The failure of the Ukraine Task Force: the government has blocked European money for refugees with shadow projects

08 sept., 2023

Ukrainian refugees told that they were forced to return to the bombed areas because the Romanian state blocked aid money for months. We found out that the government has not used European money intended for refugees, although they could have. Instead of paying for food and accommodation for Ukrainians, the authorities were struggling in February this year to spend European funds on protection masks for schoolchildren and other pandemic-related purchases.

Essential information:

  • Documents show authorities were buying disinfectants or masks in 2023 for the 2021-2022 school year
  • The government has thus suspended more than a billion euros, while recording debts of tens of millions of euros for programmes for Ukrainians
  • Now a Ciolacu cabinet minister says one of the reasons for the higher deficit is refugee spending

At the end of August, President Klaus Iohannis praised Romania’s humanitarian efforts and solidarity: „Romania’s solidarity with Ukraine has remained unwavering. We have received more than 5.7 million Ukrainians, we have coagulated large-scale international humanitarian efforts (…) We will continue to provide multidimensional and comprehensive support to Ukraine for as long as necessary”. After dozens of public enquiries, interviews and discussions, we have found that the situation is not as the President describes it, at least not in terms of how the authorities have handled this crisis.

For example, take the case of Katerina, who fled Russian-bombed Herson last November. She found a host in Romania who provided a home for her and her child. Shortly afterwards, she noticed that the money the Romanian state had promised to help her had not arrived. „When the conditions of the programme for Ukrainians started to change, (the hosts) continued to pay me and the child money for food in advance from their own budget. Although the owners of the apartment have not yet received funds from the government for April (…) Under the new program, so far we have not received anything from the Romanian government.” She has received financial support from an NGO, but this money is now also running out and public funds do not seem to be reaching her. Katerina says all that remains is for her to return home, where shelling by the Russian army awaits.

Katerina, refugiată ucraineană din Herson

Katerina, refugiată ucraineană din Herson

Katerina and her son in Maramures, Romania

„Herson is a city where bombings are constantly taking place, it’s very scary there. But we are forced to go back to the war, at least there we have our own home. However, I can’t imagine how I will live there with my child under war conditions. If the Romanian government continued to help vulnerable families, we would stay in Bucharest.”

Maria came from Mykolaiv with her 3-year-old son and his mother, but after six months she had to return to Ukraine. „The rents have increased a lot (…) I can’t work because I have a small child and a sick mother”, Maria told

Nikolaev bombardat de ruși

Mykolaiv, Ukraine, afer Russian Federation bombing / Photo source: Dorel Nicolae

Moreover, she also had an unpleasant experience with her host in Romania. They had agreed to give them the 20 lei per person for food, but Maria only received the amount for two months, only after complaining to several institutions. The host wrote in a message that she could not pay them because she had not received the money from the state. Maria returned to Mykolaiv, a region under bombardment by the Russian army.

The money passed through Arafat

Raed Arafat

Raed Arafat (Photo: Inquam Photos / Alexandru Busca)

Libertatea and other publications have reported on how Ukrainians are forced to return to the war zone because they can no longer live in Romania, a major reason being that the Romanian state has blocked the financial resources through which they could access housing. Specifically, the state was paying Romanian hosts for the refugees’ meals and accommodation. Cases like Maria and Katerina’s were recurring among tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. In March this year, around 200 Ukrainians protested in Constanța after their landlords told them to find other accommodation. They explained that they could no longer accommodate them because they had not received any more money from the state to cover the costs. 

Instead, Finance Minister Marcel Bolos recently complained in Brussels that Romania has a large deficit because of spending on refugees. Refugee money was handled by the General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations (GIES), an institution under the control of Secretary of State Raed Arafat. The GIES told us that it had not paid over 310 million lei in rent and food money to the Ukrainian refugees. The debt is from April to July 2023. 

