When Myroslava Keryk from Shovkva, a Ukrainian town on the Polish border, arrived in Warsaw in the early 2000s, there were fewer than 15,000 foreigners living in Poland. “Among them were researchers participating in academic exchange programmes, housekeepers and shop assistants,” Keryk recalls. When she founded the “Our Choice” foundation together with like-minded people at the end of the 2000s, it seemed to be a project for a limited number of Warsaw-based Ukrainians. In the meantime, the counsellors of “Our Choice” help several thousand people across Poland every year, dealing with questions on immigration, legalisation of residence and employment of foreigners.
Organisations like Our Choice have played a key role in helping foreigners settle in Poland in recent years. And over the past ten years, there have been no less than two million newcomers.
This was not always the case: in the early 1990s, Poland implemented reforms that enabled a rapid transition from a planned to a market economy. The number of foreign investments and the Polish salaries increased, but the changes also led to record unemployment. Even in the early 2000s, one in five Poles had difficulty finding a job. With the opening of the borders, an exodus of workers began: to Germany, Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries.
After Poland joined the EU, the exodus increased to such an extent that in the summer of 2006 Polish farmers could no longer find enough harvest workers. Therefore, the government took the first step towards wooing immigrants in 2007: Under a special regulation, citizens of the Eastern Partnership countries and Russia could work in Poland for up to 180 days. Even though initially only a few tens of thousands took advantage of this, it changed the way Poles think about migration: not only can we go somewhere, but someone can also come to work with us.
In the 2010s, the economic situation improved and workers from neighbouring Ukraine were contracted in construction companies, factories and the service sector. The annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbass in 2014 accelerated this migration. While the majority of Ukrainians used to prefer Russia as a destination - a familiar language, an easy employment system - this option now became less popular due to the war and the falling rouble exchange rate.
“Ukrainian children study in almost every Polish school.”
As a result, the number of immigrants increased steadily: in May 2021, 270,000 Ukrainians now live permanently in Poland. If you look at those who have a work permit or for whom the above-mentioned special regulation applies, there are more than 1.5 million Ukrainian workers.
In almost every Polish school, Ukrainian children also study; in buses and on the street, one constantly hears Ukrainian and Russian. More than sixty percent of large and medium-sized enterprises report having Ukrainian citizens among their employees.
Although the majority of foreigners live in the Mazovian Voivodeship, there are cities and regions where openness to foreigners has become a trademark. One of these is Wrocław in south-western Poland. It is estimated that every tenth inhabitant of the city, which is home to 700,000 people, has come from Ukraine.
Two years ago, Wrocław was the first major Polish city to introduce the office of a representative for the affairs of Ukrainian migrants. “We had many ex-pats from the EU living here before,” says Olga Khrebor, the ombudsman. “I think the new residents of Wroclaw like this atmosphere where cultures meet,” she explains.
The Polish government is ambivalent on migration issues. The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) employed a brutal rhetoric against immigrants in the 2015 election campaign. And it rejected the European Union's programme for the redistribution of Syrian refugees. It is noteworthy that the then Prime Minister Beata Szydlo justified the refusal to take in Syrians before MEPs in the European Parliament in 2016 by saying that Poland had already taken in a record number of “Ukrainian refugees”. However, the prime minister omitted the fact that the Ukrainians came at the invitation of their employers, rented flats themselves and paid taxes and insurance. She also failed to mention that there were neither integration nor language courses for them.
The government has prepared better for the immigration of Belarusians. While only 21,000 Belarusians were living and working in Poland in 2019, there are now more than 30,000, and another 80,000 submitted applications for temporary work. The impetus came from Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko's repression of civil society. Anton*, who works as a recruiter for a large IT company, moved to Poland five years ago. Last year, he saw Belarusian specialists arrive in several waves: “We are really talking about thousands.” So far, he says, the situation in Belarus is not as scary as it was in 2014 in Ukraine. “However, if the situation worsens, there will be more migrants,” he is convinced.
“In Belarus, unlike Ukraine, there is no tradition of labour emigration,” explains Marta Jaroszewicz from Warsaw University. That is why the instruments proposed by the Polish government were so important, she says: First, Poland allowed all Belarusians entering the country on humanitarian visas to work. Secondly, a special programme, “Poland. Business Harbor”, was set up for the relocation of IT companies. Through these channels, 8,000 visas have already been issued, he said.
“I don't get the impression that people are coming to stay permanently,” Anton says. “The events of the past year have increased the Belarusians' sense of responsibility towards their country.” Many of those who moved to Poland would want to return later.
Despite the growing numbers, sociologist Jaroszewicz also admits that it is too early to talk about large-scale migration from Belarus to Poland: “There are no mass layoffs at Belarusian companies yet, and Lukashenko has made the border crossing procedure more complicated.” Therefore, when people talk about migrant communities in Poland, they mainly mean Ukrainians. Jaroszewicz, however, does not want to speak of an immigration country à la the USA and chooses a different image to describe the relationship between migrants and the majority society: “There is no melting pot, there is a dish of two components.”
Meanwhile, the recruitment of migrants no longer concerns only the labour market. Demographers estimate that the Polish population could shrink from 38 to 33 million by 2050 if the current birth rate trend continues. Therefore, it is especially important to attract young people to the country who will stay and not go further west.
Olga Dadak and Dziyana Kovgan are 18-year-old journalism students at Vistula University in Warsaw. Olga Dadak came to Warsaw from Dnipro in southern Ukraine to study following an educational trip to Poland. Dziyana Kovgan from Minsk was attracted by stories from friends about the high standard of living and opportunities for young people in Poland.
“I speak the language and am confident,” Dadak explains. She has a job as a shop assistant, but shortly before graduation she wants to look for a job as a journalist. “Poles generally treat me well.” Still, she would like to move to England at some point: “I think it's a country for my temperament.”
Dziyana Kavgan is also not sure if she will stay in Poland: “I would like to travel to many countries and then choose where I want to live and work.” Personally, she has never encountered hatred in Poland. “But my boyfriend was beaten in the street because he spoke Russian,” she says.
In 2019, Myroslava Keryk from the association “Our Choice” was the first Ukrainian migrant to run for the Polish parliament. And although she did not win a seat, she sees the experience as a positive one. “Migration is not only about a new culture, but also about a knowledge of how to live when you are vulnerable and less protected, it's about the dark sides of the labour market and bureaucracy,” she says. It is not only in the interest of the newcomers, but also of Poles, that people with such experiences come to power.
Translated by Carmen Eller and Jess Smee
*The personal mediator quoted in the text did not wish to be mentioned by his full name.