One year after Russia’s invasion, how are Ukrainians coping in Poland?

Nearly 10 million Ukrainians have crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border since the war broke out, and about 1.5 million of them decided to stay rather than move on to another country. Darek Delmanowicz/PAP

The ongoing war in Ukraine has resulted in the largest wave of refugees in Europe since World War Two and a historically unprecedented influx of refugees to Poland.

Nearly 10 million Ukrainians have crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border since the war broke out, and about 1.5 million of them decided to stay rather than move on to another country.

The scale of the crisis is such that the population of Rzeszów, the largest city in south-eastern Poland, has increased by 50percent. In Warsaw, the population has grown by 15 percent, while Kraków’s has risen by 23 percent and Gdańsk’s by 34 percent.

With a full year now having passed since Putin’s bloody invasion and no end in sight, surveys have attempted to find out how Ukrainian refugees are settling in Poland, how they have found their way in the labour market and how they see their future in Poland.

The survey ‘War Refugees from Ukraine. One Year in Poland’ carried out by the EWL Migration Platform, the EWL Foundation and Eastern European Studies at the University of Warsaw shows that the vast majority of Ukrainians have taken advantage of quickly introduced rules that gave them free access to the labour market.

The survey showed that 82 percent of Ukrainians who came to Poland after the outbreak of war in Ukraine have found jobs.

This is a much higher percentage than for refugees residing in Germany, the Czech Republic or Romania.

Fifty-six  percent of working refugees found employment in their first three months in Poland, while 27 percent of those in working age found jobs within the first month after Poland's arrival.

Andrzej Korkus, president of the EWL Migration Platform commented: “Such a high level of employment among Ukrainian refugees already in the first months of their stay in Poland testifies not only to their determination to take up employment but also to the openness of Polish entrepreneurs to new employees, as well as to the needs of the market and the economy in Poland."

Ukrainian refugees have not just taken up jobs; they have also opened businesses.

Within the last year, Ukrainians registered nearly 15,000 sole proprietorships in Poland, and by the end of September 2022, nearly 4,000 companies were set up with Ukrainian capital.

One question many are asking in Poland is will the Ukrainians stay after the war ends or go home.

Survey results offer a mixed picture. The EWL Foundation survey suggests that many of those who came to Poland plan to stay for the long term.

One in three of those surveyed plan to stay in Poland in the long-term, while 58 percent plan to return to Ukraine after the end of the war.

Meanwhile, 12 percent want to go to another country, most often to Germany, the USA and the United Kingdom.

This contrasts with the survey "Occupational Situation of Refugees from Ukraine in Poland" conducted by Manpower and the Totalizator Sportowy Foundation.

It found that about half of Ukrainian refugees (45 percent) intend to stay in Poland for the long term, with fewer, only 31 percent of respondents, signalling their readiness to do so last March.

According to the survey, the percentage of those who want to stay in Poland permanently is 6 percent.

Meanwhile, according to a recent survey by research company Openfield, acceptance of war refugees among Poles has seen a downtick.

They found that acceptance is at its lowest level since 24 February last year, though still high with 67 percent of those surveyed approving of the acceptance of refugees.

When the Archbishop of Łódź came up with the idea of building a housing estate for Ukrainian refugees it was rejected by locals.

Initially met with applause, the project gained financial support from the city’s mayor, the local community, the Catholic charity organisation Caritas and even Pope Francis.

But after the Archbishop set about looking for a plot to start construction locals began protesting.

One woman told Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in July: ‘We are not soulless, but we have reason to believe that such a neighbourhood can be a nuisance.

‘They are quite random people who are only supposed to be in this place for a while.

‘And we live here permanently.’

Small bursts of anti-Ukrainian sentiment and fatigue have also been registered elsewhere across the country as Poles begin focusing on their own economic and social problems.

 Agnieszka Ciećwierz, CEO of Sigmund Poland who helps Ukrainian women looking for work in Poland said: “I think that the “help boom” has now ended, not because the Polish people do not want to help, it just means that the amount of disposable income in a typical household is reduced, and therefore contributions are less than what the ideal amount of aid given would be in a stable economic environment.

“The current economic climate in Poland, and the rest of Europe, means that donations and aid provided has been limited somewhat.”

But despite the costs, Ciećwierz added that “there are still money and food collections in grocery stores, shopping centres, and the internet all across Poland.”

In addition, Poles and charity groups continue to make ‘aid runs’ across the border to deliver food packages and clothing to those remaining in Ukraine.

One person whose commitment to helping Ukrainian refugees hasn’t waned during the year is Agnieszka Szyluk, who has become known locally as "Our Lady of Krakow" due to her selflessness, dedication and organisational prowess.

Her two drop-in centres in Kraków show the kind of grassroots support and creativity that has earned Poles global admiration.

'Soup for Ukraine' offers hot meals and 'Łagiewnicka Point' looks on the surface like a normal shop but in fact, everything is free for those in need.

Refugees can pick out whatever they need from a selection of donated clothes, food, hygiene items and prams, which are supplied by donors from throughout Poland.

Łagiewnicka Point is visited by around 200 people each day, but lately, on winter days when the whole city is covered in snow, up to 350 people turn up.

"I can't ignore their suffering. I simply have to help. That's in my nature," she said.

Maciej Duszczyk from Warsaw University Centre of Migration Research told Dziennik Gazeta Prawna: ‘The tiredness with the topic of the war is clear, but the decrease [in support for Ukraine] is not as dramatic as one might expect after half a year of a conflict and all its consequences.’