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UKRAINE

How Vienna is helping thousands of Ukrainian refugees arriving by train

Thousands of refugees from Ukraine are arriving daily at Vienna's central station, either to stay in Austria, or head further afield throughout Europe. The Local's Emma Midgley went to Vienna’s main train station to find out how people can help. 

Vienna station
Hundreds of refugees have been making their way by train to Vienna's main station over the past week. (Rebecca Rodriguez).

Walking into Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof, Austria’s largest train station and one of the busiest in Europe, it is obvious refugees from Ukraine are arriving in large numbers.

There are crowds of people milling around, ranging in age from pensioners to small children in buggies and babies.

Many families have dogs or other pets. People look exhausted and drawn as they stand close to piles of luggage. Most of the new arrivals are just sitting, slumped, in the station chairs. Small children run around clutching soft toys. 

According to estimates by ÖBB, the Ministry of the Interior and the City of Vienna, 3,300 to 4,000 refugees from Ukraine arrive in Austria every day.

At least 200 to 300 refugees, mostly women with children, are in Vienna’s station at any point during the day, although this number fluctuates.

Travel for Ukrainian refugees is free on all train and city public transport networks in Austria, and over 4,000 people travelled out of Ukraine on Austria’s train network on Friday alone.

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The charity Caritas is on site at Vienna’s main station around the clock. It has fifty employees on site and also mans an emergency shelter, open from 10pm, which sleeps 50 people.

The Caritas employees and volunteers, clad in their distinctive red t-shirts, are busy speaking to arrivals and handing out food from an information point.

There are ample supplies of bottles of water, food, snacks, toiletries and even dog food. Other volunteers distribute masks to people milling around the station. The nearby DM shop offers customers the chance to buy a Hilfspaket (help package), with sanitary products, deodorant, nappies, baby food and other essentials. 

The Caritas info point at the station
Water, snacks, toiletries and even pet food are distributed throughout the day. Photo: Emma Midgley

Maria, a Ukranian who has been living and working in Vienna for seven years, is one of the volunteers helping at the Caritas stand. She told the Local most of the people approaching her for help cannot speak English or German.

Volunteers are needed to direct refugees by tube to the Ukrainian Arrival Centre (Ankunftszentrum Ukraine) near the city’s Stadion stop on the U2 line, where there are services such as Covid-19 testing, psychological support and beds for the night. Others need help making train or plane connections or need medical assistance.

“They are very tired, very nervous,” she says of the people who have been asking her for help. “They need help finding out where to go. They are so stressed, they can’t even find their way up the stairs onto the upper concourse. I have to go with them.”

When asked what one thing people can do to help the new arrivals, she answers in one word: “Spenden” (make donations).

She suggests giving money to the charities Caritas or Diakonie, who are helping the refugees who arrive in Vienna. A collection box at the Caritas stand is filled with €50 and €100 notes. Marie says she is “proud” of how the city of Vienna has rallied to help. 

A woman seeking help at the Caritas info point.
Volunteers are asked to register in advance if they want to help out. Photo: Emma Midgley

As we speak, Maria constantly breaks off to talk to people in Ukrainian who are asking her questions. More volunteers keep piling in, asking if they can help.

People have seen the many posts on social media calling for people to come down to the train station, to the extent that there is almost a volunteer “rush hour ”.

Caritas advises any volunteers to register first by emailing [email protected]. Helpers are needed from early in the morning until around 22:00 or 23:00 at night. Volunteers who can speak Russian or Ukrainian are particularly in demand.

Alex, a 15-year-old waiting at the station, told the Local he had just completed a gruelling three day journey to get to Vienna from Dnipro in Ukraine. He came the whole way by train, through Poland, and has just travelled seven hours to reach Vienna. He and his sister and mother plan to stay with friends in Tyrol. His father is still in Ukraine. 

“I am tired,” he says to me in German. “It took a long time to leave Ukraine because there were so many people trying to go at the same time.” 

He tells me this is the fourth time he has come to Austria. It’s a place he knows from holidays. He even knows how to ski. 

“I hope this all ends soon,” he says. 

People queuing for tickets.
Around 80 percent of refugees are only in transit through Austria and will continue their journey to another destination, it is estimated. Photo: Emma Midgley

Work is still underway to create a better arrival area at Vienna’s main train station  for the thousands of refugees flooding into Austria.

More seating will be arranged for people waiting for connecting trains. The number of people traveling by train in Austria rose from 3,000 on Monday to 4,500 by the end of the week, train company ÖBB reports. Austria has also pledged to send more trains to the Polish border to bring people to safety in the next few days, which will also carry donated items on their outward journey.

Across Austria, the Federal Agency for Care and Support Services (BBU) has already set aside 29,500 lodgings for refugees provided by individuals and businesses and is giving around 500 people a day emergency accommodation. 

The Train of Hope charity, which operates in Vienna’s Humanitarian Arrival Centre (Humanitäres Ankunftszentrum) in the city’s Second District, wrote on social media on Sunday it has received over 10,000 people in the last ten days.

