‘We are just before a stage where there will be a collapse of lots of things.’
Poland’s right-wing government has garnered praise for the generous welcome it has extended to refugees from neighbouring Ukraine.
But as Russia’s invasion enters its sixth month, aid workers and local civil society activists are warning that the relatively well-managed reception so far could soon start running into problems as volunteers who have been providing critical support burn out and plans to address the longer-term needs of the displaced seem lacking.
Between 1.5 million and 2 million Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion are estimated to be staying in Poland, including some 1.2 million who have registered for protection. That’s more than double any other country in the EU, where a total of around 3.7 million refugees from Ukraine have registered under a Temporary Protection Directive (TPD).
Activated at the beginning of March, this gives them the right to live, work, and access services in any of the EU’s 27 member states for at least a year. Around 90 percent of Ukrainian refugees are women and children.
In Poland, a special act codifying the TPD at the national level grants Ukrainian refugees the right to: stay in the country for 18 months; access the labour market and publicly funded healthcare system; attend Polish schools and universities, and receive social benefits and assistance on a par with Polish citizens.
“The government created… a really enabling legal environment for Ukrainian refugees to be in Poland,” Neil Brighton, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) Poland country director, told The New Humanitarian. “[But] we’re a bit aware of that gap between what is envisioned as a result of this enabling special act and what some of the reality will be for people who maybe get left behind.”
The number of new Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland has decreased significantly since the first months of the war. And according to a recent report by the Polish Economic Institute (PIE), a state-affiliated think tank, the response by the government and society has shifted from an initial spontaneous phase to a focus on adaptation and integration.
In the spontaneous phase, much of the work of addressing the day-to-day needs of Ukrainians was shouldered by volunteers, civil society organisations, and municipal governments. In the later phases, refugees are expected to start getting jobs and finding their own housing, with Poland’s welfare system filling in the gaps and the role of volunteers and civil society decreasing, the report said.
By the beginning of June, some 185,000 Ukrainian refugees had found jobs in Poland – around half in low-skilled positions. And Poland’s reception of Ukrainians has been held up by the UN and others as exemplary, especially in comparison to its treatment of non-Ukrainian asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Polish-Belarusian border.
But NGO workers and local civil society activists are concerned that even Ukrainians who have found work will struggle to make ends meet and that the needs of people escaping war – including financial assistance, psychological support, medical care, and more – go beyond what the Polish welfare system is designed to address. They also say that not enough has been done to increase the capacity of the Polish housing market, education system, and other essential services to accommodate more than a million refugees.
A spokesperson for the Polish government told The New Humanitarian via email that it has been working closely with NGOs and local authorities since February to prepare for and manage the arrival and hosting of Ukrainian refugees, distributing “several billion złoty” (1 złoty = 0.21 euro) to support activities to help Ukrainian refugees.
But with hundreds of thousands of school-aged Ukrainians set to enter an already overburdened Polish education system in September and many volunteers and activists facing exhaustion, the situation in Poland for many Ukrainian refugees will likely soon become more difficult, according to Agnieszka Kosowicz, president and founder of the Polish Migration Forum, an NGO.
“We are… just before a stage where there will be a collapse of lots of things,” Kosowicz said. “I’m expecting homeless people. I’m expecting kids that won’t have access to education. I expect exploitation in the labour market.”
Volunteer fatigue and a saturated housing market
In the three months after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, an estimated 77 percent of Poland’s population of around 38 million people got involved with providing help to Ukrainian refugees, according to the PIE report. The amount of money individuals spent on helping between the end of February and the end of May was greater than the amount Poles donated to charity in all of 2021, the report said.
“Everybody was doing something, either providing a room or a house or looking for transport, going to the border and back, fundraising with friends, organising a concert, or something,” said Helena Krajewska, a spokesperson for the NGO Polish Humanitarian Action. “It was overwhelming how many people wanted to help.”
But six months later, the level of support coming from Polish citizens has declined. “People… feel tired; they feel exhausted by this constant need of helping others,” Krajewska said.
This exhaustion could have a particular big impact on where and whether Ukrainian refugees have a place to live. An estimated seven percent of Poles – or around 2.6 million people – have hosted Ukrainians in their homes at some point since the end of February. Many hosted people for a short period of time before they travelled to other EU countries or found their own accommodation in Poland. But the housing market in Poland – particularly in bigger cities – is saturated.
“It’s very difficult right now to rent something relatively cheap, because everything is very expensive, and the most important thing is that there’s no flat on the market,” Tomasz Pactwa, director of the City of Warsaw’s department of welfare and social projects, told The New Humanitarian.
“We are not able to create extra flats in a couple of months. It’s beyond our capacity,” Pactwa continued. But the city of Warsaw is renovating around 2,000 existing apartment units to accommodate Ukrainians and has plans to invest in more affordable housing in the coming years, he added.
The Polish government is working on a draft strategy to help integrate Ukrainian refugees that includes establishing more public housing and renovating vacant properties to make them habitable, the spokesperson said, but did not mention when the new units are expected to be available.
In the meantime, many Ukrianians who did not already have relatives or friends in Warsaw – or elsewhere in Poland – and who haven’t been able to secure their own housing, are still staying with Polish hosts. But that arrangement is becoming less and less sustainable as time goes on.
