ON February 24, 2022, Russian troops entered Ukraine’s territory to start the largest armed struggle in Europe since the Second World War. According to United Nations data, nearly 14 million Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes, and almost 8 million have fled their country: mainly women, children and old people.
Eighty years ago, one such woman was my grandmother. Together with her sister, she decided to settle in Poland for good, rather than go back to a Ukraine controlled by barbarians. For me and for many other Poles, the ongoing war is not only an act of aggression against a neighbor, but also against us.
Since the onslaught the Polish-Ukrainian border has been crossed by over 7.4 million refugees. Given that about 5.6 million have moved to the opposite direction, roughly 2 million refugees have stayed in Poland. Together with the previous wave of Ukrainian migrants triggered by the Donbas War in 2014, the total number living in Poland is about 3.5 million.
Almost every Pole got involved in helping Ukrainian refuge-seekers. The spontaneous response of the Polish society exceeded all expectations, as 70 percent of adult Poles joined in the effort to help the refugees. People offered their rooms, or even entire flats. With 7 percent of Poles doing so, several hundred-thousand families were housed in private homes, rather than placed in camps, as was the case during similar crises.
Some 59 percent of Poles bought essentials, and 53 percent contributed to raise money for refugees. They spent up to €2 billion to support Ukrainians fleeing the war in the first three months, according to the Polish Economic Institute.
Cash benefits, health aid, education
THANKS to changes in Polish legislation, Ukrainians may be granted the PESEL (Powszechny Elektroniczny System Ewidencji Ludności, or the Universal Electronic Population Registration System)identification number like every Polish citizen. This allows them to legally stay in Poland for 18 months. They have the right to set up a “trusted profile:” a digital identity that they can use to obtain various social benefits, including the universal family benefit of about €120 per child.
The wave of refugees caused by the war is mainly made up of women. Over 60 percent of them came with their children, so they need to secure a place in a school or nursery before they can look for a job.
Ukrainian refuge-seekers are entitled to payments such as family, child-rearing, start-of-school and career benefits amounting to as much as €2,600. To help take care of children, municipalities have fast-tracked procedures to open more nurseries, as many public institutions have been transformed into temporary sleeping facilities. Refugees were also granted a one-off payment of €80 per person.
In addition, Ukrainians fleeing war were given access to free psychological support, food aid and health care. Already experienced in remote teaching, schools knew ways to quickly reorganize their work and admit 200,000 extra students from Ukraine—including nearly 20,000 in Warsaw alone. Rules for hiring teachers have been eased to employ Ukrainian speakers from among refugees. Besides learning in Polish schools in the Polish language, Ukrainian kids also attended Ukrainian schools remotely.
POLAND also liberalized the legislation on the employment of Ukrainians. When recruiting a person from Ukraine, it is now enough to inform the relevant labor office within seven days.
Ukrainians may take up and carry out business activity in Poland on the same terms as Polish citizens. The new rules have applied to more than 450,000 new employees. With about 600,000 working-age Ukrainian refugees registered in Poland, this means that some 60 percent have found a job.
On top of that, Ukrainians have set up over 10,000 firms, which account for almost one in every 10 newly registered businesses. It is unprecedented too that Poles are similarly free to take up employment in Ukraine. This will be very useful once the process of rebuilding Ukraine has started, even without a peace agreement.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that, in 2022, Poland would have support war refugees from Ukraine to the tune of €8.4 billion—the highest such amount among OECD-member countries (total OECD expenditure being estimated at €26.8 billion). This is followed by Germany (€6.8 billion), and the Czech Republic (€2 billion).
The solidarity demonstrated by Poli sh society is amazing. The Polish and Ukrainian nations have always had a lot in common, even though our shared history also included some dark episodes. There are many Poles who could recount family histories similar to mine, or who remember the crimes committed by Ukrainian radicals in Volhynia during the last world war.
Today all that is in the past. It goes without saying that we must help our neighbors in need. We will still do so until they can return to their homes safely.