A poster has just been installed at the refugee care point at the central train station in Warsaw. It is a large map of Poland with different cities highlighted and two conspicuous absences: the capital and Krakow. The explanation is in the message in Ukrainian and English that accompanies it: “The smaller cities in Poland mean more possibilities of accommodation, lower cost of living and more possibilities to get a job. The big cities in Poland are already saturated. Don’t be afraid to go to smaller cities. They are quiet, have good infrastructure and are well adapted”.
The war in neighboring Ukraine has transformed the face of Warsaw in just six weeks. Poland has been the escape route for nearly 60% (2.4 million) of the 4.2 million Ukrainian refugees, and initially the rapid response of volunteers, NGOs and local administrations prevented refugee camps from forming. Saved the first arreón, the idea was that the open door policy of the EU would derive the flow naturally towards richer European countries. However, the stagnation of the conflict, the uncertainty and the natural tendency of the refugees to stay close to their country are causing many to stay in Poland and, after the phase of simply fleeing, concentrate on the places associated for centuries with the words work and future: the big cities. The result is that 300,000 Ukrainians have increased the population of Warsaw by 15% and another 150,000, almost 20% of Krakow. The two large Polish cities ask for help and warn that the situation is unsustainable.
“We are at the limit, we can no longer improvise,” protests the mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski. “All my administrative staff is dedicated to carrying out Pesel procedures [el equivalente polaco al número de la seguridad social, que reciben estos días los refugiados]. All my psychologists work with refugees. Also all those who used to work with children and all social services, ”he lists in an interview at City Hall.
Trzaskowski recalls a fact to illustrate the dimension of the challenge posed by the largest and fastest exodus in Europe since World War II. In the most intense month of the refugee and migrant crisis of 2015-2016, 200,000 people entered Europe, 100,000 less than the Ukrainian refugees who are today only in Warsaw and 400,000 less than those who have passed through the capital.
A particularly problematic derivative is teaching. In Warsaw there were 280,000 children in school before the war. They have been joined by 13,000 refugees, but the vast majority still remain, another 87,000. “I can’t get them all into schools in a week,” justifies Trzaskowski, who advocates distance learning and face-to-face Polish classes. The Ministry of Education has issued a special decree so that the limit of 25 students per classroom increases to 28 in infants and 29 in the first three years of primary school.
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Another is the erosion of the initial solidarity impulse. The number of volunteers has fallen over the weeks. “There are fewer and fewer people willing to help. Those who have been doing it from the beginning are exhausted”, admits Pola Gorska, a 28-year-old Polish volunteer in the Grupa Centrum grassroots group, at the Western Station, where several of her colleagues play in a room with Ukrainian children. It is one of the main connection hubs because it is next to a major bus station.
Although almost 25,000 people (five times less than almost a month ago) enter Poland from Ukraine every day, the figure of 300,000 refugees in Warsaw has been stable for more than a week, due to departures to other parts of the country or to third countries. But those who arrive now need more help, which adds pressure to the coffers, public services and the solidarity of the Poles. “A month ago, 97% of the people who came were cared for by their family or friends. Now, between 30% and 40% need help and accommodation”, explains the mayor.
That 97% had links with the many Ukrainians who lived before the war in Poland, the sixth largest economy in the EU, thirsty for labor and everything generous (280,000 work permits in 2020) with culturally close countries that were not in 2015-2016 with a few thousand Muslim migrants.
Reunions are already part of everyday life in Warsaw. In the most touristic area – the historic center razed to the ground by the Nazis, rebuilt and declared a World Heritage Site in 1980 – it is easy to hear veterans guide newcomers in Ukrainian or Russian. In the neighborhood of Prague, on the banks of the Vistula River that came out better during World War II, the Cathedral of Santa María Magdalena has won over faithful and there is not room for a soul in mass. It is the main Orthodox church, the majority religion among Ukrainians, in the city.
Refugees receive free accommodation, food, drink, medical help and psychological support. For those who need accommodation beyond a handful of nights before continuing on their way, there are municipal properties and a database of people offering their homes, as well as companies, NGOs or religious organisations. On the busiest avenues and in cafes, refugees can be heard conversing with the Poles who are hosting them, in a mixture of their respective languages or in English.
The city is full of messages of support for Ukraine, even at the headquarters of the Central Bank and the marquees. The famous Royal Route is decorated with the flags of Warsaw and Ukraine, and the Royal Castle (where US President Joe Biden gave a speech last month) is illuminated at night in the colors of the Polish ensigns. and ukraine.
On the outskirts of the capital, in the town of Nadarzyn, is the largest refugee reception center in the country, the Ptak fairgrounds, with 150,000 square meters and a capacity for 20,000 refugees. It is not coordinated by the City Council, but by the regional and central governments. The contract has just been renegotiated downwards, after the initial calculation per refugee caused controversy. At its height, it housed up to 11,000 people, but normally it is between 6,000 and 7,000. They usually stay between three and four days. “If there are more, it is generally because they are larger families, for whom it is more difficult to find accommodation,” explains its public relations manager, Anna Choroszczac.
Digital screens display the names and flags of Belgium, Germany, Estonia, the UK and Spain (with images of Firefighters Without Borders volunteers). Simply sign up to get free transportation to that country, even by plane. A bus waits at the entrance with the engine idling.
At the entrance, it is surprising to see a photo booth. It is for the procedure of Pesel. Refugees can also register there in search of employment. Along with hundreds of emergency folding beds, there are three pallets of donated clothing, a children’s room with mats, hopscotch and strollers, and a religious space with an Orthodox priest.
The system works, but it does not give more than itself and “some refugees are referred to other cities”, admits the mayor. “At the peak when 30,000 to 40,000 Ukrainians were arriving in the city every day, we had to go calling other cities in Poland to say: ‘Send me two buses, because we are full.’ A municipal source quoted by the newspaper Rzeczpospolita revealed last month that a group was transferred by bus from Warsaw to Bialystok, in northeastern Poland, and refused to get off when they arrived. He ended up back in the capital.
Trzaskowski insists on the need for two actions. One is to “start distributing people” under a “voluntary relocation” program based on encouraging displacement. “They are not mandatory quotas. They are not necessary. There are enough commitments [de acogida de otros países]”, he nuances.
The other is that the Polish government “requests the EU and the UN to establish a system”, because now there are “duplicities”. Trzaskowski – who in 2020 narrowly lost the presidential elections to Andrzej Duda, of the ultra-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party – also proposes that the funds not only go to the central government, which leads the PiS, but also directly to the local administrations, NGOs and the refugees themselves. “A strategy is needed, because the war is not going to end in a week. And even if I did, hopefully, people will not be able to return to Mariupol, because it has to be rebuilt first”, he sums up.
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