What the Telegram Channels of Ukrainian Migrants in Germany ‘Talk’ and ‘Keep Silent’ About
By Taisiia Ratushna
In today’s globalized and digitalized world, forced migration takes on new features as new means of communication and interaction have emerged that can significantly influence it. Online social media and social networks currently play a role in migration processes. Multiple digital applications are used by migrants to access information, resources, and news, as well as for purposes such as communication, emotional management, intercultural relations, identification, and participation, among others.
Of course, such media cannot eliminate all the negative consequences of forced migration and solve migrants’ problems, such as being separated from their home and habitual way of life, the separation of families, or difficulties along the migration route. However, because social networks are primarily aimed at finding and maintaining contacts and providing interconnection between users, this makes them an important resource for migrants. They help to obtain necessary information, communicate with people in similar situations, share emotions and experiences, and, finally, just feel support or distraction. They can be used to establish social ties between migrants themselves and with representatives of the host country. To some extent, this facilitates adaptation to the new environment and helps with integration.
Migrants are often imagined as rootless or uprooted people, as they have been forced to break away from their homeland, communities, and family, and can immediately or gradually lose contact with them. However, modern communication technologies have fundamentally changed this situation. Geographical distance is blurred through the Internet and gives a sense of presence in the ‘here and now’ – a sense of community and unity. Therefore, digital social media and social networks are appearing more frequently in migration studies. These studies help to understand how migrants’ social networks are built and to see their ‘inner world’. However, there is not yet a single explanatory theoretical model to describe the interaction of forced migrants on social networks. In this context, it seems necessary to study different cases and expand the empirical base for further theoretical development. One of such case is the use of social media by Ukrainian refugees in host countries, and in particular in Germany, which according to official data has received more than a million Ukrainian migrants.
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the flow of forced migrants and asylum seekers from Ukraine to EU countries has increased rapidly. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in December 2022, the recorded number of refugees from Ukraine across Europe amounted to 7,896,825 people, of which 4,885,650 refugees registered for temporary protection or in similar national protection schemes in Europe. In early March, almost 50,000 people crossed the border with the EU every day; these figures gradually decreased, but the migration flow has not stopped. The largest number of migrants at the beginning of the invasion was received by Poland. A large number of Ukrainians also moved to Germany, the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and other countries.
Since 24 February 2022, mobile communication and the Internet have provided Ukrainian forced migrants with the opportunity to keep abreast of events and receive up-to-date information about what is happening in their country of origin and abroad through a smartphone. Mobile operators in Ukraine and the EU have created special initiatives to support Ukrainians (e.g., free SIM cards, free calls and SMS to Ukraine, roaming benefits and other special offers for subscribers). This allowed a large number of forced migrants to stay in touch with their families, quickly find information in their countries of arrival, and share it through groups on social networks.
Social networks became a tool for self-organization, as they created information ‘bridges’ between those people who need help and those who were willing and able to provide it. The most popular of them (e.g., Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, etc.) have special groups, chats, chatbots, and channels for Ukrainian migrants, where they can find the necessary information, useful links, current announcements of support, and volunteer and charitable initiatives. They can also ask for help or advice, post requests, and find like-minded people, among other things.
This research paper studies the role played by the Internet, and in particular social media groups, for Ukrainian migrants in Germany and explores the ‘inner world’ of such communities and the peculiarities of their communication. The study considers Telegram channels created in Germany to help Ukrainian forced migrants after 24 February 2022. According to a Kyiv International Institute of Sociology study conducted in the summer of 2022, this social network has become one of the leaders in the information space of Ukraine. This is due to two main reasons. First, Telegram is easy to navigate, use, and administer. Secondly, this messenger platform has been present in Ukraine for a long time as a channel of personal communication with family members and friends. Its popularity increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was used to establish remote work in many institutions and organizations in both the private and public sectors. Additionally, trust in this platform also increased because Ukrainian government institutions and state organizations, after the beginning of the full-scale war, started using Telegram channels and creating chatbots to notify the population.
