How is Italy responding to the Ukraine refugee crisis?

As ever greater numbers of Ukrainians flee the Russian invasion in search of safety, what is Italy's part in handling the emergency?

How is Italy responding to the Ukraine refugee crisis?
Refugees from Ukraine are seen as they arrive at the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing in Kroscienko, Poland, on March 3, 2022. - More than one million people have fled Ukraine into neighbouring countries since Russia launched its full-scale invasion just a week ago. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP)

Since the first handful of refugees arrived from Ukraine into Italy at the end of February, the number of Ukrainians present in the country has risen to over 100,000.

5.9 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the conflict began, according to the UN refugee agency.

In Italy, the most recent government update places the numbers at 111,386 Ukrainian citizens entering the country since the start of the conflict, including 57,943 women, 15,082 men and 38,361 minors.

Where in Italy are most Ukrainians staying?

The majority of refugees entering Italy from Ukraine are concentrated in four Italian regions: Lombardy, Lazio, Campania and Emilia-Romagna, with most arrivals gravitating towards their respective capitals of Milan, Rome, Naples and Bologna, according to the latest government update.

Almost 40,000 Ukrainians have reported to the Lombardy regional authorities in recent weeks, according to the Repubblica news daily – which means that the northern region is currently hosting over one in three Ukrainian refugees present in Italy.

READ ALSO: Four Italian regions ‘under pressure’ as Ukraine refugee crisis grows

Young Ukrainian refugees with a dog sleep on a bench at the railway station in Zahony, Hungary, close to the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, on March 4th, 2022. (Photo by Attila KISBENEDEK / AFP)

The head of Italy’s Civil Protection agency, Fabrizio Curcio, has spoken of redistributing those who have fled from Ukraine to help “regions under pressure”, should the numbers continue to rise.

Irene Priolo, environmental councillor for the region of Emilia Romagna, told the news outlet Bologna Today that if the trend continued it would be “necessary to consider the placement of refugees in a more proportional way.”

What are the Italian authorities doing?

In late March, EU leaders approved the Temporary Protection Directive, granting Ukrainian citizens immediate leave to stay in the Bloc without a visa for one year in the first instance (with the possibility of an extension).

READ ALSO: Italy offers one-year residence permit to Ukraine refugees

Italy’s Civil Protection Department put out a call in April for third sector and religious organisations to apply to host refugees with government funding. Those that are selected will provide accommodation for an additional 15,000 people in total, and will receive a daily allowance of €33 per guest per day.

The measure follows a move by the government in late February to authorise the expansion of Italy’s extraordinary reception centres (CAS) to accommodate 13,000 additional people and the expansion of its national reception and integration system (SAI) centres by 3,000 spaces, as part of Italy’s initial response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At the start of May, the Civil Protection Department also activated a portal that Ukrainian refugees in Italy could use to apply for three €300 payments, to be issued over the course of three months (plus three payments of €150 for each minor). Although the platform is now open for applications, the funds won’t start being disbursed until June, according to the financial publication Il Sole 24 Ore.

Refugees from Ukraine are seen as they arrive at the railway station in Przemysl, eastern Poland, on March 4th, 2022. (Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

These latest measures have met with criticism from non-profits and local groups organising refugee welcome initiatives, who say that funds are not coming through quickly enough, placing the burden on Italians hosting refugees in their homes to support them out of their own pockets.

How have Italians reacted?

As they wait for government funds to be made available, individuals, regions and towns have taken the initiative, rallying to provide spare rooms and beds to people in need.

Italy has one of the largest Ukrainian communities in Europe, with around 250,000 Ukrainians already resident in Italy before the start of the war, most of whom live in Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Campania, according to data from national statistics body Istat.

Almost 90 percent of the Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Italy to date are being hosted by private individuals and families, according to the news outlet Milano Today.

READ ALSO: Kharkiv children fleeing bombs find refuge in Italy

Small towns and grassroots organisations across Italy have also taken it upon themselves to offer support and services to those refugees with nowhere to go.

A bus evacuates passengers from Donetsk on February 19, 2022.

A bus evacuates passengers from Donetsk. Photo by AFP

Some small towns in the Italian south in particular, which have suffered for decades from underpopulation, are welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms in the hopes that they will stay and revitalize their neighbourhoods.

READ ALSO: Can Ukrainian refugees save Italy’s ‘dying’ hill towns from extinction?

Francesco Trunzo, the vice mayor of San Mango d’Aquino in Calabria, said his town was allocating €2,500 to each Ukrainian household that agreed to stay for at least six months.

“It’s a little bit of assistance, to help them integrate, to rent a house, to bring their family members over here, to find a job,” he told the Local.

A project put together by individuals in the Calabrian hill town of Serrastretta to arrange for refugee families to travel from Poland, meanwhile, has raised over $40,000.

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How long will it take Italy to wean itself off Russian gas?

Italy's government has repeatedly said it plans to end its dependence on Russia for gas supplies following the invasion of Ukraine. But as the timeline keeps changing, when and how could this happen?

How long will it take Italy to wean itself off Russian gas?

Italy is heavily dependent on Russian gas, but has been seeking new sources since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as part of an effort to end this reliance in the coming years.

But it remains unclear whether Italy can really end its dependence on Russia for its gas supply – or when this might be feasible.

READ ALSO: What does Italy’s Algerian gas deal mean for energy supplies?

The government has been seeking new sources since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, including with a recent deal to boost supplies from Algeria.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi said last week the country could be independent of Russian gas by the second half of 2024 – the latest in a series of changing estimates.

“Government estimates indicate that we can make ourselves independent from Russian gas in the second half of 2024,” Draghi told the Senate, while adding that the “first effects” of this plan would be felt by the end of this year.

He said his government was also seeking to boost its production of renewable energy, including by “destroying bureaucratic barriers” to investment, saying it was the “only way” to free Italy from having to import fossil fuels.

Explained: Why and how Italy will pay for Russian gas in rubles

In April, Italy‘s Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani estimated the country would no longer need Russian gas within 18 months, following an earlier prediction that it could take until 2025.

Italy is one of Europe’s biggest users and importers of natural gas, importing 90 percent of its gas supply with 45 percent of that coming from Russia – up from 27 percent ten years ago.

Italy now imports 29 billion cubic metres of Russian gas a year, which Cingolani said in March “must be replaced” – but he didn’t specify with what.

Analysts have said there are “a lot of questions” about how helpful Italy’s gas deal with Algeria will be.

Despite its vast natural gas reserves, Algeria is already exporting at close to full capacity.

Draghi repeated his strong support for EU sanctions on Moscow last week, including a proposed ban on imports of Russian oil, although this is currently being blocked by Hungary.

“We must continue to keep up the pressure on Russia through sanctions, because we must bring Moscow to the negotiating table,” he said.

But for now, Italian energy giant Eni says it plans to pay for Russian gas supplies in rubles, meeting a demand from Vladimir Putin.

It was not immediately clear whether the plan would fall foul of European Union sanctions, although Eni said it was “not incompatible”.

The company said its decision to open the accounts was “taken in compliance with the current international sanctions framework” and that Italian authorities had been informed.