When home is a ferry: Influx from Ukraine puts strain on Europe

The Isabelle’s 7-deck duty-free shop has been transformed into a storage locker and pantry, with suitcases crammed into the perfume sect...


The Isabelle’s 7-deck duty-free shop has been transformed into a storage locker and pantry, with suitcases crammed into the perfume section and refrigerated display cases filled with labeled grocery bags. The ship’s enclosed casino has become a favorite hangout for teenagers. And the Starlight Palace nightclub on Deck 8 is where women gather to make camouflage nets for Ukrainian soldiers back home.

“It makes me feel closer to them,” Diana Kotsenko said as she tied strips of green, tan and maroon fabric to a netting stretched over a metal frame, her 2-year-old Emiliia tugging on her lap .

For the past three months, Ms Kotsenko and her daughter have been living on the Isabella, a 561ft cruise ship rented by the Estonian government to temporarily house some of the over 48,000 refugees who have arrived in this small Baltic country since the Russians invaded Ukraine in February.

The ship, which once carried overnight passengers between Stockholm and Riga, Latvia, is now docked next to Terminal A in the port city of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Her 664 cabins house around 1,900 people, mostly women and children who come and go as they please through the ship’s cavernous cargo door.

Residents are only a tiny fraction of the more than 6.3 million Ukrainians who flocked to Europe. Their fate is a sign of the tensions that the flow of refugees exerts on the countries that have mainly welcomed them.

Isabelle was leased to an Estonian shipping company, Tallink, in April for four months as an emergency shelter. But with nowhere to place its residents, the government extended the contract until October.

The housing shortage for refugees is creating intense pressure across the continent and Britain. Social housing is scarce and rents are rising.

In Scotland, the government announced last month that it was suspend one’s program to sponsor Ukrainian refugees due to lack of housing. In the Netherlands, dozens of refugees sleep on the grass outside an overcrowded asylum center in the village of Ter Apel. Monday, the Dutch Refugee Council announced its intention to sue the government for accommodation conditions which it claimed were below the minimum legal standard.

According to a new report from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The problem of finding longer-term accommodation is only likely to get worse given rising inflation, the report concludes.

“Early evidence also suggests that lack of housing is the main motivation for refugees to return to Ukraine, despite security risks,” he said.

Governments – which were already struggling to house refugees and asylum seekers from other parts of the world – set up emergency reception facilities, rented hotels and provided financial support to households in welcome. But with the overflow of reception centers, countries have been forced to scramble to find other solutions. Schools, hostels, sports stadiums, cargo containers, tents and even cruise ships have become temporary accommodations.

In Estonia, the government enlisted Tallink, which had leased its ships in the past as temporary accommodation for construction projects, military personnel and events. One housed police officers during a Group of 7 meeting in Britain last year. Another was chartered at the World Climate Conference in Glasgow last fall.

The Scottish government turned to Tallink when it faced its own refugee housing crisis, and last week the first group of Ukrainians moved in a Tallink ship moored in Edinburgh Harbour.

The Netherlands also uses cruise ships. In April, 1,500 refugees boarded a Holland America Line ship docked in Rotterdam. Last week, the government asylum agency announced its intention to charter two additional ships of Tallink for seven months.

Floating solutions have been met with skepticism and even hostility in some quarters. Prior to the arrival of the ship Tallink in Scotland, some news accounts breathlessly warned of the risks of a Covid-19 epidemic.

The Dutch government has come under heavy criticism for a proposal now abandoned to put refugees on a ship anchored offshore in open water, making it difficult for people to disembark.

In Tallinn, the Isabelle had been out of service due to travel restrictions since the start of the pandemic in 2020 before being made available to refugees. Natalie Shevchenko has lived there since April. She looked for an apartment in town but was unable to find one she could afford.

A psychologist from Kyiv, Ms. Shevchenko has worked with mothers and children on board, helping them adjust.

“When you live on a ship, it’s like a big community,” she said.

