Poland Demonized Refugees. Now It’s Struggling to Integrate Them

 People, mainly women and children, arrive in Przemysl, Poland on a train from wartorn Ukraine on March 28. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
People, mainly women and children, arrive in Przemysl, Poland on a train from wartorn Ukraine on March 28. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Numbers never tell the full story of a war. Often, however, they offer a good vantage point to look at the bigger picture. The key piece of data that actually tells the story of the future does not feature Ukraine at all—but, at the same time, illustrates the sheer scale of its tragedy. Since the Russian invasion, more than 2.3 million Ukrainian refugees have crossed the border into Poland.

This number in itself might not yet be worrisome. It becomes so, however, when contextualized. According to calculations made by the United Nations refugee agency and the Financial Times, Poland was ranked 101st globally in number of refugees it hosted in 2021. In a span of three weeks, it moved to number two. As of March 18, only Turkey had more refugees inside its borders.

The Poles’ initial response to the calamity of their neighbors was as heartwarming as it was shocking. Volunteers flooded the border, offering safe passage to any city in the country, while money, food, and medical supplies poured in the opposite direction. People mobilized to welcome refugees under their roofs and did not ask for any compensation. And all of that happened in a country that just six months earlier erected a border fence to protect itself from a few thousand Kurds and Afghans, forcing some of them to freeze to death in Poland’s pristine forests. Even if the optimism was there, very few dared to see it coming in such volumes.

Volunteers will not be able to provide refugees with employment, income, stability, education, and sense of belonging. That is the job of the state.

Polish society received praise for its actions, and rightly so. However, this one-of-a-kind mobilization was fit exactly for this moment: providing a first response to an unprecedented crisis at its doorstep. Traumatized Ukrainian refugees were given care and warmth, but volunteers will not be able to provide them something of much greater importance: employment, income, stability, education, and sense of belonging. This is the job of the state, an actor that usually steps in when citizens’ goodwill has run its course.

In Poland, this seemingly obvious process has not materialized. That’s mostly because the Polish state for years pretended that migration, a truly global phenomenon, was not its problem—and worse still, the politicians who continue to run the country demonized migrants and refugees, seeing them only as existential threats to the nation.

Current deputy prime minister and leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, stated that refugees “will not abide by the Polish law”. Former interior minister Joachim Brudzinski depicted them as “young, horny bulls called ‘refugees,’” and Polish President Andrzej Duda feared they will carry a risk of “possible epidemics”. Thus, the largest burden of accommodating evacuees from Europe’s biggest war in decades has fallen on the one state on the continent arguably least prepared and least willing to bear it.

Even though sudden refugee crises are not infrequent, Poland does not have any institutional memory of managing them. In 2015, when the European Union saw itself unprepared to solve the easy-to-foresee problem of millions of Middle Eastern and African migrants trying to enter, Poland refused to take part in the refugee relocation process. Not only did it cause a rift with other member states, but it prevented the Polish authorities from learning a lesson—valuable then and priceless today.

Since then, most countries on the continent used those experiences to usher in at least partial reforms of migration policies. Poland could not, as it had no point of reference. As a result, the present administration has no institutional memory of handling sudden large volumes of refugee applications. It is not exactly the fault of the current, populist-nationalist government. After all, in the summer of 2015, Poland was still under the control of then-European Council President Donald Tusk’s center-right Civic Platform party, and welcoming them would have come at a relatively low cost.

Accepting even several thousand refugees from Syria and Iraq would have neither affected the ethnic composition of Poland’s population of almost 38 million people nor created a noticeable drag on the state budget. It would have, however, been an opportunity to modernize scarce and obsolete migration-related units of the administration and create much-needed new ones.

Poland lacks some of the most basic institutions that could help ease refugee pressure today, from a dedicated ministry to state-sponsored language courses for foreigners.

In this respect, Poland has not changed much since even its pre-democratic times. Prior to the 1989 transition, its autocratic institutions were mostly concerned with keeping those desperate to flee inside the country. Later, it never faced the challenge of accommodating migrants because Poland was a country people migrated from, not to.

In the first few years after Warsaw’s EU accession, some 2 million to 2.5 million Polish citizens migrated westward, mostly to the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany. Even the gradual arrival of the first Ukrainian migrants to Poland after Russia’s 2014 aggression in Crimea and the Donbass, amounting to 1.3 million people in 2020, as well as a tacit policy of granting visas to tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Indian workers did not prompt the government to change its overarching approach.

As a result, Poland lacks some of the most basic institutions that could help ease refugee pressure today, from a dedicated ministry or state secretary for migration (something that exists, for instance, in the Netherlands), to state-sponsored, universalized courses on the Polish language for foreigners (a crucial element of Sweden’s relatively successful integration policy). The latter is proving particularly significant as more and more Ukrainian refugees begin job hunting; anecdotal evidence points that their inability to speak Polish is the biggest obstacle for employers.

