Stabilisation of emergency measures: Poland’s refugee reception system one month after the Russian attack on Ukraine
On 24 February 2022, by invading Ukraine, Russia started the biggest war of one state against another in Europe since 1945. Through indiscriminate attacks by the Russian forces on civilian areas and infrastructure, strikes on protected buildings such as hospitals and schools, and the use of ballistic missiles and banned weapons, we are witnessing an unprecedented escalation in violations of humanitarian and human rights laws, including cases of execution, kidnapping and rape in the localities occupied by the Russian army. On 2 April, mass graves of civilians murdered in the vicinity of Kyiv were revealed, demonstrating how dangerous it is for civilians to remain on the territories occupied by Russia.
In these tragic circumstances, as of 18 April Poland has accepted 2.8 million refugees of a total of 4.98 million people fleeing Ukraine, comprising both Ukrainian citizens and third-country nationals (a phenomenon of global importance, considering its scale and rapidity). It is estimated that as many as half of that number may have gone on to other EU countries. The current phase of Poland’s crisis response can be referred to as one of stabilisation, which began around mid-March after the more improvised emergency phase seen at the outset of the war. In this Forum contribution we explain why Poland became a shelter for refugees from Ukraine fleeing war and how the country’s reaction evolved over the five weeks that followed.
Poland’s land border with Ukraine is the second longest western border of Ukraine (after the Ukrainian-Romanian border, which partially stretches across the Carpathian Mountains and is therefore less accessible). Despite the relatively small number of border crossing points (eight by road and six by rail), even prior to the war the Polish-Ukrainian border was one of the most heavily used border crossings in the European Union. The choice of the Polish border crossings by those fleeing the war was also facilitated by the quick decision of the Polish government to transform its border crossing points into pedestrian ones.
Though this has not been examined in depth so far, it appears that the existence of Ukrainian migration networks in Poland could be one of the main reasons why the majority of Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion chose Poland. Before 24 February 2022, there was already a sizeable community of Ukrainian migrants in Poland (the statistics differ depending on category, and it should also be taken into account that many of those were circular migrants). The number of declarations of intent to employ (de facto short-term labour permits) issued to Ukrainian citizens in 2021 amounted to 1.6 million.
In summary, Ukrainian migrants are generally selecting Poland as their destination for the following reasons: the low travel costs, ability to maintain family ties in Ukraine, extensive migration networks, similarities of language and cultural proximity. In particular, the ability to maintain family ties and return to Ukraine if needed is very important, since most of the refugees are women with children, while the men and many elderly people have stayed in Ukraine.
Initial response to the emergency
The organisation of reception of refugees from Ukraine in Poland, understood as a single system consisting of the legal instruments based on the Geneva Convention of 1951, subsidiary protection and national forms of protection, can be divided into two phases: the emergency phase of relatively high influx from the beginning of the war until mid-March 2022, and the stabilisation phase in the second half of March until mid-April.
The high number of daily crossings in the first stage (up to 200 000 daily) was possible due to both legal and procedural measures to facilitate the crossings (simplified border control and no visa requirements in the case of Ukrainian citizens, and the possibility to cross the border without international travel documents), as well as logistical support ensured by private citizens, civil society, local authorities and the Polish government. Thus, this first response, which took the form of multi-actor improvisation, turned out to be a success thanks to the emergence of numerous grassroots initiatives, including the accommodation of refugees in private houses.
Source: authors’ compilation based on daily updates from the official Twitter account of the Polish Border Guard.
According to Council of the EU decision introducing temporary protection, Ukrainian citizens, their family members and recognised refugees in Ukraine who came to the EU Member States after 24 February 2022 can stay legally for up to 18 months upon simplified registration, and can obtain access to the labour market, education for children, healthcare and social assistance (national laws regulate how this access is guaranteed). Simultaneously, the decision states that Member States may apply temporary protection to third-country nationals who hold a residence permit in Ukraine and are unable to return to their country of origin. In this case, it is up to the Member States whether to apply temporary protection or so-called ‘adequate protection under national law’. Finally, Member States can decide whether to grant temporary protection to individuals who were staying legally in Ukraine, but did not possess a Ukrainian residence permit. These provisions have been assessed by some scholars as potentially discriminatory in the context of the non-discrimination principle enshrined by EU legislation.
