Signage in the Ragsved Civic Centre
Big purple signs show users activities they can do for themselves, for example - seek information, search the internet or fill in forms. The advisors take the backseat with discreet, transparent signs.

Written by Tamsin Koumis

As Ukrainian refugees make their way to cities across Europe, cities are developing humane and creative responses to support them, and existing services are being tested and challenged. During a recent visit as part of the EU-funded CONNECTION project in Stockholm, we looked at cities’ ‘first responses’ to support new arrivals, and gained new insight into refining the ‘One Stop Shop’ model – a model which has been proven to be central to effective crisis response.

In Cluj-Napoca (Romania), a small city with 324,000 residents, more than 3000 Ukrainians were accommodated within the first week after the war began. Beds have been set up at the train station so that refugees passing through can rest before continuing their onwards journey. They can have free hot food, and if they want to stay in the city, they will be supported with accommodation, food, and subsidies if hosted by a local, and they are permitted to work and their children to attend school. A specialist agency has been appointed to support Ukrainians in finding work. Alongside this, the city opened various phone lines to support refugees – one focused on translation and assistance, one focused on accommodation. These measures are just a few of those the city has implemented – the list is long, and generous, and shows how a city can come together, adapt, and develop creative offerings in order to support people fleeing a crisis.

The City of Dortmund (Germany) has spent the past few years developing plans for a new One Stop Shop (a space offering multiple services for migrants under one roof) which, fortuitously, opened just one day before the Ukrainian war began – its relevance was immediately felt by the city. The team had to quickly adapt and did so by setting up temporary info points run by multi-lingual staff; mobilising additional multi-lingual workers; and quickly collating and translating relevant information which was distributed throughout the relevant networks. The team also gathered data on the numbers of migrants arriving, in order to help plan an appropriate response.

Dortmund’s example highlighted the importance of flexible language support, and the One Stop Shop were glad they had implemented digital interpretation devices, which enabled them to access Ukrainian interpreters immediately, without having to spend time recruiting locally. Whilst digital interpretation may not be the best for building trust or for talking about sensitive issues, it does offer critical responsiveness in times of crisis, which in this instance was key.

Dortmund’s timely opening of the One Stop Shop demonstrates how establishing effective services pays off in moments of crisis. Having staff, networks, and procedures in place to welcome and integrate migrants enabled the Dortmund team to make adaptations rather than having to develop entirely new systems. Similarly, Cluj-Napoca’s prior strategizing and planning around the development of their One Stop Shop strengthen the communication channels between different city actors and built a shared understanding of the city’s approach towards migration. The cohesive response in Cluj-Napoca was a credit to the work the city has done in defining its ‘migration positive’ outlook.

Designing flexible services in times of peace enables the fine-tuning of services which can then be tested and adapted during crises. Stockholm’s carefully designed Civic Office in Rågsved neighbourhood held a number of light-bulb moments of inspiration for the visiting cities. The centre is designed with an empowerment lens, aimed at educating migrants who use the service so that they develop their independence and ability to complete tasks for themselves. With a focus on learning, the physical space was designed with colourful speech bubbles to guide users around activities that they can complete themselves. At service desks, staff screens are shared with users and have two sets of keyboards so that users can complete their own information, only calling on staff when needed. Simple guides show ‘how to’ navigate services, and staff are trained as adult educators.

Two keyboards and a shared screen at the Ragsved Civic Centre

Of course, service attributes such as these are not always relevant, possible, or priority in instances of creating emergency response services. However, if having carefully designed services leads to increased independence of migrants, then this can also be drawn upon in moments of crisis. Fostering independence of even the newest arrivals can serve both refugees and the city – as we see in Cluj-Napoca’s example, where Ukrainians have already found employment opportunities locally, benefitting both the city and the refugees themselves. There is huge potential for positive change and growth within a city when migrants are welcomed and supported to develop real independence.

The CONNECTION project, led by Eurocities and co-financed by the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, promotes transnational learning about and implementation of integration policies.