This study considers specifically two Telegram channels created in Germany to help Ukrainian forced migrants: “Berlin helps Ukrainians” (with 23 thousand followers and 450–900 messages per day) and “Ukraine in Tübingen Reutlingen” (with 1,960 followers and 35–100 messages per day). The channels are both information-rich cases. The first channel represents a large urban setting, and the second a smaller provincial town. Additionally, the former is in the north of Germany, and the latter in the south. In the first stage of this study, I thematically analyzed the channels: I selected messages two days a month for six months (March–August 2022) and categorized them into thematic blocks. In the second stage, I added further categories to the thematic blocks based on keywords.
Russian is the main language of these Telegram channels, with a much lower frequency of Ukrainian and rare posts in German or English. The predominance of the Russian language is due to many of the forced migrants coming from the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine (East and South), which suffered the most from the Russian invasion. German and English were used mostly in March and April, usually in offers of assistance and accommodation. Linguistic borrowing from German is also present through transliterations into Russian or Ukrainian and mainly in reference to institutions, authorities, or documents. Such borrowing suggests that users cannot find immediate equivalents in Ukrainian or Russian for these words.
Through an analysis of the two channels, I identified the ten key topics used. Below, I sketch out my initial impressions of these topics and their change over time to provide insight into the ‘inner worlds’ of communication on migration and integration processes as conducted over these Telegram channels.
- Arrival, Transport, and Transportation
In March, most messages in this category are about transport and opportunities to get to Germany from Ukraine and Poland, with many questions about how to get to different German cities and about volunteer assistance with transportation. For example, users write: “Is anyone maybe driving tomorrow from Shehynia to Berlin? Morning-afternoon. Three people need to be taken…”. There are also messages about the volunteers in the arrival centers, and the addresses of the centers themselves. In general, the messages are emotional with many exclamation marks, emojis, and requests for help: “what to do”, “where to look”, “who can help me”. These messages indicate confusion and some loss of orientation in a new situation.
During April and May, most of the messages are concerned with travelling within Germany and public transport. In July and August, meanwhile, users discuss public transport issues (especially at the end of August, before the expiration of the 9-Euro-Ticket).
- Housing, Humanitarian Aid, and Household Items
In March and April, many users sought housing in Germany. They exchanged information about possible accommodation with German families and the contacts of volunteers who could help find temporary housing. In early March, users reported accommodation for one night or a short period in shelters. In May and June, users wrote about the need to leave the temporary housing provided by volunteers and find permanent accommodation. Some of the reports also contain complaints about prolonged stays in refugee camps and the inability to find their own residences. In the Berlin channel, there were many messages about the WBS (Wohnberechtigungsschein, or a permit for subsidized housing) and how it is obtained. For example, one user wrote: “Hello, has anyone applied for a WBS already? Could you let me know how it generally went?”.
In May, the number of requests for assistance in finding accommodation increased, likely because some German families who sheltered refugees at the beginning of the war, as well as the refugees themselves, expected that such accommodation would be temporary and were not prepared for long-term cohabitation. Users shared links to housing search sites and reminders that housing in Germany is difficult to find, even for locals.
Meanwhile, in March and April, users also requested humanitarian aid, food, clothing, and information about volunteer groups and aid centers. From May to August, as migrants found housing, they inquired about buying furniture and household appliances. Some phrases during this time indicate they are happy to have found their own private space: “we found our apartment”, “we managed to find our housing”, “we already moved into our apartment”.
- Registration, Documents, and Legal issues
Obtaining temporary protection status and registration as well as filling out documents were the most prevalent concerns in this category on both Telegram channels from March to May. There was a large number of similar questions and answers. The Berlin channel even developed certain standard answers and links to sources for these topics and posted them in pinned messages. Some of the answers to inquiries were redirected to such pinned messages. Users, however, still wrote the requests. The rapid growth of followers of the channels explains this situation – that is, there was an addition of ‘newcomers’ who did not want to re-read a large number of previous messages.
