Socio-economic inclusion of refugees in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries
Demonstrating solidarity and responsibility sharing, the efforts of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries to support those fleeing the war since 24 February 2022 have been nothing short of extraordinary. The collective response from local governments, municipalities, civil society, individual volunteers, non-governmental and refugee-led organisations, and private sector actors is a powerful example of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) in action. Bringing to life the Compact's call to “encourage and empower refugees, at the outset of an emergency phase, to establish supportive systems and networks”, many host communities and local authorities have gone above and beyond since the beginning of the crisis.
Beyond humanitarian relief, the examples from the countries involved in the Refugee Response Plan (RRP) for the Ukraine situation have exemplified how the transition to longer-term protection and solution efforts must be considered from the outset of an emergency. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, emphasized at the 2022 High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges, "Inclusion is one of the best forms of protection." Only through advancing effective inclusion can the commitment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one behind be fulfilled.
Under the strong leadership of municipalities, efforts are efficiently coordinated in a whole-of-society approach to provide a wide range of assistance, including information, education, shelter and housing, social services, access to livelihood opportunities and labour markets, job placement, mentoring, childcare, and psycho-social support. Not only does this rapid socio-economic inclusion support enable refugees to actively contribute to their host society, which boosts local economies, the services provided by local actors also strengthen existing structures. This benefits both host community members and refugees from other countries and thus enhances the well-being of all and strengthens social cohesion, fulfilling GCR objectives 1 – to ease the pressure on host countries and communities – and 2 – to enhance refugee self-reliance.
The following stories from UNHCR’s country operations in Belarus, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, and Slovakia show how local governments and communities are offering refugees safety, inclusion, and new opportunities and highlight the relevance of the GCR from the onset of an emergency.
The support for those fleeing Ukraine should not be an exception but a blueprint for future responses. When investing in rapid socio-economic inclusion, local actors, together with their partners, are key in bringing the GCR to life and taking crucial steps towards longer-term protection and solutions. The extraordinary efforts of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries demonstrate the great potential of opening hearts and homes to those in need.
The story of an Ukrainian family who found refuge in Belarus highlights the importance of socio-economic inclusion for adapting to the new environment of the host country and enhancing self-reliance.
Liliya lived in Mariupol, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, with her husband and two sons. After losing their home and precariously living in the basement for a month, they were relocated to Taganrog, Russia by Red Cross volunteers. They arrived in Belarus by chance. Liliya’s eldest son was friends with a Belarusian boy whom he had met online several years before, and they regularly played online computer games. The Belarusian family offered to host them in their home until they decided what to do.
The rapid inclusion into the labour market and education system provided the family with a sense of normalcy and enabled them to contribute to the local community and economy. Today, Liliya works as a primary school teacher, and her husband is employed at the Minsk Tractor Works, one of the world’s largest manufacturers for agricultural machinery. The recognition of diplomas and prior experience is often one of the greatest challenges to refugees accessing skilled employment. The family's older son works at one of the oldest breweries in the country, and their younger son is enrolled in school. Because he previously studied in Ukrainian, he is given more time and receives support to ensure that he is able to graduate in Russian.
Liliya, a strong and positive woman, still experiences nightmares about the war and is very grateful for the help and support her family has received from the people of Belarus – from her colleagues who helped her to get basic items for their home to her son’s classmates who accepted him and helped him to adapt to the new circumstances as easily as possible. Particularly in the beginning, the UNHCR-supported humanitarian assistance provided by the Belarusian Red Cross together with the financial support from UNHCR eased the transition of the family back towards self-reliance and rapid socio-economic inclusion, through helping them to protect their assets, reducing their vulnerability and facilitating their access to services.
In the region of Plovdiv, the NGO Ukraine Support and Renovation Foundation established a community centre for Ukrainian refugees. With the help of the municipality, local volunteers, and the host community, an abandoned hospital building given by the municipality was refurbished. Reflecting the GCR objectives, the centre aims to enhance the self-reliance of refugees and enable them to contribute to the local economy, with job placements not only benefitting refugees but also boosting local economic development.
