On the top floor of Berlin’s central railway station, hundreds of Ukrainian refugees arrive on the 9:51 am train from Wrocław.
As the doors open, a woman immediately stumbles and falls to the floor, hitting her head. Startled German volunteers wearing hi-vis jackets and other passengers pick her up and gather her scattered belongings whilst a pre-recorded announcement echoes through the station: “Germany welcomes Ukrainian refugees”.
I’m waiting to meet a friend who has spent over a week trying to get to Germany from Kyiv, first travelling to Budapest and then to Wrocław, where a free direct train to Berlin is available for Ukrainian citizens.
It’s impossible to see her amongst the waves of refugees and volunteers crowding the platform. Over 13,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Berlin in the last week, part of the 2.5mn who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24. The majority are women and children, bleary-eyed from the 5 am departure and the gruelling journey through Europe.
For now, Berliners welcome Ukrainians with open arms, many reminded of the images from World War 2. Citizens and businesses have rallied together during the most portentous moment in 21st century Europe, offering free accommodation, donating clothes and organising supply trucks to the Poland-Ukraine border. Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national railway company, announced that all Ukrainian nationals can travel for free within the country throughout March, including Berlin’s public transport.
However, Berlin is just witnessing the tip of the iceberg. The UN estimates 5mn people will leave Ukraine as the war shows no sign of slowing down. Fighting is intensifying in certain regions and although Russian troops are taking “heavy losses”, they are making progress, a source in East Ukraine told bne IntelliNews.
Very soon, the European Union will be overwhelmed, sowing the seeds of discontent that Russian President Vladimir Putin will exploit with similar propaganda that fuelled polarisation during the Syrian refugee crisis.
“We have reached a point where we need 1,000 beds every evening,” Berlin’s mayor Franziska Giffey said, according to The Irish Times. “As a city, Berlin has been really hit by this situation, more than other federal states, and can expect the support of federal partners.”
Although Giffey is unsure how many refugees will arrive in Berlin, some estimations now put the number of daily arrivals at 10,000.
Most have fled to neighbouring countries: 1.5mn in Poland, 215,000 in Hungary, 165,000 in Slovakia, 84,600 in Romania and almost 83,000 in Moldova, although many cross over to the EU, Radio Free Europe reports.
Another mass refugee crisis may be exactly what Putin needs to fragment Europe once again, after a surprising display of unity. Refugees from Asia and Africa have already been used as pawns by Putin’s closest ally Belarusian President Lukashenko, who manufactured a crisis on the Poland-Belarus border last year.
For now, it is predominantly women, children and the elderly who have left Ukraine, as men between the ages of 18-60 must stay in the country to fight. As such, Ukrainians have garnered more sympathy from Europeans compared to Asian and African refugees, many of whom are young men and perceived as threatening by right-wing media and politicians. Moreover, Ukrainians being white and predominantly Christian has also plays a major role in Europe’s empathetic response.
However, as more Ukrainian refugees settle in the EU, skin colour and religious similarities won’t be enough to squeeze out long-term compassion and empathy.
Already frustrations at the unequal distribution of refugees are being seen on social media.
One Polish Twitter account wrote: “In Poland, we received 1.5mn refugees from Ukraine in just a few days! The Germans are [dealing with] several thousand and they are already complaining.”
Another Twitter user from the UK suggested that Ukrainians should stay in neighbouring countries instead of travelling to Western Europe.
Responding to a question about what to do with the refugee influx, he wrote: “You pump aid money for refugee provision in the safe countries neighbouring Ukraine. All of whom are EU member states. Poland, Slovakia, Hungary etc.”
Although in the minority at the moment, similar xenophobic rhetoric that plagued Europe during the Syrian refugee crisis is resurfacing. Putin will take this opportunity to launch a vitriolic propaganda campaign that exploits the instability in Europe whilst portraying the EU in a negative light.
During the Syrian refugee crisis, the Kremlin accused the EU of building concentration camps, and in another suggested that Germany was hiding statistics that showed crime rates were up because of refugees.
After eventually finding my friend, she mentioned how tension towards Ukrainians is already noticeable in Hungary. Whilst waiting in a cafe before her journey to Wrocław, the manager treated her rudely, forbidding her to sit upstairs, and despite it only being early evening, warned that she must leave by 22:00.
“She thought we were going to try and sleep there,” my friend tells me.
Moreover, as the cost of living increases, with oil and wheat prices soaring due to the war, resentment is likely to percolate through all EU countries and Europe’s sanguine solidarity will soon shatter. Europeans facing a sudden drop in their standard of living may not be content with their governments pumping billions of euros into refugee programmes.
Poland has already pledged a €1.6bn refugee fund. Yet it is Polish citizens that are likely to turn against Ukrainians first as they face the brunt of the crisis. Already the country is overwhelmed.
"The scale is huge ... and it's not a question of whether the Polish people want to help or not, it's a question of whether they still can. Resources are running out," Grzegorz Patyk, a Polish volunteer, told Aol.
Germany could soon face a similar scenario and may see a repeat of the 2015 crisis that fuelled the rise of the far-right, anti-immigration AfD party.
For now, Ukrainian flags continue to hang from balconies across Berlin and Instagram posts offering accommodation are still doing the rounds.
However, Deutsche Bahn is only providing free travel until the end of March. From April, many Ukrainians will remain in the capital instead of travelling on to Düsseldorf, Stuttgart or Magdeburg, and the discussion of which federal states are responsible for the refugees will intensify.
As I leave Berlin’s central station, I notice two police officers tending to the woman who fell. She presses a bandage to her head as she sits slumped on a bench, a small group of volunteers stands nearby.
For now, the bright-eyed, eager to help volunteers fill the station, offering assistance, food and clothing. When I come back in April to meet another friend from Kyiv, I wonder if they will still be there or if the next exhausted woman to collapse will be forced to look after herself.