In late May and June, a new wave of messages about filling in documents flooded both Telegram channels due to the registration of a significant number of Ukrainian migrants at the Jobcenter. In summer, both Telegram channels also received many requests from users to clarify applying for 21-days’ time off, to provide information on whether they are eligible, and to explain other specifics.
- Social Assistance, Work, and Integration Courses
A large number of discussions in both Telegram channels were related to the issues of receiving social assistance, unemployment allowances, and child benefits. In the messages, users mainly shared their own experience with the necessary documents, the schedules and features of the relevant institutions, and their correspondence with them. They asked about the amount of financial assistance and the timing of its payment. The channels also posted links to official announcements on the websites of the relevant institutions and translations of important information.
Many questions appeared about work permits, especially in the Berlin Telegram channel, as in early March it was not clear what status Ukrainian forced migrants would receive. By mid-April, users often asked whether Ukrainians have free access to the labor market. In both channels, and especially in the Berlin one, Ukrainian migrants demonstrated readiness to look for work immediately after arriving in Germany. Users even discussed whether this is the right thing to do. For example, some participants (who had emigrated to Germany earlier) pointed out that without language skills and the recognition of diplomas, they could find only unskilled, low-wage jobs, so they “should not rush”, but first focus on language learning and a confirmation of their qualifications.
Part-time employment (i.e., mini-jobs) was also an important topic. The participants asked whether they would lose their social allowances if they had a mini-job. On this topic, users suggested that if social allowances are reduced to less than 100 Euros, it may not be worth taking such work. On the other hand, users who already had experience in mini-jobs indicated that their main motivation was not financial, but the opportunity to integrate faster.
Language courses also came up in both channels, especially during May and June. Participants searched for and shared addresses of language courses, recommended those with smaller queues. Course schedules and the problem of childcare for young children were important topics. Many mothers of children aged three to six were worried that they could not attend the courses because they did not have a kindergarten spot, and would for this reason lose their social allowance.
- Child Care, Education, and Children’s Leisure
In March and April, users inquired about accommodation with children, acquiring children’s things and food, and locating medical treatment. According to the users’ posts, the difficult journey and the seasonal increase of respiratory infections caused many children to become sick. From April, users increasingly asked about childcare and/or spots in kindergartens and schools. Mostly they shared their own experiences and discussed difficulties. For many, the biggest problem was a lack of kindergarten spots.
The situation with schools appears better, as most users asked how to find schools with integration classes and what vaccinations children need for registration. Some parents shared that their children were in their final grades and wanted to complete the school year in Ukraine online and receive Ukrainian educational documents.
Lastly, many users inquired about leisure activities for children. The majority of forced Ukrainian migrants are women with children and this question was highly prevalent. This topic, however, was also somewhat controversial. Some users in the Berlin group were outraged by questions about where to take children for free entertainment (e.g., zoos, swimming pools, museums, attractions, etc.). Specifically, they found entertainment irresponsible while people in Ukraine suffered. One user wrote, “Are you looking for protection or entertainment here, how can one even think about this when children back home are sitting in basements being bombed…”. Other users pointed out that those children who already reached a safe place should have leisure activities as part of their normal life.
- Medical and Psychological Assistance
In March and April, users inquired about medical care, asking where to go, where to find a doctor, how to make an appointment, and how to arrange insurance, among other things. Often, they requested a Russian-speaking doctor, as many users didn’t know German and, simultaneously, many German doctors don’t speak Ukrainian. (It is easier to find a doctor that speaks Russian, as most people from the former Soviet Bloc studied it.)
In May and June, the users who had experience with the German medical system posted about the differences between the Ukrainian and German system. Supporters of the German system stressed the quality of service, the modern equipment, and the positive attitude of medical workers toward the patient. Opponents listed the long waiting times for an appointment, the high cost of services, and in particular dental work, not covered by health insurance, and the inability to choose the types of diagnostics, among other things. For example, one user wrote: “…back home [in Ukraine] you come to a hospital, [to] a clinic with a problem… It doesn’t matter what kind of problem… Immediately they take a general blood test, then the diagnosis… Here [in Germany] you have to die to get even a blood test…”. Most of the critical posts seemed to stem from a lack of experience with the German health care system and other users provide answers.
