1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Poland-Ukraine: Solidarity with refugees, fear of Russia

February 22, 2023

A year after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, almost 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees now live in Poland. This and the fact that most Poles see Russia as a threat to their country are shaping public opinion.

Helena (right) and her brother Bodia from Lviv are seen at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in eastern Poland after fleeing the war in Ukraine, February 26, 2022
While the number of Ukrainian refugees in Poland has dropped significantly, some 1.5 million remain in the countryImage: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP

February 1943: The region of Volhynia, then part of Nazi-occupied Poland and now part of Ukraine, saw a wave of violence unleashed on the Polish population by Ukrainian nationalists. It's estimated that by August of that year, up to 120,000 Poles were massacred in Volhynia by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Eighty years on from this bloody chapter in Polish-Ukrainian history, Poland has now helped millions of Ukrainians fleeing Russia's invasion.

Among those providing support are Beata and Karol Popko, who have made one of the three bedrooms in their Warsaw flat, which they share with their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, available for refugees. "I wonder what my grandmother would say if she were still alive," said Karol Popko, 32. "She survived the Volhynia massacre, and my entire childhood was marked by stories about the atrocities committed by the evil Ukrainians."

A 'March of remembrance' organized by Eastern Borderlands organizations during events to mark the 70th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre, Warsaw, Poland, July 11, 2013
People in Warsaw still march in remembrance of those killed in the 1943 Volhynia massacreImage: Tomasz Gzell/dpa/picture alliance

Nevertheless, he believes Ukrainian refugees should be helped regardless of the old wounds in the relations between these two countries. Over the course of the past year, 12 refugees have lived with the Popko family — some for days, others for weeks — until they were able to find their own accommodation or left Poland altogether.

Karol Popko often gathered up the refugees at the railway station in Warsaw where he worked as a volunteer helping Ukrainian arrivals alongside his regular job. He has also driven trucks in aid convoys to Ukraine.

Poland now a country of immigration

Popko, a search machine expert, also runs one of the most popular websites for Ukrainian refugees in Poland, ukrainianinpoland.pl. "Our texts are written by Ukrainians living in Poland who know exactly what their compatriots need," he said. "We want to help people who suddenly have to build a new life here."

The website tells refugees how to get a Polish driving license, where to find a dentist or what help is available for Ukrainians from international organizations.

Beata (left) and Karol Popko, a young couple, stand in front of their apartment window overlooking Warsaw
Beata and Karol Popko have opened their home to refugees from UkraineImage: Privat

From the word go, Ukrainian refugees in Poland have been able to rely more on private and social initiatives than on the authorities. The sudden arrival of millions of people in a short space of time was a massive challenge for Poland — one for which no one was prepared. Within weeks of Russia launching the invasion on February 24, 2022, Poland — which had previously refused to take in refugees at EU level — had become a country of immigration.

Language, proximity make Poland attractive to refugees

Millions of Ukrainians have come to Poland over the past year. Although many have since returned to Ukraine or left Poland for other countries, over 1.4 million have registered to stay.

Polish President Andrzej Duda (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskyy meet at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport, Poland, December 22, 2022
Polish people and the country's leaders have stood firmly alongside Ukraine in the face of Russian aggressionImage: Jakub Szymczuk/KPRP/REUTERS

Once they have a Polish insurance number, they get state health insurance and are allowed to work. The state gives them the equivalent of €70 ($75) in welcome money and €110 in monthly child benefits. Adults without children do not receive any support. Nevertheless, far more Ukrainian refugees have fled to Poland than to any other country.

According to surveys three-quarters of the refugees hope to go back home some day, which is why they prefer to stay in neighboring Poland rather than move to a more distant country.

For many Ukrainian refugees, the Polish language is also a decisive factor. Polish and Ukrainian are similar enough to allow both sides to communicate easily with one another.

Some refugees also had relatives already living in Poland and were able to find work through them.

'Wave of solidarity surprising'

Even before the Russian invasion, about 1 million Ukrainians worked in Poland. Many of them moved there when Russia occupied Crimea in 2014. Of this group, many men returned to fight for Ukraine after Russia invaded their country on February 24, 2022. At present, there are about 2.2 million Ukrainians living in Poland.

Karol Popko on his way to Ukraine with an aid convoy from Poland
'Thousands of Ukrainians who need help are still coming to Poland every day,' said Karol Popko, who has driven trucks in aid convoys to UkraineImage: Privat

The extent of solidarity shown at the start of the war was surprising, said Dominika Pszczolkowska, a political scientist at the Center of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw.

"The Poles never rank very highly when it comes to European surveys about active citizenship. Business and family matters count more to them," she told DW. Nevertheless, she added, when it came to helping Ukrainian refugees, the Poles demonstrated a phenomenal ability to organize quickly from the bottom up.

Anti-Ukrainian attitudes spreading

But the willingness to help is starting to recede. In late 2022, surveys indicated that 63% of Poles — or someone close to them — were supporting refugees out of their own pocket. By January, however, the Warsaw-based Center for Public Opinion Research discovered that this had dropped to just 41%.

"It was to be expected that fatigue would set in," said Pszczolkowska, adding that prices have risen in Poland, too, and people are able to afford less and less. "And if, for example, someone has to wait longer for a doctor's appointment because there are also Ukrainians in the queue ahead of them, then that person might easily vent their anger at those Ukrainians."

According to the Racist and Xenophobic Behavior Monitoring Center in Warsaw, the number of verbal and physical attacks on Ukrainians has risen sharply. During last year's annual demonstration by nationalists on Poland's national holiday, November 11, people carried banners and shouted anti-Ukrainian slogans like "The Ukrainian is not my brother," "Stop the ukrainization of Poland" and "This is not our war."

Fear of Russia on the rise

However, the influx of Ukrainian refugees has not been the only thing shaping Poland over the past year. So, too, has a growing fear of Russia. According to the Center for Public Opinion Research, 43% of Poles consider the prospect of a Russian attack on their country to be realistic, and 78% see Russia as a threat.

Karol Popko is afraid, too. "I think that Putin could attack Poland. If he has already mobilized hundreds of thousands of soldiers, he can't just send them home again; he has to do something with them. So, he'll attack somewhere and then see what happens," he said.

In future, Popko may seek refuge for himself, his family and his company abroad. But he intends to stay in Poland as long as possible. "Thousands of Ukrainians who need help are still coming to Poland every day," he said.

This article was originally published in German.