When the 50/20 programme got stuck

At the beginning of the conflict, the government activated the national 50/20 programme. Hosts who took in people fleeing the war-stricken country were reimbursed for food and accommodation costs, at the rate of 20 lei/day/refugee for food and 50 lei/day/refugee for accommodation. The point of departure of the money was the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the GIES under Arafat’s coordination, the money went from there to the territory, to the town halls and finally to the Romanians who hosted the refugees. 

In October last year, the first problems started to appear, as some of the public money stopped going to the hosts. Since January this year, the programme has frozen and the Romanian hosts have not received any money for accommodation and food. It was only in May that they started to pay the amounts for the first three months of the year, but the money for April has not been paid out yet. An official reply from the GIES says that the obstruction occurred at the level of the higher institution, i.e. the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The inspectorate told us that as soon as it receives the money it will send it out.

The statistics show that just in the period when the money hiccups occurred, the number of Ukrainian refugees decreased. From over 113 thousand in February to 86 thousand at the beginning of June.

EU gave us money for refugees 

After the Russian invasion that led to the refugee crisis, the European Commission announced that it had made money available for countries hosting Ukrainians. The funds were actually unused money from various ongoing programmes. So the Romanian state could use for refugees European money they had been failing to spend. reporters have calculated that around €2 billion from various European programmes could have been used by the government to pay for refugees. It is unclear what percentage of the 2 billion was available for Ukrainians. We do know that of the 2 billion, a large part, 1.8 billion, was from the REACT-EU programme, which the EU has told Romania it can use for refugees. REACT-EU is a funding line through which the EU wanted to help countries alleviate the negative economic effects caused by the pandemic. The money could be invested in healthcare or new jobs or aid schemes for companies hit by the pandemic.

State buys masks and coveralls in 2023 for 2021  

We asked the Ministry of Investment and European Funds why it did not pay the expenses for the Ukrainians from the European funds. The Ministry said that it could not make the payments from the European REACT-EU programme because the money was already allocated. But official data contradict the ministry’s claims.

A document posted on the website of the General Secretariat of the Government in February 2023 (when the money for the Ukrainians was blocked) shows that one of the Romanian programmes, financed from REACT-EU, was delayed and the European money was not absorbed. Basically, from the REACT-EU money that the Ministry of European Funds told us was not accessible to the Ukrainians, the Romanian state wanted to buy masks, disinfectants, coveralls, disinfection equipment for schools and other equipment for hospitals.

Marcel Boloș, ministrul Finanțelor, fost ministru al Fondurilor Europene

Marcel Boloș (Photo: Inquam Photos / Octav Ganea)

1.5 billion unspent but blocked 

The government has approved more than 1,000 school and hospital projects worth more than €1 billion in 2021-2022.  The problem is that most of them have not been completed even in 2023. „Although these measures were of an emergency nature, creating the premises for short-term implementation, the progress in implementation was not as expected and the absorption rate was below the level of the allocation, that is, about 10% for state educational establishments and about 55% for public health establishments,” says the document signed by the Minister of European Funds himself. So European money was not spent even a year after the war began. In February, the state had about 900 million lei unspent from the schools programme alone. 

An up-to-date statistic shows that Romania still has more than €1.5 billion unspent from REACT-EU, the very programme the EU told us to take from to help our neighbours in Ukraine. 

The fact that there was European money for refugees is proven by an official communication from the European Commission. At the beginning of the war, the European forum announced that it had made a payment of 450 million euros to Romania and that this money was intended for refugees. It was also the REACT-EU funding line which, from the government’s perspective, was untouchable for the Ukrainians. But the European funds ministry insisted that the money was already set aside for other purposes and could not be allowed to enter the Ukrainian pipeline.

But the big European money only arrived at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in June this year. Last year, just over €39 million came from EU funds. The Ministry led by Adrian Câciu told us that it had sought and found alternative sources of EU funds from REACT-EU. It took over a year for €200 million to reach the Ministry’s accounts for the food and accommodation settlements for refugees. It is not clear whether the Ministry passed the money on to the GIES. We asked the ministry, which has not yet replied. 