Recently, a steady stream of people have entered or exited the ship after a brief break at the security desk to scan their IDs. On deck 8, the guests lingered over a coffee at the Grand Buffet. “The food is good,” Ms. Shevchenko said. “There are a lot of desserts, cakes and ice cream.”

In a lounge area, a dozen people seated in front of a television set are watching news from Ukraine. Clashes of talkative teenagers roamed the long terraces or sprawled on chairs near the casino’s empty blackjack tables. Two stories below, near the staircase where the strollers were parked, children sprawled on the blue and white carpet to play games, while two giggling boys slid down a short brass railing under the watchful eyes of mothers.

Volunteers donated toys, clothes and prams and organized activities and excursions. On deck 10, refugees can meet social workers. Billboards around the ship were filled with announcements in Ukrainian about summer camp, free exhibits, and language and culture classes. The newly named Freedom School is expected to start Ukrainian and Estonian language classes in the fall. Players from an Estonian football club joined last weekend to lead a training clinic.

When Mrs. Shevchenko needs solitude, she escapes to one of the lower car decks. She shares a claustrophobic cubicle and bathroom on the sixth floor with another woman she previously didn’t know. The space between the beds is narrower than an airplane aisle. Bags, shoes and boxes are stuffed under the beds. A white rope criss-crosses the walls to hang laundry.

“This is our kitchen,” Ms. Shevchenko said, laughingly pointing to a shelf with water and soda bottles. A pot of flowers, a present for her recent 34th birthday from the Estonian psychologists she works with, sits on the windowsill.

“We’re lucky to have a window,” she says. Some cabins on lower decks do not have one. This is a problem for people who have had to take shelter underground in Ukraine, she said: “Some people have panic attacks.”

A few doors down is the cabin that Olga Vasilieva and her 6-year-old son share with another mother and son. The two women use the upper bunk beds unfolded to store toys, bags and snacks, and sleep with their children in the narrow beds below. Larger cabins are reserved for families with three or more children.

One of the benefits of living with so many other families is that there are lots of children to play with. “He has so many friends,” Ms Vasilieva said, turning to Ms Shevchenko to translate.

Ms Vasilieva wants to return home before the start of the school year, but so far it has not been safe. Although she had two jobs in Ukraine, Ms Vasilieva said, she is not working now because she has no one to take care of her son. She said she receives around 400 euros per month from the Estonian government. Around 100 refugees work for Tallink, in kitchen and cleaning jobs. Others have found jobs in town.

Inna Aristova, 54, and her husband, Hryhorii Akinzhely, 64, who arrived in May after a hard walk from Melitopol, work in a laundry sorting sheets and towels. They were unable to find an affordable apartment.

“I feel like a guest in this country,” Ms Aristova said, “not at home.”

Tears filled her eyes. Her most acute anxieties center on her 21-year-old son, who is in the military. She doesn’t know where he is, just to be on the safe side, but they try to text or talk as often as possible.

“He’s so young,” she said. “Every day I think of him.” Ms. Shevchenko, who was translating, leaned over to kiss her.

At Starlight Palace, Ms Kotsenko and a handful of mothers and teenage girls worked on the camouflage netting, cutting strips of fabric and tying them. Once completed, the cover will be sent to the Kherson region in southeastern Ukraine to hide the tanks from Russian bombers.

Ms. Kotsenko also does not know where her husband is stationed in Ukraine. She and her daughter escaped from the besieged city of Mykolaiv.

Another woman from the same town pulled out her phone to show Mykolaiv on a map. An animated red burst marked the spot, indicating heavy fighting.

She had just received a long text from her neighbor with a series of photos showing bloodied corpses of people and dogs lying in the streets, killed by Russian shells that morning.

Some of the women Ms. Shevchenko counseled told her that they had decided to return to Ukraine. But, she says, what “you dream of your home” may not be the reality.

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Newsrust - US Top News: When home is a ferry: Influx from Ukraine puts strain on Europe
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