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Poland rolls out welcome mat for Ukrainians

March 20, 2022

Poland is allowing millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war access to the labor market and to health and social benefits. Polish officials are struggling to register and help all the people arriving in the country.

Ukrainian refugees at the stadium in Warsaw
Ukrainians at the national stadium in Warsaw where a center is helping refugees get coveted national identity numbersImage: Maciek Jazwiecki/Agencja Wyborcza.pl/REUTERS

For Ukrainian refugees in Poland these days, the most important word is "PESEL" — the abbreviation for the Polish national identity number.

Poland's government has promised refugees from neighboring Ukraine that they can stay in the country for up to 180 days and access the labor market, health care system and social benefits. Refugees need a PESEL number for that.

Polish authorities set up one of the biggest registration centers so refugees can apply for a PESEL number at the National Stadium in Warsaw. On Friday evening, a day before the center opened, long lines had already formed outside the building. Flasks full of hot tea were provided for the people waiting at the gate to the stadium.

"I will wait here as long as necessary. I need a work permit, I need to find work, and I need to do it as soon as possible," 24-year-old Viktoria told DW.

Help for Ukrainian refugees in Poland

The IT specialist from Kyiv was allowed to go in at 9 a.m. the following day. During the night, she took turns standing in line with her friends and sleeping in a car in the stadium's parking lot. Viktoria's persistence paid off — she's hoping to get the PESEL number within a few days.

Others aren't so lucky. Anyone who got to the stadium after 7 a.m. had no chance of being served the same day. Volunteers had prepared purple wristbands and handed them out to those who were guaranteed to get their turn the next day.

Where Ukrainian refugees are fleeing as of 19.03.22

Polish administration faces huge challenges                                   

There are currently over 2 million Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Some 123,000 received PESEL numbers within the first two days of the registration drive.

Additional registration points — such as the one at the National Stadium — and registration buses that travel to refugee shelters should speed up the operation. City and municipal offices, which typically issue the national identity numbers, are overwhelmed.

In the Polish city of Przemysl, near the Ukrainian border, the city office is working at full speed, but with only four fingerprint machines and a total of seven officers, there are long waiting times here as well.

Poland struggles to cope with refugee stream

Oxana Kolesnyk used to work as a bank clerk in Ukraine.

"I don't speak Polish, and I expect it probably won't be possible to work at a bank," she told DW. "But I need to find some kind of work quickly to secure a living for my son and me." 

Kokesnyk took her passport with her when she fled Ukraine, making the formalities easier. Those who escaped the war without proof of identity also receive refuge in Poland but registering and receiving an ID number takes longer.

Refugees face an uncertain future

A law recently passed by the Polish parliament ensures refugees' access to the labor market, health care and social benefits, including monthly child benefits of €110 ($121) per child.

New arrivals from Ukraine receive the equivalent of €70 in welcome money, after which they have to fend for themselves. The new law also guarantees Polish citizens who host Ukrainians the equivalent of €9 a day for expenses.

Alexandra Stefaniv from Lviv sits in the waiting room while her Polish relative Leon Bortnik helps fill out the application. The logistics entrepreneur from Przemysl is taking care of his Ukrainian relatives in a recently inherited apartment that had been empty.

Alexandra Stefaniv
People like Alexandra Stefaniv who fled Ukraine, now face an uncertain futureImage: Monika Sieradzk/DW

"I suddenly got a call from my mother's sister from Ukraine. She asked me if I could host her and her immediate family. There is only one right answer to that," Bortnik tells DW.

He wants to help Stefaniv find a job and knows many people in the region. For Stefaniv, who is 46, her own future is highly uncertain.

"I'm confused. I have no idea what to do in Poland. Should I look for work? But I do hope that the war will be over soon and that I can return home," she says, adding that her husband stayed in Lviv, and she never planned to leave Ukraine.

Arrival of refugees a new phenomenon in Poland

Since the war started, 3.3 million Ukrainians have emigrated, many to Poland. Even before that, the country of 38 million people had more than a million Ukrainian migrants who left their country since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Ukrainian refugees in a line
Refugees from Ukraine wait in line for aid in Krakow in PolandImage: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

In 2021, 90% of respondents in a survey by the University of Warsaw's Center for Prejudice Research said they accepted Ukrainians as colleagues and neighbors. In recent decades, migrants in Poland have accounted for a small fraction of society. Apart from Ukrainian emigrants since 2014, there is no other migrant group of comparable size.

Compared to other EU countries, Poland had closed itself off to migrants. The current arrival of refugees is a completely new phenomenon.

Leon Bortnik
Leon Bortnik has been helping his relatives from UkraineImage: Monika Sieradzka/DW

After more than three weeks of an outpouring of solidarity during which Ukrainian war refugees were welcomed with open arms,questions are emerging in the media of how the already overburdened social and health care systems can serve millions more people. Concerns are also growing among some parent associations about the prospect of overcrowded school classes.

Polish society could feel overwhelmed

Agnieszka Lada-Konefal, deputy director of the German Poland Institute in Darmstadt, speaks of an enormous challenge for the administration and society that will irrevocably change the country.

"Poles will have to learn to live together with people who are somewhat different,” the political scientist told DW, adding it was an experience that many people already had with Ukrainians taking refuge in the country in recent years.

Poland vows to get Ukrainian kids into schools

Schoolchildren will also have to learn to adapt to classmates with a different language and culture as well as difficult experiences of war, she said.

"Children and young people will have to cope with that," says Lada-Konefal."They will have to learn to live with others, to open up. That is part of development."

But parts of society may feel overwhelmed by the number of refugees, and more migration from Ukraine could also be used by populists to "spread hatred and resentment," the political scientist said.

"If the costs are high and the crisis and the war drag on a for a long time, it's hard to say whether Polish society will be able to accept this and learn to live with it," Lada-Konefal adds. 

This article was translated from German.