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Poland Meets New Challenge as It Takes in Over 2 Million Refugees Fleeing War in Ukraine

Published: April 13, 2022
People queue for the train to Kyiv at the railway station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland on late April 7, 2022. - More than 4.3 million Ukrainians have now fled their country since the Russian invasion, the United Nations said on April 7. (Image: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted more than 4.6 million Ukrainians to seek refuge in neighboring countries with Poland accommodating more than half of of the total exodus. 

More than 32 nations have opened their doors for Ukrainian refugees, with Romania, Hungary, Russia and Moldova receiving approximately 2.073 million refugees to date. They are outnumbered by the 2.6 million Ukrainians, most of them women, settling down in the country’s western neighbor of Poland.

Poland, home to 38 million people, is starting to show signs of stress under the immense pressure of receiving that many people in such a short period. 

In Poland’s second largest city, Krakow, there are more than 150,000 displaced Ukrainians, increasing the city’s population by 20 percent in the space of weeks and prompting the United Nations refugee agency to open an office there. 

In Warsaw, the number of refugees exceeds 10 percent of the city’s population, which is 1.8 million. 

Last month, anticipating the needs of fleeing Ukrainians, the Polish government enacted a law allowing Ukrainians to legally live and work in the country for at least 18 months and the government is assisting municipalities financially, as they struggle to find long-term housing, jobs and places in schools for the displaced people. 

Christine Goyer, The UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative in Poland ,said, “This has been a tremendous effort from the people, local communities, municipalities and government of Poland in receiving and hosting new arrivals. What is important now is that the international community steps up to help provide more durable support, while access to protection and asylum is ensured and maintained for all people seeking safety at Poland’s borders.”

Many Poles have opened their homes to Ukrainian families, gathering donations and volunteering to help and commercial and industrial spaces have been quickly repurposed to house fleeing Ukrainians; however, despite millions of examples of generosity, concerns are now growing that Poland cannot support this level of migration. 

Polish President Andrzej Duda, speaking alongside President Joe Biden last month, said that if the Russian invasion continues for long, the number of refugees will continue to grow, presenting a “huge challenge” to the country.

Preferred destination

Poland is an ideal place for fleeing Ukrainians not just because of their shared border, but also the extensive cultural ties between the two countries. 

There have been long-standing patterns of labor migration between the two countries and the similarities between the languages — both in the Slavic family — make it easier to communicate. 

Brain Porter-Szucs, professor of history at the University of Michigan explained that “Ukrainians can blend in much more easily than previous groups seeking aid in Poland. If you look at a Ukrainian and a Pole, you won’t be able to tell who is who, and this undeniably contributes to the willingness of Poles to help.”

With the immediate needs of the refugees met, Poland is now grappling with the mid- to long-term implications of accommodating so many. 

Since many of the refugees are children, amalgamating them into Poland’s education system is a major challenge. Polish authorities have opened up the country’s education system to Ukrainian refugees spurring significant debate about how to manage the process. 

While the countries’ languages are similar, there is still enough of a difference to make classroom instruction for Ukrainian children very difficult. In Poland, there is very little infrastructure for teaching Polish as a second language and teachers lack the training and resources to manage the situation, prompting some to suggest creating separate schools for Ukrainian children. 

Already, Polish parents are starting to voice concerns that Ukrainian children will eat into resources that would have gone to their own children. 

Gender imbalance and labor shortage

Compounding the issue is the loss of Ukrainian men in key industries in Poland. Prior to the invasion, many Ukrainian men typically traveled to Ukraine to work, but many returned home to go to the front while women fled.

Typically many of the seasonal migrants would be working on construction sites and in farms across Poland, which played a hard-to-replace role in the national economy.

Porter-Szucs, the University of Michigan professor, writes, “There is now some concern because nearly all of the male Ukrainians have returned home to fight. Suddenly, many construction projects are having to stop work because they’ve lost their staff.”

With the number of working-age people declining and the elderly population increasing in Poland, the country desperately needs more workers over the medium and long term.

Depending on the outcome of the war, however, many Ukrainian men could migrate to Poland to join their female relative permanently, boosting the Polish population and economy over the coming years.