The centre says it is looking after 40 animals a day on site, including a cockatoo and a chinchilla. So far, around a thousand people have come to volunteer there. 

From today (Monday), Ukrainian people coming to Austria will be able to register with the authorities at the Austria Center in Vienna.

They will receive a blue card, which  will mean they have access to the labour market in Austria and will receive a payment of 25 euros a day. The costs of the scheme will be shared between the federal and state governments in a ratio of 60 to 40.

However, it is believed the majority of refugees from Ukraine do not want to stay in Austria but want to travel to other EU countries.

Change to upper limit for Ukrainian earnings

At a federal level, refugees from Ukraine will be allowed to earn up to 485 euros a month, instead of the usual 110 euros.

The decision was announced by the Interior Minister Gerhard Karner (ÖVP) after a conference with the refugee state councillors in Austria. There will also be an increased payment of 60 euros per month for people who are housing refugees.

This means that a total of 180 euros per person is available to pay for private accommodation, broadcaster ORF reports. This extra payment will also be available for anyone housing asylum seekers.

According to Karner, 40,000 people from Ukraine have already been registered so far, and around 7,000 are now available for the job market.

Vienna City Councillor Peter Hacker estimates that 200,000 to 250,000 people from Ukraine could seek shelter in Austria in future.

Important addresses and information

Humanitarian Arrival Centre (Humanitäres Ankunftszentrum) “Sport- und Fun-Halle”

Austria Centre Vienna

  • Address: Bruno-Kreisky-Platz 1, 1220 Wien
  • Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last admission 4 p.m.)

Volunteering

The web portal where2help Wien gives all the current volunteering opportunities with refugees in the Austrian capital.

The website fuereinand.at gives the opportunity to donate to organisations helping refugees and connect with other people who want to make a difference. 

You can sign up to volunteer with Caritas by emailing [email protected]

If you can offer accommodation to people arriving in Austria, you can register by contacting the Federal Agency for Care and Support Services (BBU) 

Charities involved in helping refugees in Vienna are:

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ENERGY

ENERGY CRISIS: Will Austria have enough gas for winter?

In recent months, there have been fears that Austria will not have enough gas for the winter season. The good news is that gas storage facilities are filling up, but by how much? Here's an update.

ENERGY CRISIS: Will Austria have enough gas for winter?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February and the EU imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, there have been concerns in Austria about the domestic energy supply.

The biggest worry is that Austria will not have enough gas for the coming heating season, which could quickly become a crisis when coupled with skyrocketing energy prices.

On Tuesday (August 16th), the European Aggregated Gas Storage Inventory confirmed that Austria’s gas storage capacity is now 60 percent full. This is already a significant improvement from early April, when reserves were just over 10 percent full.

Austria’s goal is to reach 80 percent capacity by November 1st in order to have a safety reserve. 

READ ALSO: Where are energy prices going up (again) in Austria?

But the Wiener Zeitung reports that there are questions over where the gas has come from as Gazprom has reduced deliveries to Austria’s OMV (the partially-state owned energy company) by two thirds.

Where is the gas coming from?

Christoph Dolna-Gruber, an energy advisor at the Austrian Energy Agency, said the origin of the gas “is not explicitly known”.

For example, from October 2022 to September 2023, OMV has secured additional natural gas supplies of 40 TWh from Norway and the Netherlands, reports the Wiener Zeitung.

The Austrian Federal Government has also secured 20 TWh of gas from two tenders, of which 8.5 TWh has been confirmed by the Ministry of the Environment to be from non-Russian sources.

However, the gas storage operators do not publish data on customers and contractual partners, so the origin is not in the public domain.

The extra 20 TWh of gas will be owned by the state but it is still unclear how it will be “handled” (e.g. for domestic use or for redistribution outside of Austria).

FOR MEMBERS: Why (and when) double-digit inflation is set to hit Austria

How much gas can Austria store?

The capacity of Austria’s gas storage facilities is 95.5 terawatt hours (TWh) or 8.6 billion cubic metres. The gas is stored underground in depleted natural gas reservoirs at a depth of between 500 and 2,300 metres.

Austria’s gas storage facilities are located in Haidach, Aigelsbrunn, Auerbach (the facility is known as 7-Fields), Puchkirchen, Haag, Tallesbrunn and Schönkirchen. All of the facilities are in Salzburg or Lower Austria.

OMV manages 26 percent (25.3 TWh) of Austria’s natural gas storage volume and the rest is divided between RAG, Uniper Energy and Astora.

The Haidach storage facility was previously managed by Gazprom and Astora, but the agreement with Gazprom came to an end earlier this month after Gazprom stopped making deliveries.

Since August 1st, Haidach has been managed by Astora and RAG. 

READ ALSO: Vienna forced to dim street lighting and cancel some Christmas illuminations

How much does Austria rely on Russian gas?

Prior to the war, Austria relied on Russia for 80 percent of its total gas consumption. This has reduced in recent months but Austria is still heavily dependent on Russia for its gas supply.

And following Gazprom’s announcement on Tuesday that gas prices could rise by up to 60 percent in the coming months for European customers, Austrian residents should expect further increases to their gas bills this winter.

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