From a Ukraine Response to Building Inclusive Societies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)

From a Ukraine Response to Building Inclusive Societies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)

Two years from the invasion of Ukraine and the resulting displacement into CEE, the need of the hour is to pivot to a long-term approach of creating inclusive societies in the region, building upon the solidarity displayed by host populations and the collaboration established between civil society, government and other actors including the private sector. 

A Brief Background 

The countries bordering Ukraine and their neighbours in the CEE region have taken in millions of displaced people since February 2022. Over the last two years, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova have seen significant population growth and have struggled to find ways to include refugees effectively and sustainably into their societies, as they come to terms with the housing, employment, educational and social challenges this poses.  

The challenge has not only been the traditionally sceptical views of local societies towards migration, but also the inadequate infrastructure and legal frameworks for the reception and resettlement of millions of arrivals. Nevertheless, a region that was hitherto perceived as anti-refugee and where most countries were seen as transit migration states, has made incredible efforts to welcome and accommodate Ukrainians and currently hosts approximately 2 million refugees, with over 3 million having received temporary protection since March 2022.  

In contrast, the reality of 2023 has been such that public support for Ukrainians is waning, official funding is drying up, the housing and labour market situations in CEE are complex to navigate and having come to terms with a prolonged and unpredictable conflict at home, many Ukrainians have been forced to re-consider their plans of return. 


EPIM’s Efforts and Learnings 

EPIM made the decision to focus its Ukraine response efforts on CEE, given the scale of displacement and the team’s understanding of and network in the region. Initially, this was through short-term emergency response funding (mental health support, legal support, housing, and shelter etc.) before pivoting, in 2023, to work on projects focussed on the stabilisation of the refugee population and building the foundations for deeper integration (education, employment, childcare, psychosocial support etc.). So far, EPIM has supported 22 initiatives, with over a dozen more sub-partners across the region. 

The learnings EPIM has drawn from its initial response were outlined in a previous piece, and can be summarised  as follows: (a) listening to partners on the ground with local knowledge, experience and connection to the community over fast (potentially) unsustainable investments; (b) supporting migrant-led initiatives that understand the needs of the population they are working with and are an essential building block for inclusive societies of the futures; (c) supporting innovative, new, cross-sectoral, multi-vector alliances and resulting social change missions and experiments; and (d) partnering with local and national authorities to create inclusiveness and integration to support a holistic change in public discourse. 


The Prague Convening 

Building on the successes of the first year of supported, in June 2023, EPIM organised a convening of Ukrainian groups, CSOs, local and national government officials, international organisations, donors, and the private sector in Prague. Participants identified employment, education, housing, and health and wellbeing, as the primary foci for potential interventions. Other key suggestions included: 

  • Improved data collection to allow state and non-state actors to react in a timely and adequate manner to potential problems and create adequate legislation and support on the state level; 
  • Investments in innovative pilot projects with different government, private and civil society built on the strengthening and scaling existing success stories; 
  • Support for collaborations between municipalities and other actors, both private and public, particularly to create incentives and regulations in housing and employment; 
  • Empowering and amplifying the voices of refugees themselves, to be able to express their changing needs, concerns and their capacities, which are often underestimated; 
  • Creating online platforms, funding study and exchange programs for Ukrainian groups and supporting the education and capacity building of CSOs across the region; 
  • Focussing on households with women as primary breadwinners and caregivers; 
  • Ensuring more widely available and skill-appropriate language courses for all ages 

The general consensus in the discussions was that the labour markets and education systems in most countries in CEE lacked the flexibility needed to integrate this particular target group with its very specific needs. At the same time, many discussions focussed on the need to create systems of support that will outlast the Ukraine response, so that CEE countries are better prepared for future larger-scale migrations. 