At the national level, Poland’s refugee reception system is based on the Act on granting protection to foreigners on the territory of the Republic of Poland as a whole, and specifically on the Law on assistance to Ukrainian citizens in relation to armed conflict. While the rudiments transposing the Temporary Protection Directive were already in place before 24 February, the Polish government decided to pass a special bill, which to a certain extent operationalised temporary protection. However, it is more complex since it also touches upon issues of financing the reception system, the return to Poland of Polish nationals residing in Ukraine before 24 February, and others.
In line with this legislation, Ukrainian citizens and members of their families were provided with a facilitated registration system and access to social assistance, which had previously only been available to Polish citizens or permanent residents (in the case of medical assistance it is even more favourable, as it releases Ukrainian refugees of the need to obtain social security rights). Non-Ukrainians who meet the criteria for the temporary protection measure are also entitled to temporary protection status, but their registration process differs and is more centralised. Thus, two procedural pathways to grant temporary protection have in fact been envisaged by the legislation.
The more problematic issue is the legal status of third-country nationals who came from Ukraine after 24 February but did not possess a Ukrainian residence permit, and thus were not entitled to temporary protection. Since many of them were granted only 15 days’ stay in Poland, many risked becoming irregular migrants. Recently the parliament adopted changes allowing certain categories of those people to apply for humanitarian visas, but it is still not clear whether this change pertains to all third-country nationals in that situation. According to the media, foreigners of African or Asian origin faced discrimination when crossing the border, particularly in the first stage of the war, for instance being asked to join the queue at the border crossing point after Ukrainian nationals. This requires further examination, in particular investigation into whether this phenomenon was systemic in character.
Immediately upon crossing the border, war refugees received assistance (food, clothes, equipment for babies, medical help and transport, etc.) provided by many different actors: governmental services, local authorities, international organisations, Polish non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private individuals. Next, for people deciding to stay in Poland there were three opportunities.
First, the government set around 30 reception points in different regions, where temporary accommodation was available to all war refugees. Second, dedicated reception points were established by numerous municipalities. However, these were dedicated to Ukrainian citizens, while third-country nationals were referred to points organised by the voivodes (governors of the regions). Third, another option was to be offered help from family, friends or even strangers, who often came to border crossings to propose free accommodation or transport. In this case, it appears that women and children were more likely to find private help than elderly people or non-Ukrainian male refugees. It should be mentioned that unfortunately there was some risk of human trafficking, although it seems that these cases have not been numerous to date.
Source: authors’ compilation.
When it comes to food and other essential goods, not to mention cash assistance, these were mainly provided by private individuals, local authorities, civil society and the business sector. Besides acting as volunteers, ordinary people on a mass scale (as many as two to three million Poles and Polish residents offered help) provided support in the form of food packages, clothes and personal hygiene products. Several GSM companies offered refugees free SIM cards, and in general many businesses supported the reception system with their products.
Significant engagement was observed among various social actors: NGOs, religious organisations or even those not specialised in providing assistance (such as hobby groups). People organised grassroots assistance by means of social media (for instance, among neighbourhood groups), which was initially carried out in a rather chaotic manner due to the difficulty in coordinating so many disparate requests for aid and offers of help. Thanks to the widespread use of social media, it was possible to meet most needs immediately. For instance, various Facebook groups served to search flats and different equipment for the refugees and, later, also job offers.
Emergency reception stabilisation
After the initial period, some challenges diminished while new ones emerged. When the number of arrivals decreased, the reception points had less work to do, yet it was now time to start developing more durable solutions and establishing coordination mechanisms.
The first important challenge was the actual operation of the registration process as envisaged by the special bill. Without substantial strengthening of their capacities, municipal authorities were supposed to organise the process to enable all refugees to meet the deadline of final registration 60 days after arrival. In reality, the system did not function properly, with long queues forming in front of municipal offices and long waiting times for the final registration necessary to obtain the requisite social and financial assistance. In such circumstances, according to our initial information, some refugees decide not to register and instead to rely on cash assistance provided by international organisations. Simultaneously, while in the legalisation process, many refugees are dependent upon families or the collective centres they are staying at, with no access to individual financial assistance. This heavily undermines their agency and opportunities to make independent life decisions.
