When it became clear to Lillia Fomina that the war raging outside her hometown of Zaporizhzhia would continue not just for days, but months or even years, she decided that she wanted to flee to the UK. A sponsor in Windsor was found, and on 18 March the 29-year-old applied for a British visa for herself and her five-year-old son Lev.
The pair sheltered with friends of friends in a village near Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine, and waited: one week, two weeks, three weeks. By the time her visa finally came through, after almost a month of uncertainty, the trained lawyer had changed her mind.
Instead of boarding a flight to Britain, Fomina and Lev travelled by coach and train to Berlin, where she had found a family via a Facebook group who had agreed to house them for six months.
The journey took 32 hours. Less than 12 hours after arriving in the German capital last Monday night, she had obtained a provisional residence permit, got hold of a free sim card for her phone, opened a bank account, and found a free place at a church-run nursery for Lev, who is named after the Russian writer Tolstoy.
By the end of the week, Fomina had also obtained German health insurance and been handed the first instalment of a monthly benefits payment of €616 (£516) for her and her son, as well as a one-off €294 payment to buy new clothes, all in cash.
“The word of mouth on Ukrainian Telegram [social media] groups was that it would be much easier to integrate into German than British society,” Fomina told the Observer. “Our British sponsors seemed very friendly and willing to help, but there was very little available information about the benefits system or how easy it would be to find work. “After four days in Berlin, I’m 100% sure I made the right decision.”
Seven years ago, Germany’s “refugee crisis” caught the attention of the world, when Angela Merkel’s government opened its borders to an influx of asylum seekers, most of them fleeing the war in Syria, triggering a rightwing backlash that saw the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) enter parliament for the first time.
In the first two months of Russia’s war aggression, 390,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Germany – more than twice the number of Syrians who were registered with Germany’s quota system in September and October 2015. Yet this time the word “crisis” is nowhere to be heard.
Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine has seen Germany’s government dithering over shipments of arms and an embargo on Russian energy imports, to the frustration of its European allies. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has at times looked more concerned with respecting the doveish traditions of his centre-left party and heeding pleas of German industry than addressing a rapidly changing geopolitical situation.
But in its dealings with an unprecedented influx of newcomers from Ukraine, Europe’s largest economy has been uncharacteristically unbureaucratic, drama-free and outward-looking.
The number of arrivals in Germany is dwarfed by those in countries directly on Ukraine’s borders – especially Poland, where more people have found a shelter from the war than all other European countries combined.
Yet in Lillia Fomina’s Telegram groups there are many Ukrainians in Poland voicing concerns they could get trapped in poorly paid menial jobs, and the expectation is that many of her compatriots will make use of the EU’s 90-day visa waiver to move further west.
Going by national government’s official numbers, Germany is their most likely destination: more Ukrainians (almost 400,000) are already here than in other large European states such as France (51,000), Italy, (about 100,000) and Spain (135,000). Britain, outside the EU and with a slow-moving visa system in place, has taken in only about 27,000, although 86,000 visas have been granted.
Unlike the Syrians who arrived in 2015, Ukrainians in Germany do not have to apply for asylum but can obtain a quick residence permit valid for up to three years, thanks to the previously unused paragraph 24 of the German residence act.
Unless they opt for Berlin, which relocates those who haven’t found accommodation in the city for at least six months before they arrive to other parts of the country, they are free to choose where to live, and can start working almost immediately. Those in non-regulated professions such as the care sector are likely to have their qualifications recognised without having to prove them in an exam.
The overhauled system has helped people like Alina Shchukina, 35, who left Kharkiv with her eight-year-old son amid heavy shelling on 3 March. Within two weeks of arriving in Berlin, her host family had helped her get an interview to be a legal assistant a corporate law firm. The job offer arrived on the same day.
“I was genuinely surprised because everything happened so quickly,” she said. “Germany makes it very easy to Ukrainians to get benefits. But I couldn’t have sat around waiting for the war to end. I am not that kind of person.”
Activists who have spent years campaigning for a reform of Germany’s immigration and asylum laws are delighted. “Instead of looking at these refugees only as victims who are expected to return to their homeland as soon as they can, there’s a genuine effort to integrate them into the labour market,” said Katarina Niewiedzial, Berlin senate’s integration officer. “I dare not say it, but I think we’re witnessing a paradigm change.”
The change is especially surprising because immigration authorities appeared to have been caught by surprise by the outbreak of a war that had been threatened for months. When thousands of Ukrainian refugees started arriving at Berlin central station in early March, volunteers complained they had been left to shoulder the burden.
Andreas Ahrens, a pensioner from Hamburg, opened up his late father’s home in the northern German city’s outskirts to a group of Ukrainians in mid-March. “We didn’t have to think about it for long: it was a decision we made within a few minutes,” he said. “Syria and Afghanistan, those places feel very far away, but Ukraine is right on our doorstep.”
For other Germans, religion, ethnicity and gender may also have been factors making them more willing to share their living space with refugees than in 2015.
Seven years ago, two-thirds of asylum applicants in Germany were male, even though the gender balance among Syrian refugees in Germany has recently tipped the other way. Of the newly arrived adult Ukrainians who are receiving benefits in Germany this year, 83% are female.
For the last two years of his life, Ahrens’s father had lived in the four-storey house on his own – as of last month, it provides a home to five mothers and eight children.
“Whenever I walk around the neighbourhood now, I can’t stop noticing how many houses in our neighbourhood are standing empty and could shelter more people,” he added. “It’s madness.”
Finding empty homes to permanently house the Ukrainian diaspora is going to be a challenge, especially in large German cities that are already suffering a chronic housing shortage, such as Berlin. Unlike the Syrians and Afghans who arrived before, Ukrainian passport-holders are not bound to the municipalities they have been allocated to, but can vote with their feet where they want to live and work.
“The immigration system that Germany has developed for Ukrainian refugees is in many ways a desired outcome,” said Peter von Auer, a legal adviser to refugee rights advocacy group Pro Asyl. “We’ve spent years arguing that free choice creates a fairer system.”
Tarek Alkouatly, 23, arrived in Germany from eastern Ghouta in October 2015, fleeing the war in Syria as an unaccompanied minor. After his arrival, he spent a night at Dortmund’s Fritz-Henßler-Haus, a youth centre repurposed as a temporary refugee shelter.
Seven years later, Alkouatly is back at the same centre, this time as a volunteer, helping Ukrainians fill out forms in bureaucratic German and transporting food and blankets in his seven-seater car.
“I came to Germany without speaking the language, and that was at times extremely stressful,” said the Syrian, who is currently completing his secondary school education while working as a courier in the evenings. “Now that I speak German, I see it as my duty to help.”
“Ukrainians have seen war, bombs and death like us, wrought by the same enemy. If you’ve only seen war on TV you might want to help them, but not as strongly as when you’ve experienced it yourself.”
Asked how he felt about Ukrainians being able to participate in German society without having to overcome some of the same the legal and bureaucratic hurdles that faced him and his compatriots, Alkouatly said: “If I am being really honest, it can feel a bit unfair sometimes.
“But of course I am happy they have fewer problems. It would just be nice if that was the same experience of all those fleeing war in the future.”