PRAGUE — A steady rain turned the field in a leafy Prague district where rows of tents temporarily house refugees from Ukraine into a quagmire.
Svitlana Pisarskaya and her special-needs son decided to leave the mud, puddles, and packed tents behind, at least temporarily, making the journey on tram to the city’s main train station, where a team of mostly Czech volunteers are on hand to provide help .
“The conditions at the camp are terrible. There’s mud and big puddles everywhere. Several families are packed into a tent. That’s no way to live,” Pisarskaya stated bluntly to RFE/RL, complaining that official help is lacking.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 triggered one of the world’s worst refugee crises since World War II, with millions fleeing the brutal Russian onslaught.
More than 413,000 refugees from Ukraine — mostly women and children — were recorded in the Czech Republic as of August 16, according to recent dates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Most have been greeted with goodwill. For many in the Czech Republic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stirred memories of 1968 when the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact sent some 200,000 troops and 5,000 tanks into then-Czechoslovakia to crush the liberal-reform movement known as the Prague Spring. But with fewer refugees now entering the country, Czech government aid and, in some cases, goodwill, is drying up, leaving many refugees in limbo.
Prague has backed Kyiv both politically and militarily. Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala visited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on March 15 along with his Polish and Slovenian counterparts. At the time, it was the first such visit by foreign leaders since the Russian invasion began.
The Czech Republic has made managing the refugee crisis and Ukraine’s postwar recovery top priorities during its current six month EU presidency.
Czechs have dipped deep into their pockets to help as well, donating at least more than 2 billion crowns (some $80.7 million), surpassing amounts collected in the past after natural or other disasters.
Since the early days of the conflict, when the numbers were massive, the flow of refugees into the Czech Republic has turned into a relative trickle.
Not only are those figures down, so too is some of the aid the refugees receive from the Czech government. In June, parliament cut refugee social benefits and Prague closed, temporarily, a key refugee center in the capital amid right-wing populist claims that some refugees from Ukraine, namely Roma, were indulging in “benefit tourism.”
Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib also announced in June that the Czech capital will no longer offer accommodation to refugees, outside the temporary tent facilities now available only at Troja, the leafy district of Prague where Pisarskaya and her son have been staying for weeks now.
“They’ve told us to find housing ourselves, but we don’t know Prague. We don’t know the language. How can we find housing ourselves?” Pisarskaya, 60, asked, adding that accommodation had been offered in Rumburk, a city in northern Bohemia that she didn’t know and in which she hadn’t expressed much interest in living.
Pisarskaya and her 26-year-old son, Viktor, fled more than two months ago from her hometown of Kremenchuk. The city in central Ukraine grabbed global attention on June 28 when a Russian missile strike targeted a crowded shopping center there, killing 18 people and wounding at least 60 more.
“Thirty percent of the city is left. The rest has been bombed. Our home is gone,” said Pisarskaya, who had fled by the time of the shopping mall attack.
For those fleeing the Russian invasion, most head for Prague, where jobs are easier to secure.
In June, officials in the Czech capital said the city was unable to cope with the number of refugees and had to close the main processing center. (The center reopened again in July.) Mayor Hrib said at the time that such a move was needed to encourage Ukrainians to spread out to smaller towns in the Czech Republic, at a time when public sympathy was appearing to wane.
Czech public “solidarity” with the plight of the refugees appeared to be “dropping,” according to Vendula Fortova, a volunteer with the Iniciativa Hlavak, an NGO providing help to refugees from Ukraine at the main train station and elsewhere.
“We face abuse as well. Not too long ago, one person regularly came here and was aggressive, yelling at us for helping the refugees,” Fortova, a 20-year-old university student, said amid the bustle of travelers rushing to get to their trains.
One of those refugees is Olena Tilnova and her 11-year-old son Daniel. Tilnova, 40, fled her hometown of Dnipro five months ago, traveling by car and train through Poland to the Czech Republic.
“I literally saw four bombs fall not far from my home and decided at that moment to get out,” Tilnova told RFE/RL.
