Poland's support for Ukrainian refugees put to the test as winter sets in

A Ukrainian woman and child spend time at the UNICEF facility in Warsaw on Nov. 9, 2022. As the situation in Ukraine could force more people to escape this winter, Poland’s support for Ukrainian refugees faces new challenges. (Michal Dyjuk/The Associated Press - image credit)
A Ukrainian woman and child spend time at the UNICEF facility in Warsaw on Nov. 9, 2022. As the situation in Ukraine could force more people to escape this winter, Poland’s support for Ukrainian refugees faces new challenges. (Michal Dyjuk/The Associated Press - image credit)

Organizations across Poland are preparing for a new wave of Ukrainian refugees as Russia continues to target Ukraine's energy infrastructures. But some NGOs say they're worried newcomers will face a cooler reception this winter.

"There are a lot of uncertainties," said Benjamin Cope, a co-ordinator at Our Choice, a local NGO that helps Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw.

"Inviting someone who escaped from the war, someone you don't know in your house … it's something you do maybe once. It has a certain level of exhaustion. You don't have the same enthusiasm the second time."

Nearly a year after Russia's invasion, more than eight million Ukrainians have crossed the border into Poland. Some 1.5 million have registered for temporary protection there, according to the UN Refugee Agency, making Poland one of the most welcoming countries for Ukrainians. They now represent more than three per cent of Poland's population of 37.8 million people.

But as winter sets in, Poland, like many European countries, is facing higher prices and energy costs — a situation that could create tension between host and refugee communities, making it more difficult for Ukrainians to find housing with host families as they flee the war.

WATCH | Ukrainians prepare for cold winter:

'Harder for Polish people to provide for themselves'

"It's starting to be harder for Polish people to provide for themselves, [even] without hosting additional guests. Now, not a lot of people host Ukrainian refugees … The host community will also maybe require some support. So we need to be careful that the support is balanced for both groups and not cause further problems," said Weronika Zeżutka-Wróblewska, from the Poland section of the International Rescue Committee.

The Polish government wants to reduce the cost impact of new refugees. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently said that he wants "the system to be prepared accordingly so that Polish taxpayers have to pay as little as possible for this possible next wave."

At the end of November, Poland approved changes to the law on assistance to Ukrainian refugees. As of March 2023, those who live in state accommodation for more than 120 days will be charged 50 per cent of the living costs. After 180 days it would be 75 per cent.

Some exceptions will apply, but the changes worry NGOs, who claim they will directly impact the most vulnerable.

"The groups who have been living in the residence centers for a long time, are precisely the group with the most difficulty finding somewhere else to live. Demanding them to pay doesn't seem like a fruitful solution," said Cope.

The Polish government didn't respond to requests for comment from CBC News.

Poland's housing crisis

"Both situations are hard," said Yulia Kostereva, a Ukrainian who has lived in Warsaw since March, referring to her partner who had to stay behind in Kyiv.

"Staying here is difficult because the prices are becoming bigger for everything, but at least you are in a warm place with electricity," she said.

Romain Chauvet/CBC
Romain Chauvet/CBC

After taking refuge in her basement in Kyiv for the first 10 days of the war, she escaped with her mom to Lviv, then to Warsaw. Her current job provides accommodation, but will end in a few weeks. Without having housing secured, she says she's even more concerned for her future.

"I try to build some plans, but my future here is not clear."

Poland and its capital Warsaw are dealing, like many other European countries, with a housing crisis, which has added even more challenges for Ukrainians looking for long-term accommodation. Studies suggest the country is short more than two million dwellings.

In March, the Polish government financed a massive temporary shelter at the Warsaw Expo Conference Center in response to the influx of new arrivals. More than 1,000 Ukrainians temporarily live there, with little privacy and comfort. Some will stay for just a few days, but others have been there since the beginning of the war, according to a representative from the voivode (similar to provincial) government.

Alik Keplicza/AFP/Getty Images
Alik Keplicza/AFP/Getty Images

"We still can find places, but they are not necessarily in big cities. Some refugees already have children in school or found a job, so they want to keep living around Warsaw. It's a huge problem," said Cope.

The NGO Our Choice used to help Ukrainian immigrants to start a new life in Poland. Now, they are helping refugees with the Ukrainian House project, which, among other aspects, provides an online platform to match Ukrainians with housing options.

Valeriia Shakhunova, who works for the project, says they say they have helped more than 10,000 refugees find somewhere to live since February. But she stresses they can't do it alone.

"We are just NGOs. We cannot do everything. It should be run by the government. Then, all the NGOs can co-operate and work together," said Shakhunova.

Romain Chauvet/CBC
Romain Chauvet/CBC

Between hope and resilience 

Housing is just one of the challenges Ukrainian newcomers face. Matching skills to jobs, finding child care and the language barrier are others.

"They had to leave a country and they didn't know the Polish language. It's hard for them. They don't feel they are able to go somewhere and do something by themselves," said Shakhunova.

The vast majority of the Ukrainian refugees in Poland are women and children, according to a report from the Council of Europe, and many still have relatives in Ukraine.

"They feel tired, they don't know what to do with their life, they feel miserable and lose the understanding of who they are," said Inna Chapko, a Ukrainian psychologist who also fled from Kyiv to Poland a few weeks after the war started.

Romain Chauvet/CBC
Romain Chauvet/CBC

Like her, many Ukrainians have left everything behind, sometimes arriving in Poland with only a small backpack. Since May, Chapko has used her own escape from the war and her past professional experiences with refugees from Donetsk to help other refugees in a center established by the UNHCR in Warsaw.

"It's a longer situation than was hoped for at the beginning, that's why sometimes when we understand that it's not the end, that the war never stopped this year, we feel kind of mixed feelings," she said.

Demand for psychological support is high, she said, and could be for various situations, like a family death, the loss of a house, or the trauma of the occupation.

"The evacuation causes a lot of family problems. Mothers with their kids didn't want to leave their places or their family's husbands. Even if the decision was made to move to another country like Poland, they are not OK with this decision."

Like many other Ukrainians, Kostereva decided not to move on to another European country, because she's already thinking about how Ukraine will rebuild.

"I chose Poland because it's close to Ukraine. So I will be useful after the war is finished."

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