Poland’s Refugee Crisis in Waiting
In a major departure from its behavior as recently as last fall, Poland's semi-authoritarian government has been taking in all refugees from Ukraine and providing them with work permits, health care, education, and other services. But the question is whether this can be sustained, and at what price.
WARSAW – When US President Joe Biden comes to Poland on March 25, he may decide to visit the main hall of the Warsaw Central Railway Station, which is just across the street from the Marriott where American leaders usually stay. Although the hall is full of mothers with children – refugees from Ukraine, part of the largest migration crisis in postwar European history – it is surprisingly quiet. Exhausted, traumatized, and frightened, few cry.
Within three weeks of Russia’s invasion, more than three millionpeople – half of them children – have fled Ukraine, with some two million arriving in Poland. Almost overnight, Poland has gone from being one of Europe’s most homogeneous societies to hosting the world’s fourth-largest refugee population (after Turkey, Colombia, and the United States, respectively).
The war in Ukraine has forced Poland to abandon its anti-refugee stance of recent years. In 2015, when Germany took in more than one million refugees from the Middle East, Poland refused the European Union’s request for it to accept a mere 7,000. Last fall, when Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko tried to funnel migrants from the Middle East over Poland’s border, the Polish government declared a state of emergency and bunkered down. A dozen people – including children – died of starvation and cold. According to opinion polls, the public sided with the government.
But the Polish government has now opened its borders to all refugees from Ukraine, including as many as 157,000 non-Ukrainians, many of them from the Middle East. Polish society has rushed to help, organizing accommodation, transportation, food, and psychological care on an unprecedented scale. Whereas the first wave of refugees saw danger coming and fled early, the second wave is made up of people who have experienced bombings, seen dead bodies, sustained injuries, or lost loved ones. They are totally disoriented, with no resources or acquaintances in Poland.
All refugees have been permitted to stay and work in Poland for 18 months, with the possibility of receiving an extension (the EU has done the same). The government has opened the health-care system to refugees, provided them with small start-up grants and a children’s allowance of €120 ($132) per month (the same as Poles receive), exempted them from paying for public transportation, and furnished them with work IDs. More than 50,000 refugee children have already been enrolled in Polish schools.
This outpouring of aid may create the impression that Poland is fully equipped to manage the crisis. It isn’t, and the assumption that it is could prove dangerous for Poland and Europe alike. If Western governments do not find a way to help Poland financially and logistically, they could end up confronting another nationalist backlash.
The situation is unsustainable for several reasons. The expectation that Ukrainians would fan out across wealthier Western countries was wrong. Owing to family ties, linguistic similarities, and proximity to the Ukrainian border, most refugees will want to remain in Poland. Before the war, Poland was already home to approximately 1.5 million Ukrainians, most of them economic immigrants who began arriving after 2014. While these earlier arrivals were young men and women looking for work, the war refugees are 80% women and children. They will be far more difficult to integrate into the economy, and if the men who stayed behind to fight join them later, Poland’s new 10% Ukrainian minority could become permanent.
After Romania, which is also packed with Ukrainian refugees, Poland has the lowest ratio of housing space per capita in Europe (29 square meters, compared to the EU average of 40). And, owing to already high inflation and the knock-on effects of sanctions (and Belarusian and Russian counter-sanctions), the Polish economy is heading into a period of slower growth and higher unemployment. Poles may start to attribute these problems to the refugees, even though refugees take jobs that aging societies like Poland’s often struggle to fill.
Likewise, the welcome given to the refugees is motivated as much by Poles’ fear of Russia as by their compassion for Ukrainians. Their current willingness to help could quickly turn into resentment when the costs of supporting refugees become more apparent. In countries with violent, bitter histories, constituencies that feel harmed or neglected often direct their rage at even weaker and more marginalized groups. Refugees dilute these native Poles’ own claims on Polish society’s compassion and support.
This political dynamic may be why Poland’s government has proposed a kind of “refugee contract” with Polish society. In addition to disbursing 300 złoty($70) per person to refugees directly, the authorities will also pay caregivers who take in refugees – resulting in a system that risks objectifying the victims and inviting fraud, abuse, and exploitation.
Finally, the West should remember that Poland’s current leadership has campaigned on an extreme anti-refugee platform. As the country’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, said in 2015, refugees may carry diseases that are “not dangerous in the bodies of these people, [but] may be dangerous here.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government is probably quietly hoping that Russia’s invasion and Poland’s humanitarian mobilization will lead to a reset in his country’s relations with the EU and the US. Perhaps the European Commission will drop its long-running dispute with Poland over the rule of law and unfreeze the EU funds that it has been withholding. Perhaps the “reforms” that turned Poland’s courts into an arm of the ruling Law and Justice party will not have to be repealed after all.
There are already signs that the EU and the US will come to terms with semi-authoritarian rule in Poland, accepting it as the price that must be paid for solidarity against Russia. In that case, Polish democracy will become yet another victim of the war.