Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Poland Unprepared for Waves of Ukrainian Refugees

Ukraine’s largest friendly neighbor is struggling under the impact of evacuees.

By , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Refugees rest at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in Poland.
Refugees rest at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in Poland.
Refugees rest at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in Poland on Feb. 27. Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

PRZEMYSL, Poland—Beds, meals, medical supplies, psychologists, interpreters, teachers.

These were just a few of the items the Polish government asked local and national migrant-focused NGOs in the country to plan for from mid-February onward as the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland’s neighbor, loomed.

Possibility became reality on Thursday morning, when Ukrainians across the country woke up to the sound of explosions, air raid sirens, and the news that the country was under attack. As missiles hit cities and Russian forces approach the capital, hundreds of thousands of civilians have left the country, with the United Nations estimating that up to 5 million could flee in the coming days.

PRZEMYSL, Poland—Beds, meals, medical supplies, psychologists, interpreters, teachers.

These were just a few of the items the Polish government asked local and national migrant-focused NGOs in the country to plan for from mid-February onward as the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland’s neighbor, loomed.

Possibility became reality on Thursday morning, when Ukrainians across the country woke up to the sound of explosions, air raid sirens, and the news that the country was under attack. As missiles hit cities and Russian forces approach the capital, hundreds of thousands of civilians have left the country, with the United Nations estimating that up to 5 million could flee in the coming days.

But according to multiple heads of local and national NGOs, current and past officials tasked with monitoring Poland’s immigration policy and implementation, and U.S. government officials helping to coordinate the effort, the Polish government has struggled to rapidly put together an actionable response plan. The country must find the resources needed to respond to what could become the biggest humanitarian crisis facing Europe since the end of the Cold War.

Civil society’s concerns over Poland’s preparedness for Ukrainian refugees persist despite multiple meetings in the last week with local, national, and international humanitarian organizations, along with government officials from both Poland and Ukraine, to discuss potential responses to a wide-scale refugee crisis. On Tuesday, representatives from several NGOs based in the European Union met for two hours to discuss how European civil society could help, though no definitive actions were decided.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Sunday that 368,000 people so far had crossed the Ukrainian border into neighboring countries. The day before, Polish Deputy Interior Minister Pawel Szefernaker said that since the invasion began, at least 100,000 asylum-seekers from Ukraine had come into Poland, where a Ukrainian diaspora of an estimated 1 to 2 million already exists, largely thanks to the previous bouts of Russian aggression in Crimea and the Donbass region.

There have been many first-person accounts that Poland has unofficially opened its borders even to those who arrive without a passport. However, some migrants have said this treatment has not held true for non-Ukrainian refugees fleeing the invaded country.

With Russia’s further invasion past the disputed territories into Ukrainian sovereign lands, including brutal attacks throughout the Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa regions, such preparations in Poland and other nearby countries are more important than ever. And although Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said on Saturday that the country would now deploy its own Territorial Defense Force (WOT) to set up Refugee Relocation Support Groups along its Ukrainian border, along with the reception points announced last week, experts working on the ground in Poland are still skeptical.

“The groups will be made up of WOT soldiers with a knowledge of the Ukrainian and Russian languages, having been trained in first aid, competent to care for children and senior citizens,” Blaszczak tweeted.

This is not the first wave of refugees to arrive en masse at the Polish border in recent months. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko began weaponizing refugees primarily from the Middle East last year, inviting them into the country and immediately busing them to the EU’s easternmost borders with Poland, Latvia, and other neighboring countries in what experts believe is retaliation for EU sanctions imposed on the country in response to Lukashenko’s brutal treatment of demonstrators protesting his disputed reelection in August 2020.

Overwhelmed with these refugees, Poland created a no man’s land on its northern border with Belarus that is off limits to activists, journalists, and other watchdogs. Accounts of extreme abuse and neglect by border agents from both countries have been reported from the region for months, as hundreds of refugees have trickled out of the frozen forest separating the two countries and are sent to closed refugee camps across Poland for processing.

Since the start of the Donbass war in 2014 and the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, Poland has also granted asylum to some refugees from the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in eastern Ukraine along with others from Crimea in the south. Activists complain that the Polish policy toward these refugees was too exclusive, allowing only a very small number of those affected to cross into EU territory via Poland.

Experts and activists who have been working with the refugees from Belarus as well as those from the disputed lands in Ukraine say they fear that Poland will treat a new wave of Ukrainian refugees fleeing a Russian invasion in much the same way: either with a disregard for international laws on human rights, as seen in the Belarusian case, or with a very selective entrance criteria that could severely limit the number of people allowed across the border.

But Ukrainian refugees will most likely face a different reception than their nonwhite, mostly non-Christian predecessors, thanks to their similar language, appearance, and historical struggles.

Poland changed its immigration law in response to the crisis on the Belarusian border, eschewing some tenets of international law protecting refugees, creating a “racist” law according to Anna Dabrowska, the president of Homo Faber, an NGO focused on migrant integration in the western Polish city of Lublin. So the question remains as to how the government will view these white, mostly Christian refugees and which laws will be applied to their situation.

Polish officials within the current government headed by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who have declined to provide further comments after multiple requests, have said in several public statements that they are prepared in a worst-case scenario. Regional mayors have been asked to provide estimates of how many refugees they could accept and what kinds of resources they might need to care for them.

An important difference between this situation and the previous waves of asylum-seekers is that the entire world is watching, said Anna Trylinska, an immigration attorney in Poland who has worked with refugees for more than a decade.

“But Poland doesn’t have a comprehensive immigration policy,” she said before the war began. “Everything is done ad hoc here—we have a crisis, so we find empty buildings for them, but we don’t care what happens to them later.”

And now that the humanitarian crisis has begun, the situation of what to actually do with the refugees is as murky as ever. There are not enough beds for people, she said, and neither Polish people nor the refugees themselves know what to do or where to go. The only bright side, she said, is that many Polish people are volunteering to help in whatever way they can—but without the organization or leadership structure in place to collect donations or distribute them, the situation is still dire at best.

Civil society groups say local and national government representatives are leaving the bulk of the preparation for potentially millions of refugees to them.

“I don’t think the national government is prepared at all,” said Dabrowska earlier this week. “I am very worried.”

In what more than one local organizer has said is a first in their careers, the national government representatives reportedly told NGO representatives that funding would not be an issue. But activists are doubtful.

Artem Zozulia, the president of the Ukraine Foundation, possibly the biggest NGO working for migrants in Poland, shares Dabrowska’s concerns. “We have all the plans to respond [to a refugee crisis] but none of the money,” he said last week. “I don’t see any money right now. And if there’s no money, they’re not 100 percent prepared.”

Three days into the crisis, his opinion had not changed. “The national government announced some projects for people fleeing Ukraine, but the majority of refugees are still only covered by volunteers and fundraising organizations that do not have the capacity to handle hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. And there’s still no money.

Some officials say they can only hope that funding will come when it is needed. Hannah Machinska, the Polish deputy commissioner for human rights, who is tasked with monitoring the treatment of asylum-seekers, echoed others’ doubts and said she was afraid that the national government was not organized enough to handle the situation, especially at the border checkpoints.

“If Russia invades Ukraine, I will just drive my car to the border and try to help people.” Trylinska said last weekend. “What else can we do?”

Katie Livingstone is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @sassovivente

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