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Ukrainian Refugees in Poland: First Impressions

28 Mar 2022
By Dr Katarzyna Williams and Dr Hab Marcin Dębicki
A Ukrainian child is held in Przemyśl, Poland 27/02/2022
Source: Flickr, Mirek Pruchnicki

As the Ukrainian crisis continues, Poland has seen an unprecedented influx of displaced persons. Although the response from Polish civil society has been overwhelmingly positive, the future for Ukrainian refugees remains uncertain. 

With over 2.5 million people fleeing Ukraine within two weeks of the Russian invasion, the world is witnessing the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II. The UNHCR has estimated the conflict may create four million refugees, while the EU Crisis Commissioner predicts seven million people are at risk of being displaced.

In the first three weeks of the war, Poland alone received nearly two million refugees, more than any other neighbouring country. Since Warsaw and other big Polish cities are bursting at the seams, the refugees have been encouraged to go to other EU countries. Relying on a survey conducted at an accommodation point in Warsaw, Polish Secretary of State Paweł Szefernaker observed many refugees are ready to go to “the West” at any time. Indeed, some refugees have headed on for other EU states, mainly Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. However, the majority of refugees declare they do not want to travel any further west, often not even to regions other than Warsaw. They wish to return home as soon as possible. Others say they are afraid of going to a country other than Poland because of the language barrier. Professor Maciej Duszczyk of Warsaw University forecasts that 30 percent of the refugees have left or will leave soon, migrating westwards. The rest will stay in Poland, where the population of Ukrainians reached around 1.5 million people prior to the Russian invasion. Rough estimates indicate that another 1.5 million have so far decided to stay.

The Polish government, led by the Law and Justice party known for its anti-migrant politics, proudly announced that Poland accepted 1.5 million refugees without building camps for them. Indeed, thousands of ordinary Poles have opened their homes and rushed to organise transport, meals, childcare, psychological and medical support, on top of initiating and managing numerous money collections. Individuals are supported by private businesses and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), essential in managing a situation which could at any moment turn into chaos. City and local governments also play an important role, facilitating civil society initiatives, and encouraging cooperation with Ukrainian NGOs, the Union of Ukrainians in Poland or the Helsinki Foundation for Rights.

Mustering symbolic support has been considered equally important. Ukrainian flags and blue-yellow illuminations have been displayed across Poland, and the national anthem of Ukraine played from the city towers. Two weeks after the invasion began, Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, called Poland “one great non-governmental organization.”

Against this backdrop, the government’s action has clearly lagged behind. The initial free train service provided for refugees was considered a modest, if not embarrassing, response. Duszczyk stresses that for a longer period of time, Poland can responsibly accept 500,000-700,000 refugees. Therefore, the relocation plans should have been discussed with other EU countries as soon as the invasion began to allow relocation of at least a million people, with the countries’ consent to avoid problems caused by the forced relocation quotas in 2015. Similarly, the Special Act on the assistance to Ukrainian citizens fleeing war, adopted two weeks after the invasion, was criticised for its slow implementation, particularly because the government’s task was merely to approve existing local government projects.

Yet, the Special Act does provide much needed rights and benefits. For example, refugees from Ukraine can stay in Poland for 18 months and extend their stay up to three years without the need to seek additional permits. They are able to receive a national identity number (PESEL) necessary to deal with various formalities in Poland, such as getting a driver’s license or opening a bank account, and conduct business activity. They are entitled to work and have access to unemployment benefits, as well as healthcare and education. Covered by the Special Act, Ukrainian citizens also have access to support schemes, such as family allowances and social financial assistance. Additionally, Polish citizens hosting refugees in their homes will receive financial support for two months.

However, various problems appeared the moment the act was adopted. Notably, the act refers to Ukrainian refugees and does not cover refugees of other nationalities fleeing war in Ukraine or those Ukrainians who were already in the EU territory before 24 February. Hopefully, problems like this will be slowly fixed. The government has given assurances that the budget is sufficient to provide emergency aid for those fleeing the war. Yet, asked specifically about solutions for the health sector, seriously strained by the pandemic, Ryszard Terlecki, the parliamentary caucus head of the Law and Justice party, said the situation is difficult and “more durable solutions” are needed. Besides, money is only part of the solution. Poland has no experience managing such large migratory movements and has no efficient logistical and administrative procedures in place. Therefore, the help of specialised international agencies seems indispensable not only to manage the situation, but to provide adequate care to refugees.

It is clear that, despite the most sincere intentions, civil society cannot cope with such a large crisis on its own, and NGOs and local governments will not be able to manage this process without systemic support and financing. It is also clear that despite a continuing dispute between Poland’s nationalist government and the EU over rule-of-law, Warsaw needs to openly engage with Brussels and coordinate activities in close cooperation with EU partners and international organisations.

The level of mobilisation and solidarity might have surprised Poles themselves. Yet, social attitudes may change when the situation with healthcare, schools, or housing deteriorates. While the integration of Ukrainians in Poland has been successful so far, and their positive impact on the economy is evident, the Ukrainian migrants have basically constituted invisible migration —  even though Ukrainian language has been heard in all of the Polish cities. When this changes, tensions are likely to emerge. Polish-Ukrainian disagreements on the interpretation of the Ukrainian uprisings against Poles in 1943–45 and the forced resettlement of Ukrainians and Lemkos from south-eastern Poland in 1947 remain unsettled. In recent years, commemorations of the victims of the armed conflicts of 1943–47 have stirred up bitter controversy on both sides of the border. Such historical arguments, together with Polish society’s lack of experience with such a large immigration, can only accentuate typical migration-related anxieties, such as that refugees are “stealing” jobs from the locals.

There remain many questions as to what the future holds for Poland. The EU Council has launched the Temporary Protection Directive to enable Ukrainian refugees to stay in the EU for at least one year without having to apply for asylum or other forms of residency. This is an unprecedented move. Still, we do not know how many refugees will arrive in Poland and other member states, how much NGOs can withstand, or what long-term attitudes of the receiving countries will be. The approach of the Polish government, which has long been in a serious conflict with the EU, is not clear either. The decline of support for the ruling coalition, observable prior to the invasion, may push Warsaw to treat the EU partners instrumentally. Yet, to offer adequate protection, Poland needs to face up to lots of serious challenges, develop relevant policies, and revise its approach to the EU before the omnipresent blue-yellow flags start to fade and the peoples’ enthusiasm subsides.

Dr Katarzyna Kwapisz Williams is a Deputy Director and Jean Monnet Research Fellow at the ANU Centre for European Studies.

Dr Hab Marcin Dębicki is an Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology of Borderland at the University of Wrocław.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.