At the beginning of June, the Polish government ended payments of 40 złoty (around 8.50 euros) per day for people hosting Ukrainian refugees. At the same time, many people who volunteered to host Ukrainians in their homes early on did not anticipate that the war would last this long. “People were taking decisions that were very short term and very spontaneous,” Kosowicz said.
Six months later, many Polish hosts can no longer afford to house people or are tired of sharing their apartments or homes. “Many people are now losing their temporary housing,” said Krajewska from Polish Humanitarian Action.
The situation has not yet resulted in Ukrainians being forced to live on the streets, but – along with other issues – it is exerting pressure on some people to return to Ukraine. “We see it every day,” Krajewska added. “Unfortunately, many people are going back to places that are not safe at all.”
Questions of capacity in education and social services
With the beginning of another school year less than a month away, there are also pressing questions about how the Polish school system will be able to accommodate the estimated 700,000 school-age Ukrainian children in the country.
By the end of last school year, some 200,000 new Ukrainian students had registered to attend schools in Poland, and many of them were placed directly into classrooms even though they did not speak Polish. Before the arrival of Ukrainian refugees, the Polish education system was facing a shortage of teachers and classrooms that has left thousands of Polish students without places in schools. So, despite theoretically being offered places, in many cases there weren’t enough teachers available to teach introductory Polish courses to Ukrainian students.
The Polish government spokesperson told The New Humanitarian that more than 680 million złoty (about 145 million euro) had been allocated to local governments for additional educational activities for Ukrainian refugees between the end of February and the end of June, but did not comment on plans to increase teacher and classroom capacities for this year.
The pressure on the school system is likely to increase this school year as Ukrainians make difficult decisions about whether to stay in Poland longer term or return to Ukraine. In Warsaw, the city government is expecting around 60,000 Ukrainian students to enter the school system in September, but only has space to accommodate 36,000, according to Pactwa, who added, “It could be a crisis”.
NGOs, local civil society groups, and municipal officials say they have been left scratching their heads about what the national government’s plans are to address the situation.
“A very democratic approach would be very welcome here, [where] you have the government, non-governmental [organisations], local governments, [and] international organisations sit together and learn from each other,” Kosowicz said. “[But] you don’t have this kind of thinking [from the government].”
NGO workers and civil society groups are also concerned that the benefits and assistance provided by the Polish social safety net – designed to support Poles who have some resources and support systems, not people newly displaced by war – might not match the needs of Ukrainian refugees.
What the government is doing to provide legal residence – and to give Ukrainians access to the labour market and social services on an equal level as Polish citizens – is a great step, and more than what has been done for refugees from other parts of the world both in Poland and other EU countries, according to Kosowicz. “[But] the decision to give people… open access to the system is not enough when you have people who have needs that are beyond that system,” she said.
At the same time, the system that Ukrainians do have access to was already under a bit of strain before this sudden influx of refugees, according to Brighton from NRC. “And now you have a five percent increase in the population [of Poland] within six months,” he said. “That’s a tremendous number of people for the medium term for a city or a country to accommodate.”
Anti-refugee sentiment and tough months ahead
As the fighting in Ukraine drags on with no end in sight and the refugee response in Poland becomes more complicated, people working on the front lines worry that the number of Poles involved in helping will continue to decline and that anti-refugee sentiment will eventually emerge.
Prior to Russia’s invasion at the end of February, around one million Ukrainians who lived and worked in Poland – including many men who have since returned to Ukraine to support the war effort – faced discrimination and harassment.
“I know what happened before the war: how Poland, the Polish government… big companies, treated people from Ukraine,” Anna Dąbrowska, head of the Polish human rights organisation Homo Faber in the eastern city of Lublin, told The New Humanitarian. “I think this attitude will come back very soon.”
As long as the war continues, there is also always the possibility that the number of refugees entering Poland could once again increase. With Ukraine’s GDP projected to shrink by 45 percent this year, people could be pushed to leave in search of work. There are also a significant number of internally displaced people in western Ukraine who may not have access to adequate housing when cold weather sets in, and cities across the country are already bracing for a tough winter with frequent disruptions to electricity and gas supplies.
“Will people leave if it’s too difficult to be there?” Brighton asked. “That is a concern.”
For now, people working in the refugee response in Poland are trying to keep things moving as smoothly as possible. “Everyone is tired,” Dąbrowska said. “I’m exhausted.”
At the end of February, Homo Faber, other local organisations, and the Lublin city government set up a committee to coordinate support for Ukrainian refugees. It established a 24/7 hotline to provide information to Ukrainians entering Poland; organised information points in the city; helped connect refugees escaping the invasion with accommodation, legal advice, and psychological support; and coordinated hundreds of volunteers.
Since then, volunteer numbers have dropped from a peak of more than 300 to around 170, and many of those still engaged are refugees from Ukraine themselves. It's only because of this coordination between the city government and local civil society that Ukrainians in Lublin have been able to receive the help they need, according to Dąbrowska, who expressed concern about looming challenges that can’t be addressed solely at the local level.
“No one from the government created any meetings with us to tell [us] what they want to do,” Dąbrowska said. “I really hate it, but our [national] government is not present.”
For Kosowicz from the Polish Migration Forum, this lack of communication and coordination between the national government and local organisations that have been on the front lines is a missed opportunity. “The role of the civil society at the beginning, I think it was to buy time,” she said. “They bought a lot of time, and this time was not used.”
Now, it feels like Poland is falling, Kosowicz continued. “I think you can minimise the impact,” she added. “[But] that we are falling, I have no doubt.”