3,5 million Ukrainian refugees on its soil: How is Poland absorbing the shock?


Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 caused unprecedented population displacement in Europe since the end of World War II. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ukraine has 8 million internally displaced and 6,6 million inhabitants took refuge abroad, including 3,5 million in Poland. However, these figures are difficult to verify because, once they entered Poland, some Ukrainians continued their route to other destinations, mainly Germany and the Czech Republic; others have returned to Ukraine (just over 2 million according to UNHCR as of May 2022).

Le nationalist law and justice party, in power since 2015, which had resolutely refused to welcome Syrians during the "migrant crisis", this time adopted a completely different posture, opening the country's borders wide to Ukrainian refugees. To understand this turnaround, it is useful to review the evolution of Polish-Ukrainian relations in terms of migration since the fall of the communist bloc in the early 1990s.

From the 1990s to 2014: circulatory mobility and labor migration

Ukrainian economic immigration to Poland began in the early 1990s. The dislocation of the Eastern bloc in Europe resulted in a radical opening of borders, in addition to the liberalization of the economy. In this very turbulent context, border crossings are exploding, especially on the eastern and western borders of Poland. Since the 1990s, many Ukrainians have come to work in Poland, where they find higher salaries. By an effect of communicating vessels, they thus take the place of many Poles emigrated themselves in Western Europe.

However, few settle legally in Poland, which is still fundamentally a country of emigration: in the 1990s, each year, around 20 Poles left the country while less than 000 foreigners arrived. If we reason " in stock ", we note that in the mid-1990s, only about 50 Ukrainians were legally registered as immigrants, holders of a residence permit (for work, studies, or as refugees). Most often, they carried out what are called “circulatory mobility” on both sides of the border, in an often "grey" economy. All of Poland's borders experienced this explosion: the number of entries into the territory rose from a few million in the 1980s to 18 million by 1990, then peaked at almost 90 million by the end of the decade, of which approximately 6 million entries per year at the border with Ukraine.

The year 1997 was a turning point: Poland acquired a new constitution guaranteeing refugee status, and begins the phase of negotiations to integrate the European Union. In this perspective, it is preparing to be the guarantor of one of the longest external borders of the Union.

The first post-communist law on foreigners was voted in 1997, and restored a visa regime for border countries. In 2004, the Poland joins the EU, then in the Schengen area in 2007. The liberal options of the government and a sustained economic growth argue in favor of an opening of the borders to fill the jobs left by the millions of Poles who left for the United Kingdom and Ireland.

In this context, Poland obtains the right to create in 2009 "small mobility" zones, i.e. a strip of 30 km on either side of the border, in which residents circulate without a visa. , sometimes on a daily basis, to work and trade. On the Ukrainian border, it makes it possible to maintain a vital gray economy in these eastern confines of the country, forgotten by investors.

This gray economy is especially vital for Ukrainians: the gap in wages and standard of living has widened between the two countries after Poland's accession to the European Community. These circulatory mobilities, the government measures making the hiring of Ukrainian workers (and other countries of the former USSR) more flexible from 2006, the multiplication of temporary work agencies and the improvement of the conditions of circulation between the two countries favored the transition from circulatory mobility to temporary or permanent residence: immigration.

At the beginning of the 2010s, Poland began to realize that it was becoming a country of transit, even of immigration, a completely new phenomenon. A document drawn up in 2012 also lays the groundwork for a possible migration strategy. It was prescient, given the turning point of 2014.

From 2014 to 2022: growing Ukrainian immigration

The Ukrainian population settled in Poland grew exponentially since 2014, due to theEuromaidan in Kyiv, from theannexation of Crimea by Russia and the beginning of the war in the east.

The annual number of Ukrainians settling in Poland, defined as the number of individuals who have obtained a permanent or temporary residence permit, has increased from 16 in 081 to 2013 in 296. This is primarily due to this spectacular growth that the migratory balance of Poland became positive after 525. Taking into account the fact that many remain once arrived, the Ukrainian population present in Poland is estimated in 2021 at nearly 2015 million individuals according to the Foreign Office. That year, Ukrainians represented 2021% of foreigners residing in Poland. During the last ten years, only Belarusian immigration has also experienced a slight increase.

The main nationalities among the immigrant population in Poland, from 2010 to 2021.
Provided by the author

However, this migratory openness is an exception. Indeed, 2015 is also the year of the return to power of the party Law and Justice (who had briefly governed the country from 2005 to 2007) after a long phase of liberal power.

The nationalist government buries the migration strategy drawn up in 2012 and stands out, along with other Central European countries, for the refusal to accept refugee populations of the war in Syria in 2015, whether as part of the relocation plan put in place by the EU or as part of the Marrakesh Pact adopted in 2018 under the aegis of the UN and intended to promote a common vision of migration on a global scale and to better protect migrants.

Be that as it may, as the Ukrainian population settles in the Polish space, it moves away from its traditional bases which constituted the border strip, to invest all the voivodships – the regions of the country –, to the point to constitute in some of them 80% of foreigners residing temporarily or permanently in 2021, as in the region of Opole in the South-West of the country.