Jirlău case: In 2023 they bought protective masks for 2020-2021

More than 700 thousand lei from REACT-EU, the fund from which the state could take money for refugees, was spent by the municipality of Jirlău in Brăila county in 2023. The municipality signed a contract in April 2022 for the purchase of tens of thousands of protective masks, thousands of litres of disinfectants, thermoscanning gates and other such products. In a press release, the mayor’s office says it purchased protective masks in April 2022 and 2023 to ” diminish the risk of spreading Covid-19 disease in the 2020-2021 school year by equipping educational establishments.” The pandemic alert officially ended in March 2022, and the project in Jirlău began a month after the state decided that special anti-Covid measures were no longer needed.

Uncounted and unchecked money 

In order to be reimbursed for the refugees’ accommodation and food expenses, the host had to submit a request to the local public administration authorities stating the number of persons accommodated, their names, the locations from which they claim to come and the period of time for which they are claiming the expenses, an official statement on the accuracy of the information, a copy of their identity card and documents proving the right of use of the property where the refugees are accommodated. However, there was no requirement for any document or statement from Ukrainian citizens to be submitted with the application. Checks were carried out by the employees of the municipalities that received the applications of the hosts, but there was no stipulation that these checks were mandatory.

Ukraine task force: much PR, little data

Nicolae Ciucă, la evenimentul ,,Romania - 1 an de solidaritate fata de Ucraina

Nicolae Ciucă (Photo: Inquam Photos / Sabin Cirstoveanu)

Moreover, none of the public authorities seems to have a clear record of the refugees who have received support under the 50/20 programme, as the data is not centralised at national level. This is despite the fact that, at the beginning of the conflict, the government led by liberal Nicolae Ciucă set up a special committee called the Ukraine Task Force, and later the „Ukraine Commission” was set up. They had exactly this role, to collect and index data about the war in Ukraine and the refugee situation.

Spending on the 50/20 programme to support Ukrainian refugees amounted to 1.4 billion lei, but the authorities apparently do not know how many Ukrainian refugees have benefited from the programme. 

We asked the GIES for a more detailed account to understand where the money went, but without success. The inspectorate told us that unless it was written in some law that they had to count the money spent and the Ukrainians to whom the funds went, they had no reason to do so. They sent us to ask for information from the county inspectorates they coordinate. 

We did that, too, but we ran into non-transparency. Only 28 of the 41 inspectorates responded. But the information from the county inspectorates does not clarify the situation either. Some inspectorates told us they could not guarantee the accuracy of the data. 

The government decision that set up the bureaucratic circuit of payments required municipalities to send tables listing the names of the hosts who were to receive the money, the number of refugees they hosted and the days they stayed. Refugees were not identified with their names, surnames and the CNP they received with the documents through which they were registered by the Romanian state. But Arafat’s inspectorates say they only received summarised data. The GIES says it does not have clear accounts showing that Y days of food and accommodation were paid for refugee X.

Dozens of criminal cases for false claims

Ion Petrovai, primar în comuna Petrova, Maramureș

Ion Petrovai, mayor of Petrova, Maramures/ Photo: Ion Petrovai / Facebook

Prosecutors and police have opened criminal cases for refugee cash fraud. The method by which the money was embezzled was a simple one: landlords claimed money for accommodation and meals without having hosted refugees.  

For example, in Maramureș county, between March 2022 and July 2023, more than 500 people, including public officials, illegally obtained money after falsely declaring that they had accommodated Ukrainian refugees, and 44 criminal cases were opened for illegally obtaining funds and falsifying private documents, according to the County Police Inspectorate’s response to a Context request.