In spring, there were also offers for free psychological support and assistance. Moreover, these included both online assistance from psychologists in Ukraine and in-person help by specialists also in Germany as migrants.
- Banking Services and Online Shopping
Many posts in the channels, both in spring and summer, were related to banking services, as most migrants needed to open German bank accounts to receive social allowances. The users mainly discussed the conditions of different banks and the advantages of some over others. Users also asked about online banking and money transfers to and from Ukraine. Many messages in spring contained requests and offers to privately exchange Ukrainian currency and US Dollars for Euros. An agreement between the National Bank of Ukraine and the Deutsche Bundesbank only happened in late May. Following this, in June, users asked how the exchange process worked.
Generally, when discussing banking services, users often compared them with Ukrainian ones. In their opinion, banking services in Ukraine are more modern, digitalized, and faster.
- Leisure, Sports, and Beauty
The groups received the topics of leisure, beauty, and sports with mixed feelings. For example, when one participant in the Berlin group asked about free classes in a fitness club for Ukrainians, a dispute began about whether it is appropriate for asylum seekers to ask about such things. Some users responded that these services are not necessary, and therefore should not be free. Others, meanwhile, argued that this is a health concern and an opportunity to distract from the war and adapt to the new environment.
Participants in the Berlin group responded negatively to requests for hairdressers and other beauty industry workers. They argued that such issues are not relevant “when there is a war in your country”. However, such responses were only typical for the first months of the war (in March to May), and from June onwards, finding hairdressers no longer caused negative reactions. In the group “Ukraine in Tübingen Reutlingen”, meanwhile, this confrontation did not occur; on the contrary, users shared the contacts of hairdressers from Ukraine or recommended the hairdresser they visited.
In these situations migrants, as opposed to representatives of the host society, impose stringent expectations on themselves. They deny themselves and others in the same situation so-called ‘unnecessary’ things, services, expenses, and forms of leisure, especially at the initial stage of adapting to new conditions.
- Communication, Activities, and Local Events
In April and May, the Berlin channel shared events organized specifically for Ukrainian refugees, as well as explanations about the peculiarities of local life. For example, users posted about the traditions around celebrating Easter and other holidays or the particularities of various institutions on holidays and weekends. However, such posts decreased over time.
The group “Ukraine in Tübingen Reutlingen” also shared updates about local life and meeting opportunities for refugees from Ukraine. There were frequent invitations to a local club for Ukrainian migrants in Reutlingen called “Dialog”. Beyond communication and various events, the club offered assistance with documents and translation, among other things. Generally, this channel published about local events, fairs, and holidays, indicated specific locations, and featured invitations in German more often.
- Appointments, Post Services, Correspondence, Parcels, Digital Services
Both groups discussed the concept of the “Termin” in March and April. Seemingly, Ukrainians found making appointments and meetings with institutions and organizations several days or weeks in advance somewhat strange. In Ukraine, this practice is not widespread and most institutions and organizations provide services to visitors without an appointment.
German post offices and correspondence practices were an important topic for Ukrainian migrants. The channels found the large amount of paper letters from most institutions and organizations unusual. This also applied to sending documents (e.g., bankcards, pin codes, health insurance cards, etc.) by mail. Largely, this can be explained by the fact that Ukraine underwent noticeable digitalization in the last three years, reducing paperwork and transitioning to the provision of most public services through digital apps (e.g., Diia).
Lastly, there were also frequent requests for carriers shipping/delivering goods from Ukraine and back. This was not only for transporting personal belongings, but also to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
What Do the Telegram Channels of Ukrainian Migrants in Germany ‘Keep Silent’ About?
Certain topics are ‘not welcome’ in the channels. If these topics come up, the moderators warn the users that they can be banned or be excluded from the groups. Specifically, these topics include language, religion, ethnicity, and politics.
