With over 7.6 million refugees from Ukraine recorded across Europe since the start of the war, cities in neighbouring countries and beyond have welcomed Ukrainian refugees with solidarity and dignity, Mayors and representatives of major host cities in countries including Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have told the UN.
But with unprecedented and fast-evolving emergency needs and dwindling public resources – and with many cities still recovering from the pandemic and now facing intensifying energy and climate crises as the risk of protracted conflict looms – they have warned of the need of far greater support at national, regional and international scales.
This is the message of urban authorities from across the region, who in the 83rd session of the Committee on Housing, Land Management and Urban Development taking place this week in San Marino and a survey conducted by UNECE, have shared both their experiences and urgent appeals for support to strengthen resilience.
Solidarity shines through as cities “learn by doing”
“Even in difficult times, in the first month 90% of the pressure was on Chișinău city, and I’ve never seen such solidarity”, said Ion Ceban, Mayor the of Moldovan capital. “Not a person was without accommodation, without a hot meal, and without assistance.” Chișinău has attended to 35,504 refugees who crossed the city, of which an estimated 10,000 established temporary residence there. Over 90,000 refugees have been recorded in the Republic of Moldova – the country with the largest share per head of the population.
Since the beginning of the war, the people of Poland “[opened] hearts and arms to the refugees”, Andrej Porawski, Executive Director of the Polish Association of Cities, told the Committee. Przemyśl, one of Poland’s border cities with Ukraine, served as a reception point, where incoming refugees could be accommodated for a few days and then transported to other cities in Poland and Europe. The city, which had an estimated population of about 60,000, provided protection for around 6,000 refugees who opted to stay there, owing to proximity with their home and family, and the provision of bilingual classes in schools. Another frontier point in Poland, Ręszów used city buses to provide transportation from the border to other cities, with most of the refugees opting to move on to larger cities such as Warsaw, Krakow, Gdańsk and Wrocław. Poland has recorded over 1.4 million Ukrainians – the highest overall number of any neighbouring country.
Also serving as a frontier city is Ungehni, the seventh largest Moldovan town with a population of 42,8147. The town, which borders Romania, received around 4,850 refugees, of which more than 90% continued to other destinations. “We learn by doing, based on intuition and empathy”, Deputy Mayor Dionisie Ternovschi said. While a crisis cell was promptly established in city hall, “up until today, we still do not have a team or a public function officially responsible for refugee situation management”, he added, stressing that, initially, “Ungheni was completely unprepared” to respond. “When refugees arrived, they were hosted by the Moldovan people in their households.”
In Bucharest, Romania, around 55-65,000 refugees are estimated to be currently based in the city, said Deputy Mayor Horia Tomescu, recalling that approximately 1.4 million Ukrainians have transited the city since February. Among wide-ranging initiatives to meet emergency needs and foster inclusion of refugees, the city partnered with UNICEF to open a Romanian language summer school to facilitate children’s’ integration, together with a number of initiatives to help refugees find jobs with local businesses. However, many remain reluctant to make medium and long-term plans, he noted. Looking ahead to future needs, he warned that “the city could not shoulder the burden of providing such large-scale assistance alone.”
“There is no back to normal: this is a time for European solidarity”, said Ambassador Tassos Kriekoukis, Diplomatic Advisor to the Mayor of Athens, which estimates to have welcomed around 25,000 refugees from Ukraine.
Stretched resources and compounding challenges
The survey found that many cities were quick to put in place the necessary administrative procedures and flexibilities for hosting refugees, and also reallocated part of their municipal budgets to cover the costs with the provision of medical services, food, clothes, sheltering and transportation services, with central governments transferring additional funds.
Chișinău, for instance, earmarked 4.25 million lei (estimated USD225,000), of which 75% was spent as of July 2022. The Moldovan government also allocated 9.55 million lei (estimated USD500,000) to cover expenses related to temporary placement centres managed by cities. In addition, civil society in the city donated 3.5 million lei (estimated USD185,000), food, household goods and school supplies. Yet despite efforts made and significant support to date, Ungheni’s Deputy Mayor warned that “without generous help from abroad, Moldova will not cope”.
Fortunately, Ukraine’s surrounding cities and towns were largely not experiencing housing shortages before the war. Rather, at issue today are rising housing prices, as Bucharest highlighted, citing the compounding effects of exponential rise in rent fees due to accommodation provided to refugees.
“Affordability issue drives challenges in all other areas”, underscored UN Habitat’s Geneva Office head Graham Alabaster in the Committee talks.
Reducing their capacity to respond, many cities also experienced shortages in social housing. Others were also challenged by informal settlements, such as in Chișinău and Ungheni, and unlicensed residential buildings, for example in Bucharest.
According to Andrej Porawski of the Polish Association of Cities, the majority of initial arrivals of refugees to the country knew where they were going: to friends and families. With the second largest population decline in the EU, Polish cities also saw the welcoming of refugees as “not only a challenge but a chance”. Some 1.5 million Ukrainians were already working in Poland before the war, especially engineers and skilled workers, he noted, stressing that the situation remains geographically uneven, with medium sized and smaller cities still waiting for refugees.
“We never said the word problem; we say it is a challenge and opportunity”, emphasized Tomasz Fijolek, Executive Director of the Union of Polish Metropolises, which represents over 350 members.
Drawing on 75 years of cooperation since its establishment in a war-torn Europe, UNECE stands ready to continue fostering policy exchange and cooperation to help governments and city actors across the region strengthen resilience to emerge stronger, more sustainable and inclusive from crises.
For more information on the 83rd session of the UNECE Committee on Housing, Land Management and Urban Development, visit https://unece.org/housing/cudhlm-session83
A recording of the discussion is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08TGCepAPj4&ab_channel=UNECE