Bringing the GCR vision of inclusion into national and local systems to life, the municipality has provided around 900 places in kindergartens and some 4,000 in schools for refugee children from Ukraine. To accommodate Ukrainian refugees and third-country national mothers’ needs and enable their smooth inclusion into the labour market, they have the opportunity to choose from different options for their children’s kindergarten/school, to ensure the distance to their workplace is not too far. With UNHCR’s support, the Ukraine Support and Renovation Foundation is working on refurbishing a kindergarten by 2023 that will serve both refugees and children from the host community. Access to childcare and education is crucial to ensuring that children are not left behind and do not miss crucial years in their development, and it simultaneously allows women to work. The experience of Plovdiv shows that the integration of refugees in schools and the wider community has led to a better mutual understanding and enhanced social cohesion.
In Hungary, the RRP partners are working towards the inclusion of refugees and social cohesion with local communities and Ukrainians who were living in Hungary before the escalation of the conflict, which can enhance self-reliance and improve the sustainability of the response.
For example, the small border town of Zahony has become the main entry point to Hungary for people fleeing Ukraine. In a whole-of-society effort, its mayor and residents have shown tremendous support since the beginning of the emergency, helping refugees meet their basic needs and providing them with a place to stay upon arrival. Before the war broke out, the municipality had planned to renovate the old school building and create a retirement home for the elderly of Zahony. When refugees started arriving, the mayor decided to put the project on hold and to use the facility as a temporary shelter. With the support of UNHCR and other RRP partners, work has been done to the building, including renovating the roof. This improvement will serve the local community for many years to come and demonstrates the collective benefit of an inclusive and longer-term refugee response.
Nearly 70 Ukrainian refugees also enjoyed Hungarian hospitality in Bodrogolaszi, a small town near the Tokaj mountain. Here, Hungarian Baptist Aid, a UNHCR partner, organised a summer vacation camp. Refugees living across Hungary were invited to spend a week with members of the local community, getting to know people from different socio-economic backgrounds. The campers could choose between various skills development activities, such as a Hungarian language course, arts and crafts sessions, guitar lessons, and sports games. While creating positive memories together, refugees were also offered one-on-one and group therapeutic sessions by two psychologists who accompanied the camp.
UNHCR is also engaging a variety of refuge-led organizations (RLOs) through a small grant scheme arrangement, supporting eight community-led initiatives organised by refugees themselves or Ukrainian nationals already residing in Hungary before the escalation of the conflict in February 2022. The initiatives target refugees and host communities through recreational activities for children, psychosocial support, and the provision of information, including on rights and entitlements linked to temporary protection status. As a result, the protection environment for refugees is strengthened, and the Ukrainian communities in Hungary both refugees and diaspora are connected.
In welcoming people fleeing from Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova operationalised key principles laid out in the GCR. An old building in Chisinau was renovated and turned into a community centre serving refugees and Moldovans alike. “Our mission is to pave the road for communities to realise their mutual interest and to work together for a common benefit,” said Steliana, the centre’s administrator. This reflects the key role of host communities in emergency responses, which the Government of Moldova emphasised in its statement at the 73rd Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee: “Given that most of refugees are being hosted by Moldovan people, it is highly important to concentrate our effort on supporting both refugees and host communities.”
The Community Centre 151 is an example of the GCR in action. While everyone is welcome, the centre has a particular focus on providing a safe space to women, children, and LGBTI+ individuals. Services are based on regular consultations with the community, to ensure their needs are met. In addition to psychological, protection, and legal advice, there are training on livelihoods skills, including Romanian and English courses for different age groups, an ad hoc workshops on interesting topics such as robotics or DJ’ing.
