Isabelle’s duty-free shop on Deck 7 has been converted into a storage locker and pantry, with suitcases packed in the perfume department and refrigerated display cases filled with labeled grocery bags. The ship’s indoor casino has become a hangout for teenagers. And the Starlight Palace nightclub on Deck 8 is where women meet to make camouflage nets for Ukrainian soldiers back home.
“It makes me feel closer to them,” Diana Kochenko said as she tied green, brown and brown fabric strips into a net strung on a metal frame, 2-year-old Emilia pulling on her knees.
For the past three months, Ms. Kotsenko and her daughter have been living on the Isabelle, a 561-foot cruise ship chartered by the Estonian government to temporarily house some of the most 48,000 refugees who have arrived in this small Baltic nation since the Russians invaded Ukraine in February.
The ship, which once carried passengers overnight between Stockholm and Riga, Latvia, is now moored next to Terminal A in the port of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Its 664 cabins accommodate about 1,900 people — mostly women and children who come and go as they please through the ship’s cavernous cargo door.
The inhabitants are a small fraction of most of 6.3 million Ukrainians who have passed through Europe. Their fate is a sign of the pressures the flood of refugees is putting on countries that have mostly welcomed them.
Isabelle was chartered by an Estonian shipping company, Tallink, in April for four months as an emergency shelter. But with nowhere else to put its residents, the government extended the contract until October.
The lack of housing for refugees is creating intense pressure across the continent and in Britain. Affordable housing is scarce and rents are rising.
In Scotland, the government announced last month that it was suspension of his program to fund Ukrainian refugees due to lack of accommodation. In the Netherlands, dozens of refugees sleep on the grass outside an overcrowded asylum center in the village of Ter Apel. On Monday, the Dutch Refugee Council announced plans to sue the government over housing conditions it said were below the minimum legal standard.
Of all the challenges facing Ukrainians who have fled to safe havens, the most pressing is access to housing, according to a new report by Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. The problem of finding long-term accommodation is only expected to worsen given rising inflation, the report concluded.
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“Early evidence also shows that homelessness is a primary motivation for refugees to return to Ukraine, despite security risks,” it said.
Governments — already struggling to house refugees and asylum seekers from other parts of the world — have set up emergency facilities, rented hotels and provided financial support to host households. But with reception centers overflowing, countries have been forced to look for other solutions. Schools, hostels, sports stadiums, cargo containers, tents and even cruise ships have become intermediate spaces.
In Estonia, the government enlisted Tallink, which had leased its ships in the past as temporary housing for construction projects, military personnel and events. One housed police officers during a Group of 7 meeting in Britain last year. Another was chartered during the global climate conference in Glasgow last fall.
The Scottish government turned to Tallink when faced with its own refugee housing crisis and last week, the first group of Ukrainian moved to a Tallink ship docked in the port of Edinburgh.
The Netherlands also uses cruise ships. In April, 1,500 refugees moved onto a Holland America Line ship docked in Rotterdam. Last week, the government’s asylum agency announced it planned to do so chartering two additional ships from Tallink for seven months.
Floating solutions have been met with skepticism or even hostility in some quarters. Before the Tallink ship arrived in Scotland, some news accounts breathlessly warned of the dangers of a Covid-19 epidemic.
The Dutch government came under fire for a now abandoned proposal to put refugees on a ship anchored off the coast in open water, making it difficult for people to get ashore.
In Tallinn, Isabelle has been out of service due to travel restrictions since the start of the pandemic in 2020 before being put into use for refugees. Natalie Shevchenko has been living it since April. He has looked for an apartment in the city, but has been unable to find one he can afford.
A psychologist from Kyiv, Ms. Shevchenko works with mothers and children on board, helping them adjust.
“When you live on a ship, it’s like a big community,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of people entered or left the ship after pausing briefly at the security desk to have their ID cards scanned. On deck 8, customers stayed for coffee at the Grand Buffet. “The food is good,” Ms. Shevchenko said. “There are many desserts, cakes and ice cream.”
In a living room, a dozen people sat in front of a television watching news from Ukraine. Cliques of chatty teenagers roamed the long decks or stretched out on chairs near the casino’s empty blackjack tables. Two stories below, near the staircase where the carts were parked, children spread out on the blue and white carpet to play games, while two laughing boys slid under a short brass railing under the watchful eyes of mothers.
Volunteers have donated toys, clothes and baby carriages and organized activities and excursions. On deck 10, refugees can meet with social service workers. Notice boards around the ship were filled with announcements in Ukrainian for summer camp, free exhibitions and language and culture classes. The newly named Freedom School is scheduled to begin classes in Ukrainian and Estonian in the fall. Players from an Estonian football club came on board last weekend to lead a clinical practice.
When Mrs. Shevchenko needs solitude, she escapes to one of the lower car decks. He shares a claustrophobic cubicle and bathroom on the sixth floor with another woman he didn’t previously know. The space between the beds is narrower than an airplane runway. Bags, shoes and boxes are piled under the beds. A white rope crosses the walls to hang laundry.
“This is our kitchen,” Ms. Shevchenko said, pointing to a shelf of water and soda bottles with a laugh. A flower pot, a present for her recent 34th birthday from the Estonian psychologists she works with, sits on the windowsill.
“We’re lucky to have a window,” he said. Some cabins on the lower decks do not. It’s a problem for people who had to take refuge underground in Ukraine, he said: “Some people are having panic attacks.”
A few doors down is the cabin that Olga Vasilieva and her 6-year-old son share with another mother and son. The two women use the fold-out upper bunks to store toys, bags and snacks, and sleep with their children in the narrow beds below. The larger cabins are reserved for families with three or more children.
One of the benefits of living with so many other families is that there are lots of kids to play with. “He has so many friends,” said Ms. Vasilyeva, turning to Ms. Shevchenko to translate.
Ms Vasilieva wants to return home before the school year starts, but so far she has not been safe. Although she had two jobs in Ukraine, Ms Vasilieva said, she is not working now because she has no one to look after her son. He said he received about 400 euros a month from the Estonian government. About a hundred of the refugees work for Tallink, in kitchen and housekeeping positions. Others have found work in the city.
Inna Aristova, 54, and her husband, Hryhorii Akinzhely, 64, who arrived in May after an arduous journey from Melitopol, work at a laundry sorting sheets and towels. They were unable to find an affordable apartment.
“I feel like a guest in this country,” Ms. Aristova said, “not at home.”
Tears filled her eyes. Her most intense anxieties center on her 21-year-old son, who is in the military. He doesn’t know where they are, safety precautions, but they try to text or talk as often as possible.
“He’s so young,” she said. “I think about him every day.” Mrs. Shevchenko, who was translating, bent down to hug her.
At the Palace of Stars, Ms. Kochenko and a handful of mothers and teenagers worked on camouflage netting, cutting strips of fabric and gluing them together. When finished, the cover will be sent to the Kherson region in southeastern Ukraine to hide tanks from Russian bombers.
Ms. Kochenko also does not know where her husband is in Ukraine. She and her daughter escaped from the war-torn city of Mykolaiv.
Another woman from the same town pulled out her phone to show Mykolaiv on a map. An animated red explosion marked the spot, indicating fierce combat.
She had just received a long text from her neighbor with a series of photographs showing bloody corpses of people and dogs lying in the streets, killed by Russian shells that morning.
Some of the women Ms Shevchenko has counseled have told her they have decided to return to Ukraine. But, he said, what you “dream about your home” may not match reality.