The share of Ukrainians in immigration from 2010 to 2021 (in % of total immigrants in Polish regions). Click to zoom.
Provided by the author

Until 2021, the motivations that attract Ukrainians to Poland are diverse but centered around work, both because the country's economy presents a dynamism that is unparalleled with that of Ukraine (the salary ratio is approximately simple to double), and because Polish emigration had left a lot of vacancies.

According to the 2020 Foreign Office report, the main reasons for the arrival of Ukrainians before the war were, overwhelmingly, work, followed by education and family. This is why among the Ukrainian population residing in Poland, 95% work; the number of Ukrainian students has also increased. An alternative estimate of immigration, given by the number of work permits granted to foreigners, confirms this turning point in 2014 and the preponderant place of Ukrainians in the composition of immigration. Polish employers granted almost 2010 permits in 13, 000% of them to Ukrainians; in 35, they granted 2019, more than 330% of them to Ukrainians.

Work permits granted to Ukrainians from 2010 to 2022.
Provided by the author

Men are more numerous: they represent 62% of permanent residence permits in 2018, and work mainly in the sectors of transport, catering and industry. Women also hold jobs in education. Moreover, while it is mainly young Ukrainian women, between 20 and 24 years old, who arrive in Poland, the men are a little older, between 25 and 35 years old. Another difference: the Ukrainians hired near the border are on seasonal jobs, which suggests that they have retained more frequent mobility habits. In the rest of the country, they work with longer contracts.

Seasonal jobs of Ukrainian workers in the voivodships of Poland in 2021.
Provided by the author

Who are the Ukrainian refugees since the start of the 2022 war?

It is easy to understand why Poland is the first destination for Ukrainian refugees: it has been thirty years since millions of people have forged more or less lasting ties there, have ties there, sometimes parents settled there, knowing the country well, its language, and can accommodate them. The base of more than a million Ukrainian immigrants has therefore served as a fulcrum.

Report from Przemyśl in Poland, facing a continuous influx of Ukrainian refugees (Euronews, March 7, 2022).

Accommodation was therefore resolved with the support of local, national and international non-governmental organisations, local authorities and above all citizens, who house the vast majority of refugees. According to several estimates, 70% are in fact housed in private homes, the rest in premises fitted out for this purpose (hotel residences, students, gymnasiums, etc.). The Ukrainian diaspora present in Poland therefore absorbed the shock of these massive and sudden arrivals as a priority, immediately supported by the whole of Polish society.

People who have arrived in Poland since February 24, 2022 have a very different profile from the Ukrainian population present before the war. They are almost exclusively women, accompanied by their children. Men aged 18 to 60 are indeed retained by the mobilization, and many elderly people were unable or unwilling to leave their country.

In addition, due to this same mobilization, 100 Ukrainian men had to leave their jobs in Poland overnight, according to estimates by the Polish employers' organization. The result is an inversion of the sex ratio and a labor shortage in the jobs occupied by Ukrainian men.

The first wave of refugees was made up of people who left on their own initiative, with contacts in Poland, and who were able to quickly integrate into the labor market, or go to other European countries. But a survey of Ukrainian refugees present in Poland showed that only 44% are women of working age, the rest being mainly children and the elderly.

Polish convenience stores are recruiting: “Are you looking for work? Join us ! ".
L. Coudroy, Lyon 2 Light University, UMR EVS — 2022

About 100 Ukrainian women who have arrived since the start of the conflict have been able to find employment, mainly in services such as hotels and restaurants, or even in aesthetics. The second wave, from around April, mainly contains women and children evacuated by NGOs in the face of the violence of the fire. They had not prepared for their departure, and encounter more difficulties because they come up against two main obstacles: mastering the language, and schooling for their children. The latter, also for linguistic reasons, have remained schooled online in the Ukrainian education system, which places them under the supervision of their mothers, unavailable to go to work.

The hosting challenge

In the short term, the challenge for authorities and humanitarian organizations is accommodation. First of all, they aim for a better distribution of refugees in the territory: the flows have converged on the big cities, with their extremely tight real estate market, while many medium-sized cities offer equally attractive living and employment conditions. This is the message that is displayed in the central station of Warsaw:

This map of Poland displayed in Warsaw Central Station in April 2022 designates the multiple reception points in Polish territory.

Moreover, after three months of conflict, and all the more so if it drags on, accommodation with private individuals will become exhausting, due to the volume of the park available and its qualities. In fact, there are only 392 dwellings per 1 inhabitants in Poland (compared to 000 in France) and their average size is 534 m2 (against 90m2 in France). That is why many Ukrainian families sought to rent housing. But the private rental property market is very rare in Poland (not to mention social housing, which is almost non-existent), and rental prices since the beginning of the conflict have sometimes increased by 20 to 30%! This may explain, among other things, the return movements to Ukraine which took shape in April 2022, when the war seems far from over.

This article was co-authored with Margaux Baudoux, student in Master 1 European and International Studies at ENS de Lyon.

Lydia Coudroy from Lille, University Professor, Department of Geography and Planning Environment, City, Society Laboratory (UMR 5600, Lumière Lyon 2 University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Konrad Kmiec

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