Under the vaulted glass roof of Berlin’s central train station, specially chartered trains arrived on Wednesday evening from the Polish border city of Przemysl, carrying hundreds of refugees fleeing Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
As they disembarked, volunteers wearing yellow bibs helped the arrivals with their luggage, providing food and snacks.
Multilingual Tannoy announcements welcomed the refugees and advertising displays showed the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Dozens more locals had arrived to offer their homes to stay in.
“Kharkiv was absolutely bombed,” said Julie, 29, who fled the eastern Ukrainian city six days ago with her child as it came under heavy attack from Russian armed forces. Her parents have remained behind.
“Currently, I don’t have any connection with them – with many people I have no connection at all,” she said, adding that she was waiting to meet a contact at the station.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she said.
The scenes at the station evoke those of 2015, when Germany took in more than one million, mostly Syrian refugees, with supportive crowds greeting them as they streamed across the border.
Germany’s refugee policy stiffened in the following years due to right-wing backlash. But this week, Interior minister Nancy Faeser said Germany would help refugees “quickly and unbureaucratically”.
She also welcomed the “paradigm shift” that has seen all European Union countries agree to take refugees, including countries like Poland and Hungary, which strongly opposed admitting Syrians or Afghans in 2015.
Germany’s federal police announced on Wednesday that 5,309 refugees arriving from Ukraine have been registered, though more may have come without registering.
Since Sunday, railway company Deutsche Bahn has allowed Ukrainian nationals to travel from Poland to Germany free of charge.
Regional authorities are already rapidly expanding their capacity to host refugees, readying hostel beds and reopening emergency facilities once built for Syrians.
Berlin’s Mayor Franziska Giffey has said the capital will prepare beds for 20,000 people, while Bavaria’s Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann has spoken of accommodating between 50,000 and 100,000.
More than 800,000 people have fled Ukraine this week, according to the UNHCR, mostly to the neighbouring countries of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.
The EU is expected to announce new rules on Thursday that would allow Ukrainian nationals and permanent residents to bypass regular asylum procedures.
The proposal would grant them the right to stay and work in the bloc, as well as accessing healthcare, housing and education, for one year – or up to three, depending on the situation in Ukraine.
The situation for non-Ukrainian nationals, including the many African and Asian students who had been living in Ukraine, is less clear. They are expected to be offered help to be repatriated to their home countries.
Goodness, a 32-year-old Nigerian medical student, left Kharkiv on Sunday, travelling by car and foot with several other students to the Polish border.
“Even when they first bombed, the school authorities were still saying, one can still come back to their studies,” he said, holding a small suitcase containing all the belongings he could take.
“But … the second day, it was clear that we might lose our lives and we were obliged to leave because it was no longer safe.”
He has heard the widespread reports of racism towards non-white refugees by border officials, but he said he did not experience it.
More than 180,000 beds have already been offered to refugees by private individuals across Germany, according to the civil society campaign called #AccomodationUkraine.
On the railway platform, Karole Zeiler, whose daughter is travelling abroad for a year, held a cardboard sign offering her empty room to a woman and children.
“These are unfortunate people leaving their home country,” she said. “The least we can do is to warmly welcome them – to give them a home and food, and a bed to sleep and rest.”