20.12.22 Review

‘With Ukraine, Against Ukrainians.’ Poland Has Taken in a Record Number of Ukrainian Refugees, but According to Experts, Such an Influx of Migrants Is Fraught With Increasing Social Tension

Poland is one of Europe’s key members of the pro-Ukrainian coalition. By the beginning of December, 5.9 million Ukrainians had crossed the border with Poland, and 1.5 million had applied for asylum. This is the largest influx of migrants the country has ever experienced. The almost inevitable humanitarian crisis caused by such an inflow was averted thanks to the mobilisation of civil society, according to a report by Carnegie Europe Foundation. However, according to recent public opinion surveys, the longer the war goes on, the more tension the refugee influx causes in Polish society. Carnegie Europe experts believe that Russia is fueling anti-migrant narratives. However, Warsaw's determination to provide Ukraine with the broadest possible assistance in countering Russian aggression has not yet been affected by this increasing discontent within Polish society.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, by December 6th, 5.9 million Ukrainians had crossed the Polish border, and 1.5 million of them had requested asylum in Poland. In the initial days following the Russian invasion, about 140,000 Ukrainian refugees were crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border every day, but their numbers then stabilised at about 20,000 per day. It was only the rapid and mass mobilisation of Polish civil society and the population at large which helped to avoid the almost inevitable humanitarian crisis caused by this situation, according to the authors of a Carnegie Europe Foundation report on the changing role of the third sector in the context of growing geopolitical conflicts. Train stations and bus depots were transformed into temporary shelters and food distribution points. Thousands of Poles donated food, medicine, and clothing. According to the Polish Economic Institute, the material aid provided by Poles to Ukrainian refugees totalled approximately 10 billion zloty (about $2.2 billion).

However, as the Foundation’s experts outline, the longer the war drags on, the more Polish society's fatigue grows amid new economic and energy problems. By the beginning of summer, public opinion polls were already recording increasingly negative attitudes of Poles toward Ukrainian refugees. In March only 3% of the Polish population was against accepting Ukrainians, but by June this share had risen to 12%. An autumn study by Sławomir Sierakowski, the founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and a senior researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), titled ‘Poles with Ukraine, but against Ukrainians,’ concludes that, by autumn, Poles' attitudes toward Ukrainians had continued to change increasingly for the worse.

The main reason for this increase in negative sentiment is rising housing prices and other economic difficulties caused by the war. Inflation in the country has reached 18%, and the cost of energy resources remains high. The interviews conducted by Sierakowski show that discontent with these problems is being transferred on to Ukrainian refugees. People do not like the fact that Ukrainians are entitled to a national identification number and various benefits, which, according to respondents, encourage refugees not to return to Ukraine and overload Poland's already inefficient social support system. There are also fears that Ukrainians will take away jobs from Poles. At the moment 400 thousand Ukrainians have found employment in Poland; Sławomir Sierakowski cites expert calculations which show that the Polish labour market can ‘absorb many more, and that these fears are irrational.

Interview analysis shows that respondents repeat the same stories, which have no correlation with their personal experiences. They are spread through social media, where most of these messages are shared by anonymous trolls and bots. Experts from Carnegie Europe believe that Moscow is involved in this. They claim that since March, the Polish media and social networks have regularly published Kremlin-inspired reports stating that issuing identification numbers to Ukrainian refugees means granting them Polish citizenship, or that the welfare benefits available to Ukrainian refugees are significantly higher than those available to Polish citizens.

In any case, changes in public sentiment cannot be ignored; it is necessary to work with them, just as it is necessary to conduct a dialogue with Polish citizens, Sierakowski continues. In his opinion, the reasons for the growing public discontent are not actually related to refugees, but to the lack of trust in the state. Fortunately, no political party has yet used this discontent to mobilise its electorate, except the far-right Konfederacja. However, according to Sierakowski, if this topic is not discussed openly and honestly, sooner or later the populists may seize this agenda, especially in the run-up to next year's parliamentary elections.

However, the ever-growing negative attitudes among the Polish populus towards Ukrainian refugees has not led to a decrease in support for Ukraine as such by the Polish government. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), Poland ranks third in terms of its percentage of GDP  commitments to provide Kyiv with various types of support and fourth in military assistance after the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. As of November 20, Warsaw's total military commitments to Ukraine amounted to $1.82 billion.