In Petrova, a municipality of 2,500 inhabitants in Maramureș, more than 100 people are suspects of having illegally received 2.6 million lei. They are accused of falsely declaring that they had accommodated Ukrainian citizens. They were supposed to receive another 9.7 million lei, but the money has been frozen until the investigation is completed.

According to Libertatea, the mayor of the municipality, who is a suspect in the case, says he has a clear conscience and has not received any money: „I swear on my soul, with my hand on the Bible, that I am telling you the truth (…) Six or seven” of the 19 people working in the town hall are alleged to have committed irregularities, although the mayor warned them. 

In Constanța county, where the state has paid out a total of over 300 million lei under the 50/20 programme, the authorities recently discovered that landlords had claimed 1.2 million lei for the accommodation and food expenses of Ukrainian refugees, even though the foreign nationals on the claims were not even in Romania between March Refugee and host stories 

Alongside the freezing of government money, stories have emerged about the experiences of refugees and the owners of the houses hosting them. Some refugees accused landlords of embezzling money from the state, landlords of having their homes destroyed by refugees, and others who got along and helped each other despite the problems caused by lack of money. 

A criminal lawyer with whom Expert Forum has worked to advise Ukrainians who claim they have not received food or money for food from their hosts believes that unclear regulations have created such problems.

Emil Toma, another lawyer, has 26 cases of Ukrainian refugees. „The people who have approached me claim that they were not provided with food (…) In four cases the Romanian citizens (the hosts) paid in full, in one case they paid partially, and in the rest of the cases they claimed that there was partial destruction, that they had losses, damages as a result of the stay of the Ukrainian citizens there and they refused to pay”, the lawyer explained to

„They left with the TV in their suitcase”

A woman from Iasi made her home available for 30 refugees in total from March to August 2022. She told Context that she hosted people who appreciated the help she received, but also had some inconveniences. 

„I had a family with three children, the only ones I can give an A for. I was sorry they didn’t stay in Romania. They went to Germany. It was the family I cried for when they left,” says Mrs Luci with emotion.

„I had a bad experience. I previously had a couple of Ukrainians and they left with the TV in a suitcase”, Mrs Luci recalled in her conversation with Context reporter.

And the last family staying there complained that she did not provide them with food, although the host could later prove with receipts and CCTV footage that she was bringing them food.

„After this complaint I decided to stop taking Ukrainians. I pity them, they have problems… The fact that I was taken to the police, that my fairness was questioned… I gave up,” the woman recounted. 

On the other hand, Oana Tănase, the manager of a hotel in Constanța, told us that despite the fact that the state did not pay, the refugees were not kicked out of their rooms. „At one point, the money came in a little bit slower and now there’s only one month left. We had many, they came, they left… 300, 400, 500 (refugees) in a month. We accepted them in April as well, we didn’t kick them out of the hotel, no matter that we collected the money late. It was hard then (…) We were bearing all the expenses,” she recounted.

  • If you are a refugee and you have problems with your host in Romania send us your story here!
  • If you have hosted refugees and the state has not paid your expenses send us your story here!

Our colleagues from Ukraine, Alina Okolot and Yana Skoryna, also contributed to this article.

Despre autor: Iulia Stanoiu

Avatar of Iulia Stanoiu
Iulia Stănoiu este jurnalist de investigații al CONTEXT. Înainte, a făcut parte, timp de șapte ani, din echipa radioului din orașul natal, ca prezentator și reporter și a activat vreme de patru ani în presa scrisă. În 2023, a primit Premiul I la Gala Superscrieri, la categoria Debut Jurnalistic, pentru seria de investigații “Președinte de județ”. Iulia face parte din proiectul Rețeaua Minciunilor (Firehose of Falsehood) – o echipă de jurnaliști de investigație din 13 țări din Europa Centrală și de Est, afiliată OCCRP, care investighează rețelele care diseminează online dezinformarea, propaganda pro-rusă și conspirațiile. Iulia a contribuit și la investigația internațională Shadow Diplomats, coordonată de International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

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