The institution dedicated to handling incoming migration to Poland is a legacy structure called the Office for Foreigners. It is almost exclusively concerned with their legal status in the country, ignoring the crucial issue of subsequent integration into society. Yet the legality of Ukrainian refugees has already been sorted out by means of simply a handful of governmental decrees.

They have been accepted over the border without any formal conditions and given access to health care, social security, the possibility of full-time employment, and enrollment in public education. As a result, the Office for Foreigners, an institution already clogged with migrants’ petitions from before the war, has been rendered obsolete in a matter of weeks.

What Poland needs is something else: a government agency working on the basis of a long-term plan. This institution would be able to determine whether migrants meet the legal requirements to reside in Poland but also be capable of placing them on the right path for integration into society. It would not only sort out their papers but offer language courses, indicate where the labor market is falling short of manpower and where to seek additional professional qualifications, and perhaps even sponsor training. In short, Poland is in dire need of a foreigners’ office capable of carrying out a comprehensive migration strategy.

In the absence of these institutions—and civil servants trained in migration issues—the PiS government has offloaded the burden on local governments. In a move straight out of its populist playbook, it delegated the responsibilities but did not provide relevant resources. Within the framework of the Polish state, it is local governments that run education and health care.

As it happens, many of them are also strongholds of liberal opposition. PiS has been starving them out for years, burdening them with the costly consequences of chaotic educational and tax reforms as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Warsaw alone had been expected to conclude 2022 with a $407 million deficit, 9 percent of its annual income. And that was before the city accepted more than 300,000 refugees in a little over three weeks.

Local governments are neither equipped nor designed to accommodate refugees on their own. Warsaw’s mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, who in 2020 narrowly lost the presidential bid to Duda, warned last week that to conclude the operation of assigning social security numbers to evacuees in weeks rather than months, he would require 400 additional staff members. In the long run, forcing him and opposition mayors to shoulder most of the burden of accommodating refugees will lead them to squeeze their already tight budgets even more and make some difficult financial calls—a scenario PiS will undoubtedly benefit from politically.

For years, Poles were told to fear migrants while politicians learned that it pays to keep refugees away rather than let them in and integrate them.

The central government is trying to patch those shortcomings—it co-organized a registration center at Warsaw’s National Stadium, together with the local authorities—but such initiatives are scarce and temporary. A mirrored strategy has been applied in education, where the ministry immediately issued a decree increasing the maximum number of students in primary schools.

So far, 70,000 Ukrainian pupils have been accommodated in public educational institutions, just 10 percent of the total expected number. Finding places where they can study is one problem. Hiring teachers qualified to instruct them is another. According to the estimations by the Association of Polish Teachers, Poland’s largest educational sector trade union, at least 40,000 new bilingual teachers will be needed to provide instruction for refugee students. Of course, among the refugees, there will be teachers just as there are students. But triangulating them with where they reside and where they are needed is a job only a central government can do.

And there is, finally, the issue of politics. A massive inflow of Ukrainians was likely since at least the fall of last year. Intelligence reports confirmed that the Polish government was familiar with this possibility already in November 2021. There was time to prepare. But investing in administrative capacities to handle refugees and migrants would have come at an extremely high political cost.

For a government that has long prided itself on being the last frontier of European Christianity and a heroic defender of its nation’s traditional values from moral decay brought by outsiders, creating new institutions and programs for incoming migrants would sound like a contradiction at best.

After all, Kaczynski recently argued that refugees will “bring about the downfall of the Latin civilization”. When Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in an interview with Germany’s Bild last November that “we must do everything to protect our borders from immigration at the Mediterranean and in the east”, it became clear that the only policy his government knew how to implement was one consistent with the nationalist-populist ideological outlook he represents.

PiS came to power in 2015 also because it skillfully weaponized the refugee crisis. Its leaders threatened voters with migrants carrying diseases and warned of a total destruction of the state, as it claimed had happened everywhere refugees were welcomed with open arms (especially Sweden). None of this was true, but it tapped into the right sentiment among voters. Poles were told to fear migrants while politicians learned that it pays to keep refugees away rather than let them in and integrate them.

Now, when millions of them—not so different ethnically and culturally—came knocking, Polish society rushed to open the door. The Polish state is still standing on the sidelines, naively hoping it won’t have to get involved. In the event of an economic recession and a chaotic integration process, it will proudly declare, “I told you so”, proving that it was right to warn against migration all along. If, miraculously, Polish citizens and nonprofits do not run out of resources and goodwill to help refugees, PiS will go on an international victory lap, claiming credit and demanding that the EU (another demonic enterprise, according to their own narrative) chip in.

One way or another, the Polish government, will benefit from the presence of fleeing Ukrainians. Sadly, the ones set to lose are the refugees themselves.

Mateusz Mazzini is a writer-at-large for various Polish publications and a lecturer at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw.

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