IIt’s been a month since the war in Ukraine started and the flow of refugees arriving at Warsaw’s main train station doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Crowds disembark trains at the border and wait for shuttle buses to makeshift shelters at exhibition and sports venues. Outside, passers-by are asked for directions.
Unflinching support for their neighbors – at least 2.1 million of them and counting – has emerged as a defining moment for Poles, but it also now raises some pressing questions about what happens next, politically and economically.
Poland is gaining international recognition for its response to the humanitarian impact. The war effort is turning the country into a rogue European leader, whose populist government is embroiled in a bitter rule of law battle with Brussels that has also strained ties with the US in recent years. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared on March 19 that Poland “never had such an excellent brand anywhere in the world”. US President Joe Biden will visit this week.
But the unprecedented surge in numbers is straining the resources of a country more used to being a net exporter of people than a haven for immigrants. The population of the Polish capital alone has grown by around 20 percent to around 300,000 people in four weeks, and accommodation is becoming scarce. “Every day is somehow a new beginning, with the risk of running out of supplies or other supplies,” says Marcin, a 22-year-old Polish student in an orange vest who volunteers at a makeshift canteen at the train station.
According to PKO Bank Polski, rental costs in major cities have risen by up to 30 percent in the last two weeks as the availability of apartments has roughly halved. That’s because Poland, like so many other places, is trying to cope with inflation at a 20-year high and soaring food and energy bills.
Some refugees will fill gaps in the Polish labor market. However, half of the vacancies are in the male-dominated construction industry, and most Ukrainian arrivals are women, the elderly and children who need places in schools and kindergartens. And at least 150,000 Ukrainian men went the other way and went home to fight.
Amnesty International is warning Polish authorities to do more to ease the burden on volunteers and households who have opened their doors. After a 10-day visit to the Ukrainian border, the organization called the situation in Poland “chaotic and dangerous”.
“This is an extraordinary moment for Poles to be seen as a great nation by the whole world,” says Beata Laciak, sociology professor and board member of the Public Affairs Institute in Warsaw. “But this work is not a sprint, it will be a marathon. The question is: can the government help Poles run long enough so that at the end of the marathon we can call it the best moment for Poland this century?”
Poland is likely to remain the target of choice for Ukrainians, even if there is a Europe-wide agreement to share the work of providing safe havens. The country of about 38 million people was, as of last month, already home to about 1 million Ukrainians who arrived after the separatist conflict in the east that began in 2014. This contrasts with more than 2 million Poles who have been working abroad since their country joined the European Union a decade earlier.
Other Ukrainian neighbors such as Hungary and Romania have also taken in those fleeing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops, but the numbers are dwarfed by the influx from Poland.
The response in Poland stands in stark contrast to the Law & Justice government’s opposition – along with Hungary – to mainly Muslim refugees from places like Syria during the 2015 crisis that caused division within the EU. Poland can take care of Ukrainians because it is “a strong, proud nation,” according to the prime minister.
However, critics say they are mostly supported by ordinary Poles, non-governmental groups and local authorities. The government estimates the cost of helping refugees without education and healthcare will be €2.2 billion (£1.84 billion) this year alone and is urging the EU to provide more money.
So far, Poland has allocated PLN 8 billion (£1.4 billion) to help refugees find jobs, access schools and healthcare and pay those who take them into their homes. The government says the aid amounts to 40 zlotys per refugee per day. That’s not enough to cover the costs, says Ala Gwardyan, who is one of the phalanx of Poles who have offered refuge to Ukrainians.
“The Poles are helping and the Ukrainians are grateful, but the Poles will soon be burned out,” she says. “We must help them to be free in Poland and not make them dependent on us and our help.”
Moved by the images of the queues of people at the border, she opened her 42 square meter apartment to a mother, her four-year-old son and the woman’s sister. Gwardyan, 40, from the city of Lodz, about 75 miles from Warsaw, is taking time off from work to help her new flatmates deal with various public institutions and medical centers to establish them in Poland.
She is urging the government and European allies to do more to ensure the national display of “love doesn’t just become infatuation – or something worse”. The new refugee settlement law “actually still bears the brunt on Poles,” she says.
Citizen and business Poland reacted. Economic engines, schools, kindergartens and employment offices are emerging in Warsaw to help Ukrainians build a future in the country.
An example is the commerce sector, which includes industries such as hospitality and retail. According to Andrzej Kubisiak, deputy director of the Polish Economic Institute, it has over 15,000 vacancies to fill. Convenience store chain Zabka and supermarket operator Biedronka have created dedicated recruitment platforms, as have some beauty salons and restaurants.
Job offers from tourism and seasonal work in agriculture could come relatively quickly, and there are gaps in health care and education, says Kubisiak. But the problem is that, more broadly, there is a “structural mismatch” between the people Poland is now hosting and the economy, he says. “These are not economic refugees, these people are running away, they are fleeing from the war,” says Kubisiak. “So stop thinking about them as we used to think about the Ukrainians who came to Poland before the war.”
Meanwhile, Law & Justice has also gained popularity, shaken by years of political bickering and the dispute with the EU. The party now has 33 percent of voters’ support, up from 31 percent four months ago. Poland’s response “puts us in the right place in international politics,” Morawiecki said on March 19. The country is breaking through what “before was this wall of unfair isolation,” he said.
The dispute with the EU over the rule of law, and Poland’s handling of its judiciary in particular, has all but been settled, although Brussels still fines the country €1 million a day on paper following a ruling by the European Court of Justice in October. A freeze of around €36 billion in post-pandemic EU aid to Poland could soon be lifted.
But how the war unfolds for Ukraine’s largest western neighbor will likely depend on how the government can help its citizens meet the cost of providing a place of refuge. From sleeping bags to soup kitchens to ad hoc transfers and open houses, Poles keep trying to help.
One problem is that Ukrainians need a Polish social security number to use public services, including access to health care and education. Gwardyan’s guests queued up from 6am to receive number 1,760, which means it will arrive in three weeks, she says. The money to cover the costs of staying in Ukraine is paid within 30 days from the application date.
In Warsaw Central, large white tents along with portable toilets next to the station’s main concourse now stand in stark contrast to the Polish capital’s glass skyscrapers. Volunteers in yellow vests distribute food, hygiene items and SIM cards. A fresh group of helpers will be trained on Wednesday. They will be processing requests for longer term accommodation shortly.
The biggest problem, however, is the lack of clarity about how long the crisis will last. “We’re here to help, but most experienced people get tired and some already have to return to their regular jobs,” says student Marcin. “Nor do the authorities give us any clues as to what the final plan is for places like the train station.”
Bloomberg’s Piotr Skolimowski and Maciej Martewicz contributed to this report.
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