, with over 1.5 million, followed by Germany with over one million, and the Czech Republic with almost half a million.
Per capita, the Czech Republic has taken in a number of refugees equivalent to 4.5 per cent of its population, Poland has taken in 4 per cent, and Estonia 3.1 per cent. The Republic’s figure of 69,700 Ukrainian refugees is about 1.4 per cent of the population.