Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Ukrainian Refugees in Poland: The Festival of Help and the Government’s Reluctance to Act



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Guest post by Anna Ratecka. Anna is a research fellow and doctoral candidate at the Institute of Sociology, Jagiellonian University in Krakow and a guest researcher at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo. Her research interests include migration, grassroots mobilization, feminist theory and sex work. 


Ukrainian refugees crossing into Poland



Since 24th February 2022, Europe has faced an unprecedented increase in the number of refugees as a direct result of Russia's war against Ukraine. The UNHCR estimates (as of 21st March) that over 3.5 million refugees have already fled Ukraine and the number is still growing, with predictions that it might reach up to 5 million. Most of these people have fled to neighbouring countries, including Poland, Slovakia, Moldova, Romania and Hungary. Although their arrival poses a challenge for all these countries (especially Moldova who accepted almost 350,000 refugees, 13% of its population), Poland has taken in the largest number of people, 2.1 million. Even though many Ukrainians are traveling further to Germany or to other European countries to join their families or via organized humanitarian transport, a large majority want to stay in Poland.

Poland became the main destination for Ukrainians because of already existing migration patterns and a large Ukrainian diaspora in the country. There is cultural proximity between these two countries and a general welcoming attitude on the part of Polish society and the state. Together these factors meant that the first refugees were able to join family, friends or former employers, benefitting from already established social and economic networks in Poland.

In the following days, however, this first group was succeeded by Ukrainians who fled without any safety net. These people are dependent on state and civil society assistance,  much of which is provided by informal, self-organized groups and NGOs. While some of these groups had been established in response to the earlier migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, far more people have turned out to help Ukrainians with hundreds of people travelling to the border to offer food supplies, transportation and housing. Poles also invited thousands of refugee families to their homes.

In the first days of the war, the government simplified border control measures to speed up crossing. Nevertheless, the waiting time on the Ukrainian side reached at some point more than 60 hours. The government also organised free transportation into the country. Although local governments actively engaged in organizing local reception points, temporary shelters and food supplies, the central government showed little willingness to take on the responsibility of refugee reception.

Known locally as the "festival of help", the description Poles use when referring to this extraordinary mobilization, has been going on now for almost four weeks. As the number of incomers exceeds local capacity, civic mobilisation has been drained of energy. This civic-based aid is locally focused. There is no coordination between institutions and regions. Provision of individualised help in the form of transportation with private cars or supplying essential goods (such as clothing, hygiene products, food, and so on) is time-consuming and energy-intensive. Sometimes it can be misdirected, for example when border cities were overwhelmed with donated clothes. It is unlikely that such an improvised system can be sustained in the long run. There are also solutions it cannot provide, such as long term housing or education for the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children who are now resident on Polish soil.

On 9th March, the Polish government passed a special refugee law tailored for this extraordinary situation. The bill, similar to the one accepted in the Czech Republic, gives Ukrainian nationals access to the health and education systems as well as to the labour market, almost equalising their status with that of Polish citizens for a period of 18 months, with possible prolongation for another 18. Although this much-needed law envisions a broader scope than the European Union's (EU) temporary protection directive securing stay in Poland for as long as 18 months, it contains some controversial solutions. The law is limited to Ukrainian citizens (rather than all persons fleeing Ukraine, regardless of citizenship) who travel directly to Poland after February 24, 2022. This means that those who arrived before that date or who travelled via another country will not be eligible under this scheme. The law also introduces financial benefits for Polish citizens hosting Ukrainian refugees, of approximately 250 euros per month per person. While this measure ostensibly recognizes the efforts of many Poles who are hosting refugees, it also institutionalises the privatisation of refugee support.

Civil society’s representatives are calling for the government to develop a support system and coordinate actions, which would smooth the information flow between grassroots efforts, local governments and central authorities as well as enable the proper registration of refugees. Yet, the Polish authorities’ refusal to create a comprehensive and coordinated refugee support system is grounded in a long-standing failure of the ruling party to establish a coherent migration policy instead of ad hoc created laws. Since 2015, when Poland refused to accept refugees from Syria, the government has maintained a hostile attitude towards non-white and non-Christian migrants and displaced persons using xenophobic and racist rhetoric. In 2016, the newly elected right-wing government annulled the previously existing migration legislation. The law that aimed at simplifying access to the labour market and introducing integration and education programs for immigrants was suspended because of “not covering the refugee crisis of 2015”, as the Ministry of Internal Affairs commented. New solutions to address migration were to be promptly introduced, but it took 3 years for the authorities to prepare a new legislation. The proposal submitted by the government in mid-2019 was critically assessed by migration scholars and human rights organizations.

The Polish state has systematically criminalized migration of undocumented or asylum-seeking people. Polish border control has been increasingly selective in who is allowed to enter the country. The peak of this anti-refugee politics has been evident at the Polish-Belarusian border since August 2021. There, thousands of asylum seekers trying to enter Poland have been subjected to pushbacks and violence from Polish authorities. Thousands of refugees, including families with children, have been trapped in limbo in the forests, where they have suffered and even died of hypothermia, hunger, and exhaustion. While NGOs, informal groups and local governments, have offered assistance to refugees, help in the established restricted zone was criminalized and the conditions for providing assistance have been extremely difficult. This crisis is still ongoing with migrants being pushed by Belarusian authorities to Poland even as the war in Ukraine rages.

These two contradictory responses to mobility divide refugees into Ukrainian passport holders who receive better treatment and third-country citizens, who face discrimination. Such differential treatment has been documented at the Polish-Ukrainian border where non-Ukrainian refugees were forced to wait long hours in bad conditions and exposed to attacks.  

These two ongoing migration crises reveal the embedded racism and selective solidarity in Poland. It also exposes the Polish state’s negligence in the field of immigration policy. On the other hand, Polish civil society, both NGOs and informal groups, have been well organized, capable of quick mobilization and unconditional solidarity. With no quick end to the war in Ukraine and a presumed continuous increase of refugees, the establishment of a coordinated reception infrastructure (establishing housing facilities capable of housing hundreds of thousands of migrants), and institutional solutions (organizing education for children or inclusion into medical schemas, continuing medical treatment etc) is needed. Both, however, would increase pressure on Polish public services. The challenge, then, would be to sustain the welcoming attitude of Polish citizens. To do so effectively, the government needs to create solutions that instead of dividing society, would build a sense of community, further able to integrate refugees. The attitude and beliefs of those in power, though, do not hold onto much hope for the future.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Ratecka, A. (2022) Ukrainian Refugees in Poland: The Festival of Help and the Government’s Reluctance to Act. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/03/ukrainian [date]

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