Ukrainian refugees in Poland: the three challenges

Eirini Aivaliotou

Ph.D. and Lecturer at the University of Wrocław

Since February 24, 2022, worldwide there is an outcry for help for Ukraine and its citizens. Millions of people fled towards other European countries, with most of them being women and children, as men of a certain age are requested to stay back and fight. This has led to several issues, which as researchers in Poland, we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Considering them at an early stage can contribute to the well-management of Ukrainians settlement and integration in EU countries.

We observed mainly three recurring issues that can give context to the current state of affairs and provide some depth to the future policymaking.

1. Women Employment

“When I was in Ukraine, I did not have to work, my husband did. Now, that my husband stayed back in Ukraine to fight for the war, I need to work to support my daughters.”

The first issue regards women employment, as many women who fled Ukraine were living in a family that relied only on the man’s payroll. These women are now requested to work, withstanding a significant challenge coupled with the stress of leaving their homeland and loved ones back.

On the other hand, women who worked in Ukraine, have difficulties in finding a job reflecting their skills. In most cases, they risk to be underemployed, relying upon very low wages. Hence, it is of utter significance to consider this gender imbalance in Poland and across the EU, especially when considering medium-sized and small towns where the job market is significantly smaller, and the working opportunities can be very limited. Ukrainian women have various needs ranging from psychological support, to Polish language courses needed also to enter the job market as soon as possible. However, finding proper support is not always easy on a local level. Several Non-governmental organizations have started to offer consultation days, but often these kinds of initiatives are not customized to lone mothers in a foreign country. Childcare and support to lone women with family obligations emerges as a key priority for Polish small municipalities that have been receiving Ukrainian refugees.

2. Labour migrants vs. “real patriots”

Another challenge is linked to the fact that whereas some men decided to stay in Ukraine to fight, not everyone did. This is likely to rise debates in Poland, as the country has been receiving Ukrainian labour migrants since 2008 during the financial crisis and refugees since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. These older migrants did not necessarily return to Ukraine to join the army. Hence, older and younger flows of Ukrainians might be confronting a moral conflict of what a “real patriot” should do. As one of our interviewees mentioned:

“We are disrespectful men who are not fighting and are staying here (Poland), we find it unacceptable.”

When it comes to integration policies and practices targeting Ukrainians in Poland, it is vital to reflect on this cautiously, also to avoid unintentionally nurture more divide within the community. At the same time, policymakers should pay attention to how to support Ukrainian men who might suffer marginalization or judgement for their decision not to joint the army, ensuring them with a safe space in the new country that they have recently migrated into or have been living in for some time. This risk can be amplified in middle-sized and small towns, where migrants and refugees are in smaller numbers and everyday encounters with other members of the community are more likely.

3. Lower Silesia: the bureaucratic over-burdening

The EU has rightfully responded to inflows from Ukraine by activating the EU Temporary Protection Directive, so that refugees can access the labour markets across the EU, move freely to other EU countries for 90 days, receive healthcare and more. This has caused a burden in the region of Lower Silesia in Poland, where administrative offices (urzad) were already deplored for low efficiency in attending to local residents’ requests. The unplanned arrivals since February 2022 have worsened the situation, affecting also migrants from other nationalities who were already living in this region and who now might wait up to two years to receive their residence card. To avoid conflicts between Ukrainians and local residents or migrants of other origins, there is a need to seriously tackle pre-existing problems like the under staffing of administrative offices across the country. This is a challenge that other EU countries might be facing too, and that might lead to blame unfairly Ukrainians for problems that existed already before.

Hence, the unfolding situation of Ukrainian migrants’ reception in Poland shows how specific challenges regarding the gender composition of these new waves, and regarding job opportunities for single mothers, and possible in-group conflicts on participation in war, can link to structural problems in host countries such as slow bureaucracy in the case of Poland receiving regions. These challenges can represent important hurdles for the integration of Ukrainians into small communities, especially if they are not tackled and remain unnoticed. 

Foto di Taylor Walling su Unsplash

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