The centre is run by the UNHCR partner Laolaltă as part of a consortium of local NGOs called Moldova for Peace that joined forces in response to the war in Ukraine. Their staff includes both Moldovans and refugees delivering support together. To ensure Moldova remains a positive protection space for refugees – and a good example of realising the GCR – it is a priority to maintain the level of social acceptance of refugees and strengthen interventions promoting social cohesion and peaceful coexistence. Jennifer, the centre’s office manager, describes its impact in personal terms: “I feel more confident, knowing that I am working, learning, and helping others. I am not a helpless person; I have a lot to contribute to my own people and to this country.”
The Nicolina Centre for Humanitarian and Social Assistance is a powerful example of a whole-of-society response that benefits refugees and the host community alike. It is a one-stop-shop for refugees and local residents in need, coordinated by the Federation of Nongovernmental Organizations for Social Services (FONSS), in partnership with associations like Afterhills, ParentIS, and Group Our Smile, operating in the municipality of Iasi. Providing a diverse set of services, the centre benefits from active collaboration with local authorities and is operating from a building provided by the City Hall of Iasi. It has been receiving refugees from a variety of countries, including Ukraine, since March 24, 2022.
A team of over 50 social workers, psychologists, nurses, and community workers – employed by the Federation of Nongovernmental Organizations for Social Services (FONSS) and member/partner organizations – are available daily to respond to a variety of needs of refugees and vulnerable host community members through an integrated case-management approach. The Nicolina centre is providing services to over 1,450 refugees from Ukraine and local residents in need of immediate relief such as accommodation and meals, and longer-term integration services such as day care, specialized psycho-social and therapeutic counselling, non-formal education for children to complement the work of the educational system, and mediation for employment.
Applying a holistic GCR approach to enhance social cohesion, the Nicolina centre also provides food and non-food items through a ‘social shop’. In addition to the registered refugees from Ukraine, over 1,300 vulnerable community members from the Iasi host community have registered as clients of the social shop. The social shop functions as more than a mere distribution point – it also provides an entry point for registering persons interested in receiving the multitude of services offered by the Nicolina Centre to refugees and in-need host community members, including for accessing employment.
With the goal of better informing inclusion measures for persons from Ukraine who have temporary protection, five national NGOs (CVEK, Nadácia Milana Šimečku, People in Need, Human Rights League, and Mareena) worked on the policy paper 'Integration of People from Ukraine”. Their recommendations highlight the importance of a whole-of-society approach, in particular involving NGOs and municipalities; coordinating inclusion activities; and focusing on specific measures related to socio-economic inclusion, such as employment, social services, housing, and access to information and legal aid, health care, and education. In line with this study, a network of national NGOs in Slovakia has mobilized and joined efforts with other actors, including local and regional authorities, to better respond to the increasing needs. A central component of these efforts is advocacy for the rights of refugees, including for refugees’ socio-economic inclusion and access to targeted services.
An integration centre in Košice, the second largest city in Slovakia, has been established by nine local organizations (DEDO Foundation, Human Rights League, Mareena, People in Need, ETP Slovensko, Všetci pre rodinu, Dorka, Oáza, and the Archdiocese Charity Košice) and the self-governing region. Through this unique collaboration, the partners aimed to ensure the best use of knowledge and resources that could address the specific needs of refugees from Ukraine, as well as others in need.
Given the increased demand for medical care among refugees, a collaboration between the Bratislava self-governing region and humanitarian actors (Equita, CARE, and UNICEF) increased access through a dedicated clinic. By employing Ukrainian healthcare workers from the refugee population, in the form of a temporary professional paid internship regime under the supervision of qualified national staff, the clinic provides primary care to refugees who live in the Bratislava Region, including the prescription of medications for chronic illnesses. In the GCR spirit, this eases the burden on Bratislava's first contact clinics, while allowing refugees to contribute to their host country and local communities.
These examples from Slovakia demonstrate that the implementation of pragmatic and people-centred activities is crucial to advancing the objectives of the GCR, in particular where solutions to pressing challenges require strong partnerships and collaboration.