Looking Ahead  

Societies in CEE are now faced with an unprecedented demographic challenge (with some countries now hosting refugees in numbers totalling over 3% of their populations) which will result in manifold changes to how they look and feel over the next decades, both as a result of the displacement of Ukrainians who will most likely stay on in the region and due to other inward migratory trends. EPIM’s aim is therefore to support our partners to utilise the potential, momentum, and learnings from the solidarity that we have seen across the region to create spaces for belonging and more inclusive societies for all newcomers, no matter where, when, and how they arrive, for the long-term.

We have already seen this potential in action through the creation of inclusivity programmes in kindergartens and primary schools, the implementation of afterschool language preparation classes, and the hiring of multi-lingual teachers’ assistants to aid learning. We have also seen employment initiatives in which employers worked closely with social workers and mental health professionals from NGOs to better settle their new workforce; online learning, coding and upskilling spaces offered by startups and universities; private housing initiatives in which families housed displaced people for months; and even welcoming and community activities led by thousands of local volunteers.

The time has also come to transform this reactive potential into a holistic long-term approach to the creation of inclusive societies that fosters belonging across CEE. We believe that the infrastructure of collaboration and innovation to do this is currently in place. In fact, the last two years have shown us that civil society can work effectively with various levels of government and innovate with the private sector to address social challenges. This has strengthened democratic resilience in much of the region and reactivated citizenry, at the same time creating tiny openings to nudge the existing discourse on migration.

In response, our Theory of Change suggests that by supporting partners who can foster and lead innovative multistakeholder partnerships that act in an intersectional manner, in which the needs of migrants are addressed as part of a broader societal perspective i.e. dignified employment for all, housing for all, equitable education for all and healthcare for all etc. we believe we will be able to build on the societal potential in the CEE region that the Ukraine Response was an example of, to create these forward-looking inclusive societies. And our approach going forward will reflect EPIM’s new priorities and four action pillars, with a focus on creating a shared big picture for the migration ecosystem in the region, focussing on lived migration experience, identifying opportunities for narrative change, and working to rethink funding sources and destinations.

In addition, we will work with foundation partners to think beyond top-down forms of funding that exclusively support a relatively limited client-focused migration projects, and instead think of bottom-up approaches that allow for support for advocacy, alliance building and migrant-led initiatives, as well as to explore avenues for co-funding and collaborative funding to leverage other larger public and private pots for greater impact.

This year, EPIM is supporting the goal of inclusive societies in CEE through a dozen or so initiatives, including: 

  • Seed funding and incubation of a consortium of migration-focused NGOs in Slovakia led by Mareena to present a united front and a stronger advocacy position re local and national government and work on changing the public discourse toward migration; 
  • Supporting the scaling of the KOMPASS project by eLibrare with a focus on combatting human trafficking, labour exploitation and abuse online; 
  • Supporting Communities of the Future in Romania and Moldova to use public libraries to foster community integration, serve as information centres, promote social cohesion, and provide a safe and welcoming environment for migrants; 
  • Continuing our support for the migrant-led AMIGA in Czechia to create a culturally sensitive centre for migrant health and well-being, as well as intercultural competencies among healthcare professionals, integrating its services into municipal and national structures; 
  • Continuing our support to Migration Consortium in Czechia with a focus on advocacy for inclusion, improving education outcomes and narrative change; 
  • Finally, EPIM will continue to drive the Central European Network for Migration and Inclusion, founded during the Prague convening which fosters multistakeholder partnerships and offers a platform to share the accumulated knowledge from actors in the region 



EPIM’s strategy in the region is now reflected within our Pathway to Change and longer-term strategy and constitutes one of EPIM’s core programmatic clusters going forward. Given our focus on long-term systems change, and similar thoughts from partners like the Robert Bosch Stiftung, it is likely that EPIM’s focus on Building Inclusive Societies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), will continue for the next  decades with course correction and frequent corroboration and check-in moments planned with our partners in the region. 


Masha Volynsky is a CEE-based consultant advising EPIM and Hrishabh Sandilya is EPIM’s Co-Director