In a giant food depot in Poland, a few miles from the border with Belarus, thousands of people, many of them women and children wrapped in woollen blankets, are crammed together in corridors and hallways. As Polish locals and volunteers frantically work alongside soldiers to try to distribute food and water to those most in need, buses pull up outside carrying more shellshocked and exhausted people needing help.
There is no attempt to register the new arrivals. There is no time. Just over a week since Russia invaded Ukraine, those working here know that this crisis has just begun. Since the violence began, more than 650,000 people have crossed into Poland, leaving their lives behind and becoming refugees.
Poland’s government, which rose to power in 2015 on an anti-refugee platform, has promised to welcome all those fleeing the war. Yet years of nationalist rhetoric have left the country with a skeletal immigration system and lacking the capacity to cope with what the UN warned could be the “greatest refugee crisis of the century”.
Thousands of volunteers, mainly students, are working day and night to distribute food, water, blankets, tents, toys and medicines to up to 80,000 people crossing the 300-mile border between Ukraine and Poland every day. In Warsaw alone, more than 4,000 locals have volunteered to take refugees into their homes.
“I have been alive for some years now, and I have never seen anything like this, such public mobilisation,” said 57-year-old Roman Pogorzelski from Warsaw. “Everyone is united; the only thing we’re asking is what more can we do – what other sanctions can we put on Russia, what aid can we send.” Everyone he knows, he says, is engaged in helping somehow, hosting refugees in their home or raising donations. On LinkedIn, he has seen colleagues organising trucks to carry medical aid into Ukraine.
When Pogorzelski’s daughter called last weekend to ask if he would take into his home four young women – international students from Kenya, fleeing Ukraine – he and his wife did not hesitate. “In a situation like this, there is only one thing you can do,” he said. “We Poles understand the meaning of war.”
The willingness of ordinary citizens like Pogorzelski and his wife to volunteer their time, money and homes to help their eastern neighbours has been a great relief to the Polish government. So far, close to all of the refugees arriving in Poland from Ukraine have found accommodation provided by citizens, private businesses and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But experts worry what will happen in the long term, when the refugees will need their own homes, jobs and school places and the underfunded NGOs have run out of money.
“The first wave of enthusiasm will be over soon and without the system there will be a serious humanitarian crisis going on,” said Anna Alboth from the NGO Grupa Granica. “The state, instead of investing in the migration system – refugee shelters, lawyers or psychologists – has spent thousands of euros in building the wall on the Belarusian
Just over a week since the invasion, and with violence escalating inside Ukraine, the refugee reception points offering food and medical assistance organised by the government are imploding. Although a spokesperson for the ministry has said that work on a new bill that will outline a long-term strategy for refugees is under way, NGOs that have been dealing with the bulk of the relief effort are yet to be offered any financial support from the authorities.
In a room inside the Centre for the Meeting of Cultures, in the eastern Polish city of Lublin, dozens of young men and women working for the small refugee charity Homo Faber are answering calls from thousands of Ukrainians in need of assistance. The Polish government, unable to cope with the huge flood of requests, published the phone number for Homo Faber on its official website and now the charity is overwhelmed.
‘‘We are angry,’’ says Karolina Wierzbińska, one of the founders of Homo Faber. ‘‘So far we have received 2,600 phone calls from Ukrainians in need of assistance. And we need to pay our employees, who are working 24 hours a day. If this crisis lasts for months, many NGOs risk going bankrupt. And I don’t really know how it will turn out. We believe authorities in Poland do not have a plan on how to manage this crisis in the long run. Quite simply, they are not ready.”
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Homo Faber had been focused on another humanitarian crisis: trying to help refugees on Poland’s other border being pushed back by border guards into Belarus.
“Last week we received a visit from a group of border guard officers here at our headquarters,” says Anna Dąbrowska, president of Homo Faber. ‘‘They came to us asking us to cooperate, to help the Ukrainians. We couldn’t believe it. Those were the border guards, the same border guards, who made our job difficult while we were trying to help Middle Eastern asylum seekers entering Poland from Belarus.’’
Support for Ukrainian refugees, and opposition to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country, have united – at least momentarily – the notoriously polarised Polish public and parliament. Over 90% of respondents in a recent survey said that they were in favour of admitting Ukrainian refugees, while the opposition leader, Donald Tusk, pledged his support for the government.
Yet the cracks have already begun to show in the system. “Humanitarian aid is not cheap. We are already seeing disagreements between local authorities about where the funding for integration of refugees is going to come from,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, politics professor from Sussex University, pointing to the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, who has been complaining of lack of support from central government as thousands of refugees arrive ino the capital every day.
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens like Pogorzelski remain determined to do their bit during the crisis. “We are going to help for as long as it is necessary,” he said. “Now nothing is certain. The last two weeks changed everything. We know we could be next.”