Her time since then has had its fill of ups and downs. In the early days, she traveled to France, Montpellier, to be exact, where she had friends who had settled there after fleeing the fighting back home. “I didn’t like it there. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. I just didn’t feel comfortable in France,” Tilnova said.
“I feel better here, more at home. The people are wonderful here,” she said about the Czech Republic, although she is struggling to find work. “Work is a problem. Language is a problem,” she said, as she and her son rush to catch a train to visit friends in central Bohemia.
Luckily, her son is enrolled in school in Prague, something she is grateful for. “Others are having problems enrolling their kids in school here now.”
One of her biggest concerns is health insurance, which is no longer guaranteed in the Czech Republic. “I don’t have any health insurance now and it’s a concern since I need treatment for cancer.”
In June, the Czech parliament approved stricter rules in an amendment to the so-called Lex Ukrainelegislation covering Ukrainian refugees residing in the Czech Republic.
According to the amendment, the state would cover health insurance for refugees for a maximum of 150 days (except for children and the elderly). Also, refugees receiving free accommodation and food were no longer eligible to receive state support of 5,000 crowns (about $200) per month.
The measures, in part, were meant “to motivate people to enter the labor market and to actively take care of themselves,” Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan explained.
Elsewhere, Rakusan said, “nearly 77,000 [people]” had found workproving, he said at the time, that the Ukrainian refugees were not here to “abuse the social-welfare system.”
Tomio Okamura, the head of the far-right opposition Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, accused the government of passing the Lex Ukraine amendments too late. “Inadaptable migrants are being deployed against the will of the population,” Okamura said, using a phrase the Czech right typically uses for Roma.
Czech officials argued that many Romany arrivals did not qualify for refugee status because they are EU citizens holding dual Ukrainian-Hungarian nationality.
Robert Horvat, a 40-year-old Roma from Berehove in western Ukraine, near the border with Hungary, said he was blocked from joining his family at the tent camp at Troja because his refugee visa wasn’t ready.
“They didn’t let me in even though my wife and kids were there,” Horvat told RFE/RL. He was hoping for help to take him, his pregnant wife, and six children to join a brother in Sommerda, a town in Germany’s central Thuringia region.
Horvat said he left Berehove fearing he could be conscripted into the army, although he said he would likely be exempted. Since Zelenskiy declared martial law at the start of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are eligible for military service and are forbidden from leaving the country. There are a few exceptions such as men with poor health, or fathers of three or more children.
At Prague’s main train station, Oleksandr, who preferred not to give his last name, had no plans to stay in the Czech Republic, hoping to find work instead in Germany. “I have a ticket to Berlin, but can’t find (the train]on the [departure] board,” complained the 64-year-old from the Odesa region, who arrived in the Czech capital just a day earlier after a grueling journey by car and train.
Asked why he had left Ukraine now, Oleksandr was blunt. “My house was bombed and so were three others nearby,” he said, almost matter-of-factly.
Helping with train passage to Germany, Poland, or even back home to Ukraine are some of the main tasks Fortova and other volunteers of Iniciativa Hlavak undertake, but she admits that the NGO has little in the way of finance to provide more aid.
“We just don’t have the money to help when people ask for help, for example, getting train tickets,” lamented Fortova, adding that city-funded assistance at the train station finished at the end of May.
“There used to be 120 places upstairs that offered mothers with children a place to sleep, but that’s gone too,” added Nadia Fedenets, a Ukrainian who has been living in Prague for 27 years, who volunteers for the Czech NGO. “There are fewer people here now…than back in May,” interjected Fortova.
The number of Czechs willing to help Ukrainian refugees has droppeda public opinion survey published on June 30 suggested, showing a growing number of people more worried with economic woes, in part fueled by the conflict and EU efforts to wean the bloc off its dependence on Russian natural gas and oil.
“People don’t view the conflict with the same interest anymore,” Fortova explained. “The conflict has been going on for a relatively long time for many here and their attention, their solidarity, is dropping.”
Asked what she thought of an apparent drop in public support for people like herself, Pisarskaya fired back a quick response. “Let them just imagine for a moment being in the situation we are in today.”
Text and reporting by RFE/RL features writer Tony Wesolowsky; photos by senior photo editor Lucie Steinzova