As we mark the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine, what has been the impact on social services on the front line of the continuing humanitarian crisis?

In March 2022, we organised a series of conversations with our members in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries to learn about their immediate responses and challenges in the light of the arrival of millions of Ukrainian refugees on their doorstep.

This essential conversation highlighted the programmes that social services put in place, the continuing support that has been required, and helped us assessed how national and European authorities could help the work of social services in the long-term.

A year after, we have continued with our regular conversation with members in neighbouring countries like Poland and Romania, and we have learnt that social services support to Ukrainian people fleeing the war -mostly women with children- was not just about the initial response but also about overarching responses that address longer term social inclusion needs.

Promoting local partnerships

In the Municipality of Arad, Romania, the city’s social care directorate led a major network of local agencies and NGOs to buy and distribute essential products like non-perishable food, water, hygiene products or essential medicines. Needs have evolved over time; while initially accommodation was the most pressing issue, education, health and financial support have now taken centre stage.

Municipal social services highlighted that partnerships with third sector organisations have been key to be able to provide support during the past 12 months as otherwise they would not have been able to cope just with their own budget. Oana Parvulescu, director at the social care department, acknowledges that the arrival of children traumatised by the war has left its mark as they support these young children in their local centre for children with developmental difficulties. “We are sorry to see so many children affected by the trauma caused by this war. We want to ensure we provide them with a safe haven” explained Ms Parvulescu.

Jarosław Wesołowski, director of the European Social Fund department at the regional government of Silesia in Poland underlines that while the initial response of the local people was very positive, there has been a decline in enthusiasm as the war drags on. Therefore, “regional and local government together with NGOs must take further responsibility to support the social inclusion of Ukrainian refugees in a context of increasing poverty and social discontent, which makes integration even more challenging.

Integrating refugees in local labour markets

Promoting the labour market integration of Ukrainian refugees is key to their social inclusion so that they can contribute financially to the host economy and feel included in society. “At the beginning we focused on humanitarian aid, but now we are dealing with the economic consequences. Getting to know their professional qualifications and training can help us to understand better how they can contribute to the labour market” Mr. Wesołowski said. They commissioned a study on the situation of the local labour market in relation to the arrival of Ukrainian refugees in 2022 to get a better picture so that local employment officers are more effective in the professional activation of refugees and they hopefully manage to have a positive impact in their broader social integration within the local community.

Crina Moisă, inspector at the social and health care directorate of Cluj-Napoca in Romania, agrees with this assessment. Labour market integration has become a primary concern for social services in the municipality together with access to social benefits, supporting Ukrainian children in schools, access to healthcare and housing.

“Our local services offer refugees social counselling, social benefits according to their situation such as social canteens or minimum income, and we refer them to other agencies with responsibility for education, health and employment” clarified Ms Moisă.

Bringing it all together

These testimonials demonstrate that a key part of successfully integrating Ukrainian refugees in local communities across Europe involves cooperation between local services and sectors and between local and national authorities so that those working locally have access to the resources that refugees need. These include creating additional places in care and educational facilities such as nurseries, children's clubs, kindergartens and schools; providing women and children with regular psychological support to help them overcome the trauma of war; ensuring access to housing; referring them to healthcare particularly ensuring that children have the right vaccinations (including measles, polio, and even tuberculosis). Finally, social inclusion involves working across agencies so that refugees have access to a job in line with their professional qualifications so that they can stand off their feet and contribute to the local economy.

The latest episode of our podcast 'ESN Talks' also focuses on social services’ response to the crisis. Listen to the reflections of  Gabriela Schmutzer, Director General of Social Services in Bucharest 6th District, Romania and Thomasz Pactwa, Director of Welfare in Warsaw,  Poland on initiating and supporting the provision of local social services programmes for people fleeing the war.