By Myriam Marino
Over the past few years, Poland gained the reputation of being, together with Hungary, among the Member States considered the “bad boys” of the European Union (EU). However, since the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the latter days of February 2022, opinions on Poland have altered positively, due to its crucial role, as the primary destination, in the Ukrainian diaspora.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), almost 2.5 million people had entered Poland from Ukraine by the first days of April 2022, out of a total of over 4.2 million refugees fleeing the country.
Since the beginning of the humanitarian crisis, Poland was the first choice of destination for individuals escaping the conflict. This is attributable, not exclusively to mere geographic proximity, but mostly to the large Ukrainian community already present on Polish soil. In fact, around 1.35 million people were estimated to live in Poland at the end of 2019, making it the largest foreign group in the country.
The Polish government’s pragmatic response to the emergency was prompt and effective. Already days before the de facto beginning of the invasion, actions were coordinated between municipalities, particularly those near the border, and the central government for the anticipated arrival of Ukrainians. Reception facilities were set up at the borders, equipped with medical staff, food, means of transportation and sources of information. Lists of potential accommodation facilities and housing were compiled and made available. Far from the border zones, further solidarity interventions included the preparedness of Polish hospitals to guarantee medical care to wounded refugees.
Poland’s support involved direct assistance in Ukraine, as well. Medical trains were packed with sanitary equipment to travel to the conflict-affected country.
Health requirements, linked to the Covid-19 deterrence, were eased and adapted to allow fleeing individuals to swiftly enter Poland and consequently enable for them the injection of Covid vaccinations.
However, responses were not limited to efforts at government and public levels. The whole population, whether at individual or organizational levels, demonstrated high degrees of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, through volunteer aid, donations of goods, job offers and free provisions of legal services. Such a generous approach was reflected in polls conducted early in the crisis. According to the findings, around 58% of the Poles surveyed believed that “all [Ukrainian] refugees should be accepted”. Further surveys report that 64% of the Polish respondents expressed willingness to give support to Ukrainians.
This proactive response marks a change in the Polish government’s overall stance toward immigration and refugees. The most recent example of a controversial approach toward refugees was represented by the migrant crisis that during 2021 brought waves of refugees to cross the border between Belarus and Poland.
Nevertheless, following an initially prompt reaction, Poland is now faced with the awareness that long-term measures are necessary, due to the persisting state of conflict and its consequences. A considerable percentage of the refugees is likely to remain longer within the EU, enjoying Temporary Protection under the mechanisms of the EU asylum system, which envisions the protected refugee status for at least one year.
Thus, further measures considered by the Polish government allowed bypassing long regular visa procedures. These include a law signed by President Andrzej Duda on 12 March, which extends the refugees’ legal stay to 18 months, and aims at facilitating protocols to obtain national identity numbers and consequently have access to services and benefits, employment opportunities, and grants a subsidy to all Ukrainian refugees and to Poles who provide them with housing solutions. As for employment, specifically, the government set up a program aimed at encouraging refugees’ access to the Polish labor market.
Most notably, the high percentage of children among the refugees required for steps to be taken to specifically address this vulnerable group. Thus, refugees will benefit from the government’s child benefit social scheme. Additionally, Ukrainian children are being welcomed in Polish schools, supported by adequate resources and linguistically qualified staff, often picked among refugees in search of employment.
Nevertheless, controversies emerged. Activists pointed out how non-Ukrainian people fleeing from Ukraine to Poland are not included in a majority of support initiatives. Moreover, the overwhelming scale of the influx, which primarily impacted major cities, urged Poland to seek financial assistance from the EU.
Despite the exceptional circumstances and Polish altruism, the European Commission stands firm in regards to the freezing of Poland’s EU recovery fund due to rule of law breaches, and Poland is still subject to the European Court of Justice’s ruling imposing a daily fine of €1 million euros. Thus, in spite of widespread praise within the EU for the Polish effort in handling the crisis, it is unlikely that ongoing procedures against the Member State will be suspended. As a fact, as the French minister for EU affairs commented on 12 April, “We are sufficiently mature as democracies […] to debate issues that have to do with our model and are as essential as fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in parallel of that profound strength of the unity facing this war“.