Poles Have Opened Their Arms to Ukrainians—but Will It Last?

Poles Have Opened Their Arms to Ukrainians—but Will It Last?

Poles Have Opened Their Arms to Ukrainians—but Will It Last?

The kindness of strangers won’t create the resources needed to shelter millions of refugees. Poland needs help.

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Lublin, Poland—More than 3 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded three weeks ago, making this Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. More than 60 percent—about 1.9 million—have escaped to Poland. “I didn’t even think about it,” said Hanna Samoviuk, an osteopath from Sumy, Ukraine, who recently arrived in Lublin with her 7-year-old daughter, Teresa. “I was in Europe before, so I was 100 percent sure that [Polish] people would help us.”

This response may be surprising to those familiar with Poland’s historically closed immigration policy, not to mention its complex and at times rather ugly history with Ukraine. In the Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918–19, Ukraine seized parts of Poland and justified it by saying those regions were mostly occupied by Ukrainians anyway. After World War I, Ukrainians proclaimed independence but the newly reborn Poland claimed western Ukraine for itself, leading to another war, in which Poland captured the disputed territories of western Ukraine.

In 1940, about 20 years after Ukraine was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, Ukrainian nationalist leaders turned to the only other European nation that opposed both those powers: Nazi Germany. In 1943, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred up to 100,000 people in German-occupied Poland, and four years later, Soviet-installed Polish communists forcibly displaced 141,000 Ukrainians.

But despite this fraught history, Ukrainian refugees arriving at the border have been met with open arms, fleeing the worst of humanity only to encounter the best of it. Polish citizens have been driving hours to pick up refugees, take them to their homes or a safe place to sleep, and then make another trip a few days later.

Olga Adamowicz, for instance, lives about 90 minutes from the border in Lublin. Last weekend, a friend asked if her Ukrainian relative could stay at Adamowicz’s home for one night. She prepared a room, then posted on Facebook to see if she could take others in.

“Friends! Will accept up to 10 people,” the post read. “Only women with children. I can also share a heated storage room of about 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) for refugees. Glory to Lublin.”

Four days later, she had hosted more than 1,000 people from Ukraine in her 360-square-meter home. She and her friend Lukasz Stoma have also been sending warm clothes, medicine, and baby carriers by the truckload to the border every day. “We are trying to do our best and that’s it, for them,” Stoma said. “We don’t care about ourselves at the moment.”

Not every Polish citizen feels this sympathetic, however. The older generation can still recall Ukrainians doing the dirty work for the Nazis during the occupation. Furthermore, amid the pandemic, Poland banned evictions, and now some civilians are concerned that hosting a refugee could mean taking on a rent-free roommate indefinitely. Not to mention the issue of assimilation, given that Polish is a notoriously difficult language to learn. Already, the far-right Konfederacja (Confederation Party) is looking to build political capital off anti-Ukrainian sentiment. Luckily, so far in this current crisis, there isn’t much to be found. On March 17, the party held a press conference—but no reporters showed up.

Still, one Polish friend told me, “I give the current wave of hospitality another two [more] weeks.” He thinks it will take just a few news reports about Ukrainians breaking the law for Polish citizens to kick them out.

On top of that, Polish refugee centers were already nearly full, after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pushed Syrians across the border last summer. And even if none of that were true, the current crisis is on such a large scale that the Polish government would not have the capacity to manage it.

“The maximum sustainable number [of refugees] for Poland is 800,000 or maybe 1 million,” Marcin Kedzierski, professor of economics at Krakow University and chief expert at the center-right think tank Klub Jagielloński, told me. But given the number of refugees that have entered Poland, and a maximum road capacity of 25,000 vehicles per day, Kedzierski noted, it would take over five days for the refugees to exit—and that’s just if zero Poles were on the roads.

In 2015, Germany took on an enormous challenge by welcoming 800,000 migrants, or almost 1 percent of its total population of 83 million. By comparison, if Poland takes 3 million refugees, that would be over 8 percent of its current population of 37 million people. “We cannot do this for longer than two weeks,” Kedzierski said.