Users brought up language more than once, because most of the messages are in Russian. However, any disputes about whether to use Russian or switch to Ukrainian ended with a moderator’s warning about the inadmissibility of language conflicts and the possible blocking of participants involved in the dispute. “Ukraine in Tübingen Reutlingen” asked users to join a specially created channel, “Fludilka”, for such dialogs. Meanwhile, moderators also prohibit discussing religion and ethnicity. Any intolerant statements, as seen so by the moderators or other participants, receive warnings and explanations that Germany is a tolerant country, everyone has the same rights, and everyone should be equally respected. These rules do not always apply to Russians, and neologisms such as “rusnya”, “rashists”, and “orcs” are often used for them.
The moderators discourage discussing political issues, but there are some reports about rallies and other events supporting Ukraine, references to current world events, and updates of victories by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Gender, meanwhile, is almost not mentioned. Although most Ukrainian refugees are women with children, there are men in both Telegram channels and they are active participants. Occasionally during conflicts, users ask these men what they are doing abroad, why they are not defending the country, or for which reasons they left Ukraine. This is generally used as a way to insult them. Such posts, however, are an exception.
Instead of a Conclusion
The Telegram channels of Ukrainian migrants in Germany demonstrate an interesting example of self-organization and mutual assistance. Nevertheless, the initiative to create such groups, rules, and processes of virtual interaction and communication between participants largely depend on their moderators. These channels accumulate useful information for migrants that can help solve some of their problems and record and share their experience of interacting with a new environment. However, the large number of messages per day and the uniformity of questions and answers make these channels a kind of ‘time sink’. To find relevant information, it is often necessary to read many ‘surplus’ messages that create ‘information noise’.
How much these groups help to integrate their users into the new society is also debatable. After all, they communicate ‘among themselves’, and not with representatives of the host society. Additionally, such groups have a ‘core’ of participants, but they are overall unstable and in flux, suggesting little cohesion. Thus, the Telegram channels of Ukrainian migrants are an auxiliary tool for adaptation and orientation in new conditions, allowing users to feel ‘less lonely’, to see what problems others have and how they solve them, and to ask for advice or get help.
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 For example, words as “Jobcenter” (джобцентр), “Sozialamt” (соціаламт), “Termin” (термін), “Fiktion” (фікшион), “Anmeldung” (анмельдунг), “Kindergeld” (кіндергельд), and others are often used.
 Arrival, transport, and transportation; housing, humanitarian aid, and household items; registration, documents, and legal issues; social assistance, work, and integration courses; Child care, education, and children’s leisure; medical and psychological assistance; banking services and online shopping; leisure, sports, and beauty; communication, activities, and local events; and appointments, post services, correspondence, parcels, and digital services.
Taisiia Ratushna is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Zaporizhzhia National University. In 2010, she received her PhD in Sociology from the Classical Private University (Zaporizhzhia). Since then, she has been working in the Department of Sociology at the Zaporizhzhia National University and conducts research on communication processes in urban space and in virtual environments. In 2020, she received an MA in Psychology. Taisiia also cooperates with NGOs and advises them on conducting sociological research. Her current research interests are digitalization and the impact of the internet and social media on modern society. Specifically, Taisiia investigates how certain groups use social media content and deal with different types of information in virtual space. Since the internet is self-regulating, and almost uncontrollable, useful and important information coexists with disinformation and manipulative materials that can spread quickly and have a detrimental effect on public opinion. In modern society, people consume large amounts of information. Thus, a problem arises: from this flow of information, useful and not misleading elements must be selected. Taisiia Ratushna is a 2022/2023 Prisma Ukraïna Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
Further articles in the TRAFO series War, Migration and Memory:
Denys Shatalov, Merging in Space: The Ongoing War and Previous Wars in Ukraine, 17 January 2023
Viktoriya Sereda, War, Migration and Memory: An Introduction, 10 January 2023
Citation: Taisiia Ratushna, What the Telegram Channels of Ukrainian Migrants in Germany ‘Talk’ and ‘Keep Silent’ About, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.03.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/45575