Poles and Ukrainians in Poland have mobilised to find shelter for more than 2 million refugees who have crossed into the country, while the government is slammed for its lack of a centralised response.
WARSAW – Tucked away in a residential area with large boulevards in central Warsaw, the Ukrainian House can’t be missed as half a dozen people huddle outside the centre, waiting for their turn to see the advisors.
The refugees are mostly girls and women, many holding young children and struggling to entertain them as they wait to seek help with housing, residency documents, enrolling at school or university, or even travelling elsewhere.
There is barely any room to walk in the light-filled reception room, where Ukrainian volunteers receive the new arrivals. Originally set up for Ukrainians living in Poland, the organisation has now become a hub for refugees fleeing the war-torn country.
Upstairs, one room was converted into a call centre, where seven or eight volunteers take call after call from refugees looking for a place to stay, or organisations doing it on their behalf. They go through a list of people who have opened up their homes to Ukrainian refugees, as offers continue to come from all sectors of society regardless of political allegiances.
Out of more than 3.2 million people who have fled Ukraine so far, more than two million have entered Poland, according to the UN. And while some have moved on to other European countries, the majority are still in Poland, where many have close family or other ties.
“We receive forms from Ukrainian people in need of housing, and from Warsaw residents [who can offer a room], and we are trying to match them,” says 24-year-old Khrystyna Yatsyna, one of the volunteers at the call centre. Originally from western Ukraine near Ivano-Frankivsk, she has lived in Warsaw for four years, where she works in marketing.
“It works a bit like Tinder,” she adds smiling, “we have some criteria like age, number of people, time and so on, and we are trying to find the best option for them.”
Poland has responded to the Ukrainian refugee crisis with open arms. Citizens quickly mobilised and took time off work to volunteer at the eight border crossings with Ukraine, with donations of food, clothes and toys for children pouring in from all over the world. At train stations, volunteers are seen distributing sandwiches or hot food, and give directions to refugees headed to other parts of the country or elsewhere in Europe.
The Ukrainian House in Poland has so far helped match at least 1,000 people with temporary housing hosts. Their helpline, which answers about 1,000 calls a day, also provides information on residency and other legal issues, finding psychological support, as well as a line for people who want to join the army or send aid to Ukraine.
Thousands of Poles have signed up to host Ukraine refugees in their homes, providing spare rooms or empty apartments where they can stay for a few days or weeks. 300,000 Ukraine refugees are estimated to have arrived in the capital Warsaw in the last four weeks, its population swelling by about 20 percent. Affordable accommodation is hard to come by in the capital as well as in all major cities. A radio station aimed at the large Ukrainian diaspora in the country is now broadcasting regular news bulletins for refugees and announcements that smaller cities are also offering accommodation and welcoming refugees.
But the efforts have been largely grassroots rather than centralized, and critics including Amnesty International have called the situation "chaotic".
Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski from the opposition Civic Platform has been calling on the government to provide a more structured response to the crisis, as well as on the EU to provide “specific solutions.”
“We’ve received lots of offers of support from different companies and institutions,” says Benjamin Cope, a researcher and coordinator at the Ukrainian House, “that’s great, but it also needs to be structured.”
So far, there has been little coordination between civil society efforts and the government, and volunteers have been visibly leading efforts at border crossings, train stations, and temporary shelters.
“One of the things we are currently working on is how to deal with people leaving their hosts,” Cope told TRT World. “For refugees this question of what to do next is clearly a big question.”
In early March, the Polish government announced an emergency package worth 8 billion zloty ($1.7 billion) in aid for Ukraine refugees. It later announced Ukrainians would be allowed to work in Poland for 18 months and be able to access welfare and public healthcare. These measures were not extended to non-Ukrainians fleeing the country, drawing criticism over discrimination from human rights groups.
In addition, the government pays 40 zloty ($9) a day for up to two months to every family that has offered a roof to Ukrainian refugees.
Before the crisis, Poland had made a name for itself among EU members for its hardline stance on refugees. Part of the Visegrad group of central European states that refused to relocate refugees, mostly from Syria, after the 2015 crisis, in November it started building a wall on its border with Belarus. Refugees and migrants stranded there are still regularly pushed back.
Ukrainian diaspora on the frontline of refugee response
The one-million-strong Ukrainian diaspora in Poland has played a key role housing and welcoming refugees, often through simple word-of-mouth connections.
In Warsaw, many have been sleeping out at the central train station, unable to find an affordable free room. While that number is progressively thinning due to the lower but still constant influx from the borders, municipalities in major cities have been warning that space has been running out to accommodate the new arrivals.
“Our priority are people who are staying at the railway station,” Khrystyna explains, “we are mostly looking out for people who are already here in Warsaw and need our help.”
As she dedicates her time to volunteering, military installations in western Ukraine are targeted by Russian bombs, sparking concerns that even areas previously spared from the fighting will be drawn in, and civilian areas attacked. Part of her family and loved ones are still in Ukraine, some fighting in the territorial defense forces, she says proudly. Volunteering has been a way to process the events.
“It just helped me to go through this terrible situation,” she says. “When I see how much Polish people are helping us in Warsaw and in the rest of Poland, I can’t just sit and cry.”