Not the usual response – what can we learn from Italy’s welcome for Ukrainian refugees?

Charlotte Greener Events, Innovation, Refugees and IDPs

The way many countries provided people fleeing the war in Ukraine protection and rights was an important moment – and, says Charlotte Greener, this week’s Global Refugee Forum should take note.

A Ukrainian refugee arrives in Poland (picture Tineke D’haese/Oxfam)

This week, thousands of policymakers gather in Geneva for the Global Refugee Forum (GRF). Held every four years, the meeting will focus on the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees, a framework which, in UNHCR’s words, provides a “unique opportunity to transform the way the world responds to refugee situations, benefiting both refugees and the communities that host them.”

So how do we do that? Facing a world of rapidly increasing displacement, we think the response to those fleeing the war in Ukraine offers important food for thought for refugee responders everywhere. The welcoming response to Ukrainian refugees that we have seen in many countries builds on years of evidence – mostly from the global South, where the vast majority of refugees are hosted – of how countries can and should extend protection and rights to people who are forced to flee.

One example of the interesting lessons to be drawn from the Ukraine refugee response, explored in a new report [in Italian] by Oxfam Italia, is the way Italy has facilitated the safe reception of Ukrainian refugees – and the way this reception has looked quite different to business as usual.

A landmark moment for refugee rights?

Since February 2022, millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes to escape situations of extreme danger and deprivation – where bombs fall on houses, and attacks on civilian infrastructure have left people without access to water, electricity, or heating. People who have fled Ukraine continue to face the ongoing challenges of forced displacement, as well as the pain of a homeland at war – but by seeking protection elsewhere, many have found safety from the destructive path of conflict.

‘In Florence, Ukrainians stand in a line on the left… under a canopy to protect them from the bright sun. The other nationalities stand in line on the right for whole days and nights, sitting on the pavement… without any shelter’

These differences hold lessons for policymakers on how to improve the effectiveness of other refugee responses, and demand the question – if our approaches to reception for people fleeing Ukraine have worked, why aren’t we applying them to other refugees?

Temporary protection – a different approach to displacement in the EU

Just ten days after the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, the EU Council activated the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) for the first time ever, over 20 years after the Directive was created.

With a stroke of a pen, that Directive gave millions of people in EU countries access not only to protection from war, but also to a range of essential rights – including access to the labour market, housing, medical assistance, social welfare, and education for children.

While many refugees from Ukraine settled in bordering countries like Poland, the terms of the TPD also made it possible for them to move on to other EU countries – enabling over 185,000 refugees from Ukraine to apply for temporary protection in Italy.

The use of the TPD, which granted protection collectively, also eliminated the need for individual assessment for those fleeing Ukraine to prove their need for protection – processes which, in Italy, are long and often challenging to access for asylum seekers.

Welcome as this obviously was, it has led to some stark differences between the treatment of Ukrainian and other refugees. Chiara Trevisani, a legal aid worker at Oxfam, explains: “In front of the Questura [police headquarters] in Florence, Ukrainians stand in a line on the left, together with Italians who need to renew their passports, under a canopy to protect them from the bright sun. The other nationalities stand in line on the right for whole days and nights, sitting on the pavement… Without any shelter, with no idea when, and especially if, they will be allowed to enter and apply for asylum.”

Different receptions for different people

The differences are also apparent in the reception refugees receive. Reception conditions for non-Ukrainians seeking refuge in Italy have been a perennial problem, with several European courts finding reception facilities insufficient or conditions to be inhuman and degrading. Most asylum seekers are initially accommodated in overloaded “hotspot” centres, while many end up on the streets. Asylum seekers are then usually transferred to “CAS” centres – which, despite being called “Centres of Extraordinary Reception”, in fact make up almost 80% of reception facilities in the country, where people sometimes stay for years at a time. 

But the Italian government has found more innovative ways of housing Ukrainians – at times leveraging the existing system, but also implementing new types of housing and support. New provisions for “diffused” reception provided up to 30,000 Ukrainians with reception in flats or small centres, as well as a “livelihoods contribution” – a monthly payment of about 300€ per person for a period of three months – was introduced which supported many other Ukrainian refugees to live independently.

‘I had never seen anything like this’

Natalia Maksymchuk, in Oxfam’s mobile team in Tuscany, says such a set-up was unprecedented in her experience “Schools got organised immediately, they found mediators, they translated all the material, everything in the shortest time… I had never seen anything like this.”

The national government also took greater responsibility for supporting and coordinating the response to displaced Ukrainians. A committee at the national level was created to manage relief and assistance, an online platform was created by the Civil Protection Department to promote and coordinate offers of help from the Italian public, and an annual financial contribution was established for municipalities hosting a significant number of Ukrainians. No such initiatives exist regarding other asylum seekers and refugees.

Exposing weaknesses in the protection system for Ukrainians too

But not all the lessons from the Ukraine refugee response come from positive changes – in some cases, we can see persistent weaknesses in the way we respond to refugee crises that have affected Ukrainians too.

For instance, despite a willingness to find new solutions to house refugees coming from Ukraine, there are still gaps in the Italian accommodation system, especially for families, children, and people with health vulnerabilities.

Fuad Mohamed Ibrahim Ahmed Kishk, protection officer for Oxfam’s Rome mobile team, explains: “We had a family made up of five women and an elderly man: they couldn’t stay in a female CAS [reception centre], much less in a male one. It took months to find a place for them. And now there is a single father with his 13-year-old daughter, and no one knows where to put them.”

There are also challenges to a refugee response based heavily on individual solidarity. While many Italians generously welcomed Ukrainian refugees into their own homes, after several months many Ukrainians found they had to seek out government-provided housing – either because they lacked access to the support they needed in private accommodation, or because cohabitation was not sustainable.

Learning the lessons of the Ukraine response

Nonetheless, as a country whose successive governments have increasingly been apparently unable – or unwilling – to adequately receive those seeking international protection, Italy’s response to Ukrainian refugees provides a striking example of the possible solutions to refugee protection challenges, where there is political will.

And while many at the GRF may see their own response to Ukrainian refugees as an opportunity for self-congratulation, at this critical junction, we need to make sure that we apply the lessons from the Ukrainian refugee response, as well as other large-scale refugee responses in the global South – both their successes and continued gaps – to improve the way we approach responses to all refugees.


Charlotte Greener

Charlotte Greener is Policy and Advocacy Advisor at Oxfam’s Ukraine Programme Management Unit in Poland.

This is the one of two blogs this week for the Global Refugee Forum. Read the other one: What do refugees from across Africa want to tell the global forum?
Find out more about Oxfam’s work with refugee-led organisations in our new paper: Oxfam’s Engagement with Refugee-led Organisations in West Nile (Uganda): Lessons on opportunities and challenges