Another important challenge emerging during the stabilisation phase is the schooling of children. There is a significant problem with reliable statistics, due in part to the fact that refugees can travel freely within the Schengen zone. According to data from the Ministry of Education and Science, there are at least 160 000 Ukrainian children in the Polish education system at present.
Currently, there are discussions among teachers’ associations and the Ministry of Education and Science about the best solution for handling underage refugees. In principle, all of them are provided with the possibility and duty to attend school. However, there are various logistical and linguistic challenges to confront, in addition to determining what kind of assessments and exams they should be obliged to undertake. There is also a need for psychological support, as many children have been traumatised by the war and are missing their fathers, who stayed in Ukraine to fight.
The third serious difficulty is connected to the transition from temporary to long-term accommodation. This relates both to those staying in provisional facilities (sports halls, cultural institutions, warehouses, etc.) and to those sharing living space with strangers who offered lodgings in their houses. According to the special bill, people hosting refugees in their own houses or flats are entitled to receive PLN 40 per person per day, but only for a period of 60 days, which in the majority of cases means that this financial support will finish at the end of April. There is also a psychological challenge as to how long people would be ready to share their living place with strangers. Moving out of temporary accommodation would be possible upon satisfying two conditions stemming from the labour and housing markets.
Housing opportunities in Poland are not the most favourable. For instance, the percentage of people aged 25 to 34 living with their parents in 2019 was higher than 40% in Poland, the ninth highest in the EU. Additionally, the quandary is that most refugees head to the big cities in search of job opportunities, while at the same time the demand for apartments in the major cities is most acute. Therefore, both the government and the representatives of the biggest municipalities are appealing for incentives for refugees to move to smaller cities and towns, as this would alleviate the burden on the larger cities.
Likewise, there is a question concerning how many job opportunities will be available to the refugees, considering their qualifications. Ideally, a lasting solution seems to rely mainly on the inclusion of refugees in the labour market. At the end of March 2022, around 30 000 refugees from Ukraine were registered to work, according to information received from the Ministry of Family and Social Policy. The majority of these were employed on short-term contracts, which constitutes a somewhat moderate success. Furthermore, the structure of the labour market provides more opportunities in sectors typically chosen by male workers, such as construction and transport. Aside from this, the social adaptation seems to be going relatively smoothly, as the cultural and language barriers are not considerable, and interpersonal contacts between Ukrainian and Polish citizens are often well developed.
The grassroots reception system, together with the governmental facilitating measures and the great efforts made by the municipalities, is in our opinion the main reason underlying Poland’s success in providing help for such a huge number of people, which may be regarded as a phenomenon with global implications in terms of its sheer scale. Despite the current stabilisation in terms of the volume of new arrivals, estimates show that in the case of Russian assaults on Dnipro, Poltava, Odessa and other cities in central Ukraine, the number of refugees fleeing to the EU might grow by two to three million people.
Looking at the transition from the emergency to the stabilisation phase, it seems that the main challenges for durable solutions are linked to accommodation and schooling, and possibly in the long term healthcare (many refugees are still using the medicines they brought from Ukraine, while the most heavily ill have received assistance in other EU Member States within the framework of the EU civil protection mechanism). Most of the refugees are women with children, who are willing to work but not always able to do so because of having to care for their children. The system of care for preschool children is therefore of great importance. Ensuring that refugees have the possibility both to maintain links with their own culture and to engage in cultural exchange with their host society is also highly important in providing assistance. Finding durable solutions is crucial, since social solidarity and private individuals’ financial resources have their limits. For instance, companies catering for refugees at railway stations can no longer do this for free. Moreover, the assistance system should rely more on state agencies and NGOs instead of a workforce of volunteers, and NGOs should be supported financially. Finally, the system should integrate measures dedicated towards both Ukrainian citizens and third-country nationals, there is no argument to justify two-track policy. These solutions could enable Poland to cope with the challenges of refugee reception for a longer period of time.
 This article has been prepared for the ASILE project within the project Securitisation (de-securitisation) of migration on the example of Ukrainian migration to Poland and internal migration in Ukraine, financed by the National Science Centre in Poland (UMO-2018/31/B/HS5/01607) and implemented by the Centre of Migration Research, University of Warsaw.