Temporary solutions and the kindness of strangers have failed to answer the key question of where Ukrainian refugees are supposed to get the resources to stay for more than a few days. It is also unclear how the government will integrate the relief efforts of local governments and NGOs into its crisis management strategy and whether it will allocate adequate funding for such a provision. Joanna Niewczas, a refugee coordinator who is working at the Torwar sports arena in Warsaw, which is now operating as a refugee shelter, recently vented her outrage about this disorganization on LinkedIn.

“The jokes are over,” she wrote. “The governor is just giving interviews about how everything is under control and we volunteers are already at the edge of our physical and mental endurance.… We have no support from any NGO. All of us are just friends who came together…working 20 hours a day.” Niewczas also cited a lack of funds to buy medicine or meals for refugees, catering experience, basic hygiene products for showers and bathrooms, or Covid protective gear.

“How is it possible to be against this?” asked Karolina Wigura, a professor of sociology at Warsaw University, cofounder of the weekly magazine Kultural Liberalna, and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. “About 90 percent are women with children, and they have to start living normally as soon as they can. They will be trying to put their children into educational facilities. So it’s obvious that this should be as easy as possible.”

Fortunately, a recent report in the Polish daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita indicates that the eviction ban in Poland will not apply to rent-free use, although this is still pending parliamentary approval. Also, as of March 4, Ukrainians will be allowed to relocate across the EU to find suitable housing, jobs, medical care, and access to education—although for many this is only possible if they have family or friends in other EU countries. The government has also announced a subsidy of $9 a day for families hosting refugees, which is about enough for one entree in a Polish restaurant. Most importantly, the government is fast-tracking job permits, as there is simply no way to process so many asylum seekers. This means that refugees will be able to join the labor force via a general right-to-work provision, no paperwork required.

It’s worth noting that these steps are not entirely selfless acts on the part of the Polish government. Poland needs workers. Although its economy has been doing rather well in recent years, there has been a growing labor shortage ever since it joined the EU in 2004, which resulted in almost 2.3 million Poles’ moving to other parts of the bloc. As a result, in early 2022, Poland extended working rights—obviating the need for job permits—from six months to two years for all Eastern Partnership members, which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Many analysts have noted that the Polish public is acting differently now that the refugees are white. In 2015, Poland all but shut its doors to Syrian refugees. At that time, there were even protests in the streets in which people chanted, “Today immigrants, tomorrow terrorists!” A 2016 survey found that 73 percent of Polish respondents, more than any other nation surveyed, considered a large number of Iraqi and Syrian refugees to be a major threat to their country. Poland ended up taking about 8,500 Syrian refugees out of the 1.3 million that entered Europe, only 0.6 percent; it has taken in 60 percent of the fleeing Ukrainians now.

“I do believe questions of religion and ethnicity are relevant,” Wigura, the Warsaw sociology professor, said. “But also, the societies of Central and Eastern Europe perceive Ukrainians almost as themselves.”

This is a result of the common fate of Eastern Europe, she explained. When Chechen Muslim refugees came to Poland in the early 2000s, they were accepted not because of ethnic or cultural similarity but because they too were victims of Russia. It is this sense of a common enemy that has led to the current general posture of acceptance, she said, or what has been termed the “carnival of solidarity.”

As for whether this carnival will continue or the concerns of Konfederacja will eventually take hold, Wigura said this depends on two factors. First, the political mainstream, which so far, and to the surprise of many, has shown zero support for such views. Second, whether Polish state institutions will remain capable of dealing with a crisis on a scale that Europe not seen since 1945.

“This whole ‘carnival’ is a grassroots movement,” Wigura said. “Polish people are saying we don’t want to be this unwelcoming nation again. It’s as if they were waiting for this chance. A chance to change the reputation that Poland has due to this government. It’s a kind of protest. Hopefully, after this we will have learned enough to open our homes to the next refugees, from wherever they come.”

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