Poland prepares for ‘up to a million people’ fleeing war in Ukraine – POLITICO
Press play to listen to this article
WARSAW – Poland is preparing for a massive influx of refugees if Russia attacks Ukraine.
“We have to prepare for the worst-case scenario and [we have] took steps to prepare for a wave of up to one million people,” Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wąsik told Polish radio.
The Polish government has pledged to stand in solidarity with Ukraine as tensions with Russia rise and said people fleeing the country in the event of a Russian invasion would be “true refugees” and receive help, Wasik said. “According to the Geneva Convention, these people will be under Polish protection, and we will absolutely not say no to their help.”
Ukraine shares borders with EU members Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, but has the closest ties to Poland.
However, there are doubts about Poland’s ability to cope with such a large influx of people fleeing the war. Last year, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko sparked a political and humanitarian crisis in Poland by encouraging a few thousand Middle Eastern migrants to fly to Minsk and then travel to the European Union.
Polish border guards have pushed many people back into Belarus – with human rights groups saying it violated their right to seek asylum.
A Ukrainian crisis would be very different. Ukrainians have the right to enter the EU visa-free, and Ukraine borders the EU, meaning authorities won’t be able to argue that refugees should seek asylum elsewhere.
The Interior Ministry told POLITICO in an email that it was “constantly monitoring the situation related to the crisis on the Ukrainian-Russian border”.
“The situation is constantly being analyzed in close collaboration with the border guards and the Foreigners Office, including in terms of the availability of places in centers for foreigners,” the ministry said.
The ministry did not respond to questions about what concrete steps it has taken to deal with the scenario described by Wąsik.
Observers doubt that Poland can do much. There are no more than 2,000 places to accommodate refugees in 10 centers run by the Foreigners Office, the government service responsible for migration. The border guard has just over 2,300 places, but only 800 are currently available. “Border guards are ready to make additional spaces available,” a spokesperson said.
“To say that Poland will help a million people fleeing war is simply irresponsible,” said Agnieszka Kosowicz, who heads the Polish Migration Forum, an NGO promoting migrant rights in Poland.
There are already more than one million Ukrainians in Poland who have arrived in search of better jobs and have effectively integrated into Polish society. But a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and death is not something Poland will be able to handle, said Jan Piekło, Poland’s former ambassador to Ukraine.
“The Polish government is – or should be – aware that the crisis will be quite different. It will be a wave of terrified people trying to find a safe place and not migrate for time-stretched jobs in which people take care of themselves. Poland will need help,” said Piekło.
Poland also has little experience with such a crisis. The most recent data from the Aliens Office covering the first nine months of 2021 shows that only 5,200 people have applied for international protection, a term that includes recognition as a refugee or the granting of subsidiary protection.
Of these, most applicants were Afghan and Belarusian citizens. There were only 200 Ukrainians.
The Warsaw office of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says it is ready to help whenever asked, spokesman Rafał Kostrzyński said.
“Poland should do what the Geneva Convention asks it to do. It should allow people to apply for refugee status. It should also look to other countries for help in order to ensure the smooth running of the procedures. We are ready to help both in the implementation of asylum procedures and in humanitarian aid,” Kostrzyński said.
Poland’s nationalist government has long rejected the idea that EU countries should distribute asylum seekers among themselves – a demand made by frontline states such as Greece and Italy in the face of migration surges.
The reality of hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border will test Poland very quickly, said Andrew Stroehlein, European media director at Human Rights Watch.
“In the Belarusian border case, there were ‘only’ thousands of people involved, and the Polish authorities, with the EU fully behind them, could not even handle the situation properly,” he said. said Stroehlein. “That doesn’t bode well for a worst-case scenario and big numbers in Ukraine.”
The problem is likely to be less acute in other EU member countries bordering Ukraine, said Oana Popescu-Zamfir, director of the Bucharest-based GlobalFocus Center, a foreign policy think tank.
“Historically, we haven’t had so many migrations from Ukraine and in the event of war, most of the refugees would go to Poland where there are already so many of their compatriots,” Popescu-Zamfir said.