One thousand five hundred kilometres is roughly the distance between Hamburg and Kyiv. A week after Putin started his invasion of Ukraine, the city government of Hamburg proclaimed proudly that it had prepared 750 beds for refugees from Ukraine. As of March 15th, the official estimate of the number of people who have arrived searching for refuge in Hamburg was between 12000 and 15000. As of March 28, 2022, the UNHCR estimates that close to 3.9 million people have left Ukraine in the month since the beginning of the war.
Ukrainians can travel for free on German trains, a service that has been offered since the first week of the war in early March; they can also stay in Germany for 90 days without registration if they find shelter with family and friends. This is one of the reasons why there are so far only estimates of the number of people who have arrived in the city – registration, though, gives access to medical and social services, a basic income, a place for kids to go to school and, most importantly, a place to stay for those who come here without contacts.
While the city may not have been ready, the people of Hamburg have shown that they are: volunteers from the Arbeiter Samariter Bund, an NGO, staff the central station in the city throughout the night, welcoming those stumbling from the last train from Poland at 3 am. Individuals drive their cars to the Polish-Ukrainian border to take in Ukrainian families and bring them to safety – the Hamburg football and handball clubs rented several big busses to do the same. People provide housing, food, clothes, shelter for pets prohibited in the Notaufnahme, the reception centres where beds have been hastily installed.
In the first weeks, Ukrainian refugees had to get their appointments to get registered in person at three registration centres throughout the city – leading to long queues forming in front, older women and children waiting in the cold without places to sit or rest, and no food or liquids. The social service systems in many German cities, including Hamburg, were overwhelmed and underprepared, but a private construction company put up toilets so people could relieve themselves, and a church group brought food and hot drinks. When the social services announced that these appointments could henceforth be made online, students from the nearby University of Arts went to the centres equipped with their laptops. They made appointments for people online so that the refugees could return to their shelters rather than wait in the cold.
In 2015, Hamburgers, as the residents of the city are correctly called, had already shown support for refugees – then towards those displaced by the Syrian war. However, the displacement provoked by Putin’s war has seen a different response – direly needed considering the number of people fleeing. In the first instance, it is a reflection and proffered by political action of the EU’s member states and the German government. Germany relies heavily on Russian gas and oil; 50% of these resources are imported from Russia.
While the German government had resisted international calls to abandon its energy pipeline project Northstream II meant to facilitate the transport of gas, in the months leading up to the war, the Russian invasion has led to a change of position on all fronts in the Ampel coalition: the pipeline, owned by a subsidiary of the Russian Gazprom, is on hold; the green energy minister Habeck has announced that all options are on the table to find alternative energy sources, even among formerly shunned producers in Doha; and in what is billed as a historic speech, Bundeskanzler Scholz has announced a Zeitenwende – a watershed – in German policy regarding defence spending.
The green foreign minister Baerböck has announced a new perspective for Germany’s foreign policy, which many would describe as hawkish. Rather than continue the policy of Wandel durch Handel – change through trade – that has been the hallmark of Germany’s foreign dealings since the republic’s constitution after the war, German politicians want Germany to accept a different role in international politics.
Most importantly, Germans seem to support the new policy orientation. It is in line with the outpouring of support for Ukrainians arriving in cities across the country. The second difference in the welcome refugees received in 2015, besides the political response, is the perception of who the refugees are. With military law being enforced in Ukraine, those arriving in Germany and elsewhere are the elderly, women and children. Canada’s government has been criticized for a difference in treatment of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, with immigration minister Fraser being charged for having put in place a two-tiered system of refugee accommodation, giving precedence to Ukrainians over Afghans and others (‘Streamlined immigration program for Ukrainians creates a ‘two-tiered,’ ‘racialized’ system, opposition says,’ Globe and Mail, March 23, 2022.) The situation is different in Germany, where individuals can arrive by train and need not rely on governmental help to get to the country.
However, the public mood is also different: while the Syrian civil war had also displaced millions of innocent citizens, too many Germans, the war in Ukraine is clearer cut: those who arrive are victims of a war of aggression, with clear boundaries between aggressors and victims. The outrage on behalf of Ukrainians is palpable among the thousands who demonstrate on weekends in many European cities, among those who hold vigils in front of the Ukrainian consulate in Hamburg, and among those who open their homes to the many displaced by war. While the German government may have been prevaricating for a long time, this war may have convinced many that the long period of peace in Europe is over. The political decisions taken on the international and European levels show that the ideal of international solidarity – often proclaimed – must be filled out with concrete deeds. And many are ready to do their bit.