The scale of the exodus from Ukraine is unprecedented and Poland is the first destination for refugees. The central European country is facing its biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II.
So far, more than 1.6 million people have entered Poland from Ukraine. The scale of the influx is such that in Warsaw alone the number of refugees exceeds 10% of the city’s population, or 1.8 million.
Brian Porter-Szucs, a history professor at the University of Michigan, says it’s easier for Ukrainians to travel to Poland because they already have extensive ties there, thanks to labor migration patterns long-standing work. In addition, the similarities between the two languages facilitate communication.
“Ukrainians can integrate much more easily than previous groups seeking help in Poland,” Porter-Szucs said. “If you look at a Ukrainian and a Pole, you won’t be able to tell who is who, and that definitely contributes to the Poles’ willingness to help.
“Unfortunately, racial categories have played an unconscious but very real role in facilitating assistance to Ukrainians, even as it has been denied to those coming from outside Europe. Additionally, much of Ukraine was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic, so the regions have a very long and intertwined history.
Poland’s population has been stable at around 38 million since around the late 1980s. What does this wave of refugees mean for the country?
From the Polish perspective, this is by far the largest number of refugees the country has ever had to deal with. Nothing that even comes close. Not so long ago, Poles emigrated to other countries. It is only very recently that the government has had to deal with immigration.
Over the past 20 or 30 years, Poland has become much richer than it ever was in the past, and more and more people from all over the world have begun to seek refuge there. The overall numbers were still tiny before this month, but the process was beginning. Now, with the Ukrainian crisis, the floodgates have opened, providing ordinary Poles and the Polish government with an unprecedented experience.
People all over Poland showed their solidarity with Ukrainian refugees. What is the actual situation at the Polish border?
A massive mobilization is underway. People from all over Poland (from all over Europe, for that matter) traveled to the border to offer rides and welcome refugees. We have never seen anything like it. It got to the point where the authorities had to say there was no need for more volunteers because there were so many of them that they were creating traffic jams.
Thanks to emergency procedures introduced last week, Ukrainians are welcome to enter Poland even if they have no papers. It’s a pretty amazing twist because the current government in Poland has been extremely hostile to refugees before that. Last fall they declared martial law along their border with Belarus to block a few thousand refugees from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa. Reporters were banned from the border area and residents were forbidden from helping asylum seekers who managed to cross. Even now, non-whites trying to enter Ukraine are often turned away by border guards. Fortunately, those entering the country are generally greeted with the hospitality and generosity of ordinary Poles.
All in all, it was quite impressive. However, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Europeans are mobilizing to support the victims of this conflict because they see them as fellow Europeans, as “us” rather than “them”.
What if these newcomers stay thinking about the medium and long term? How long will Poland be able to support them?
The Poles are struggling with it right now. We’re talking about over a million people, and a huge percentage of them are children. Many will continue to seek refuge in the wealthier countries of Western Europe, but many – perhaps most – will remain in Poland.
In a move we hardly ever see in cases like this, the public school system has been opened up to Ukrainian children. There is a lot of debate on how to deal with this, because even though the two languages are related, they are by no means the same and children will not understand the teaching of Polish. There is a very underdeveloped infrastructure for teaching Polish as a second language, and teachers lack the training and resources to deal with this situation. Some have proposed setting up separate schools for the refugees, but this is difficult as they are scattered across the country. There are no large refugee camps similar to what we usually see in cases like this. We are already hearing backlash from parents who fear that Ukrainian children are taking away resources that would have gone to their own children.
The construction industry and the agricultural sector are other challenges that Poles have to face. There were already many Ukrainians in Poland working on construction sites, and migrant farm workers are also heavily Ukrainian. They played a vital role in the Polish economy. There is now some concern because almost all male Ukrainians have returned home to fight. Suddenly, many construction projects have to stop because they have lost their staff.
The share of the working-age population has decreased in Poland, while the elderly population has increased. The country desperately needs more workers in the medium to long term, so there is a painful irony here: if Ukraine is defeated and refugees settle in Poland, it could be a huge boost for the country. ‘economy. Polish politicians have been reluctant to face the fact that their country needs immigrants; the current tragedy in Ukraine could solve this problem for them.
Should Poland then work on a set of proposals to redistribute Ukrainian refugees with European Union countries?
In a perfect world, it would be a coordinated European project. Unfortunately, since 2015, the far-right nationalist Polish government has caused conflicts with the EU. They subordinated the judiciary to political control, tried to suppress independent media and spread the idea that the EU threatened Polish sovereignty. Their breaches of EU standards for judicial independence have led to sanctions: currently, funds they allegedly received from a massive COVID relief package are withheld. This makes cooperation between Brussels and Warsaw very difficult.
If a different government were in charge in Poland, I could easily imagine policies that would facilitate the integration of refugees into Polish society. Let’s face it: a massive influx like this will always be a challenge, for any country. But a different government could launch publicity campaigns about the many ways migrants will contribute to Polish society.
The unemployment rate is very low right now, so it would have been much easier than at other times to point out that a large population of working-age people will lead to economic growth. Politicians could point to all the businesses that will be created to meet the needs of the immigrant community. To emphasize this, more people means more jobs for everyone. At present, public opinion on these issues is not yet formed because it is a new experience for Poles. It should be possible to push this opinion in the right direction. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen.