Ukrainian refugees in Southeast Europe risk running out of money

Ukrainians in a refugee camp at the National Exhibition Center in Chisinau, Moldova, March 24, 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE/DUMITRU DORU

Most countries in south-eastern Europe have declared themselves ready to receive Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of their country – and some have already opened their doors, welcoming up to hundreds of thousands of people.

But many of these refugees will have problems covering their living expenses in their host country, as Ukrainian currency can no longer be exchanged for euros or local currencies, except in Moldova and Romania.

Other Southeast European countries will not exchange Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, which is currently worth 0.031 euro.

In North Macedonia, no exchange rate is available. No Ukrainian or Russian banks operate in the country. About 400 Ukrainians have entered North Macedonia since the start of the war, according to the Red Cross, but none appear to have applied for refugee status. According to the Red Cross, most of the Ukrainians who have settled there are staying with relatives and friends. Payment in local currency has therefore not yet become a problem.

The Central Bank of Albania claims that the Ukrainian currency is not included in the list of exchangeable currencies. The largest exchange operator in Albania, Iliria 98, does not offer rates for the hryvnia.

Albania decided on March 18 to allow Ukrainians fleeing the war to stay in Albania with a one-year residence permit, with no limit on numbers.

In Kosovo, financial services companies and banks cannot exchange Ukrainian currency into euros.

Kosovo’s parliament passed a resolution in March expressing its willingness to accommodate up to 5,000 Ukrainian refugees. The government has also allocated 150,000 euros to house 20 Ukrainian journalists for six months. By mid-March, only two Ukrainian women, with their children, had settled there.

In order for a Ukrainian to be able to exchange their currency for euros in Kosovo, they must first transfer their money to a local bank account, where it will be automatically converted into euros. Most banks in Kosovo require proof of residence and identification documents to open a bank account.

In Serbia, the Ukrainian hryvnia is not on the list of currencies that can be exchanged.

The Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, Vladimir Cucic, told Deutsche Welle on March 2 that it could accommodate around 1,500 Ukrainian refugees. By early March, around 300 people had entered Serbia, most of whom have already moved to Montenegro and Croatia because they have real estate there.

The Greek Capital Exchange office told BIRN that they cannot exchange Ukrainian money into euros because Greek banks won’t let them.

Greece claims that since the start of the war, 14,429 Ukrainian citizens have entered the country, including 4,580 minors.

In Bulgaria, some exchange offices still sell Ukrainian currency, but even these do not buy hryvnias. 1 Ukrainian hryvnia is currently worth 0.060 lev. As of March 26, Bulgaria had allowed 120,000 Ukrainians into the country since the start of the conflict, of whom 55,000 remained.

The central banks of Greece, Kosovo and Serbia did not respond to BIRN’s questions on the matter at press time.

The only exceptions to the no-trade rule in the region are Moldova and Romania. National banks and private banks still exchange hryvnia there without any restrictions. Moldova and Romania have taken in about 100,000 Ukrainian refugees in total.

March 24, Reuters reported that European Union countries could agree to allow Ukrainians to change their currency into currencies used in the EU, at the rate of the Ukrainian central bank, for three months.

According to Reuters, each EU country would set up its own system to ensure that each refugee could exchange a maximum amount of around 10,000 hryvnia, and only once.

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