A poster has just been put up at the Refugee Care Point at the Central Train Station in Warsaw. This is a large map of Poland with various cities highlighted and two conspicuous absences: the capital and Krakow. The explanation is in the message in Ukrainian and in English that accompanies it: “Small cities in Poland mean greater housing opportunities, lower cost of living and greater chances of finding a job. Poland’s big cities are already saturated. Don’t be afraid to move to smaller towns. They are quiet, they have good infrastructure and they are well adapted”.
The war in neighboring Ukraine has changed the face of Warsaw in just six weeks. Poland has been an escape route for about 60% (2.4 million) of the 4.2 million Ukrainian refugees, and initially the rapid response from volunteers, NGOs and local administrations prevented refugee camps from being built. Saved the region first, the idea was that the EU’s open door policy would naturally elicit flows towards prosperous European countries. However, the stagnation of conflict, the uncertainty and the natural tendency of refugees to stay close to their home country is prompting many to stay in Poland and, after the just escape phase, focus for centuries on places associated with the word Kama. Still working. And the future: big cities. The result is that 300,000 Ukrainians make up 15% of the population of Warsaw and another 150,000, about 20% of Krakow. Two large Polish cities ask for help and warn that the situation is unstable.
“We are at the border, we can’t reform now,” opposes Warsaw’s mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski. “All my administrative staff are dedicated to completing Paycel processes [el equivalente polaco al número de la seguridad social, que reciben estos días los refugiados], All my psychologists work with refugees. As well as all those who worked with children and all social services, ”he lists in an interview at City Hall.
Trzaskowski recalls a fact to illustrate the dimension of the challenge posed by the largest and fastest exodus in Europe after World War II. In the most intense month of the refugee and migrant crisis of 2015–2016, 200,000 people entered Europe, 100,000 fewer than the Ukrainian refugees who are only in Warsaw today and less than the 400,000 who passed through the capital.
One particularly problematic derivative is teaching. Before the war in Warsaw there were 280,000 children in the school. They are joined by 13,000 refugees, but the vast majority still remain – another 87,000. “I can’t get them all into schools in one week,” justifies Trzaskowski, who advocates for distance learning and face-to-face Polish classes. The Ministry of Education has issued a special decree so that the limit of 25 students per class is 28 in infants and 29 in the first three years of primary school.
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Another is the erosion of the initial solidarity drive. The number of volunteers has plummeted over the weeks. “Less and less people are willing to help. Those who have been doing it from the beginning are exhausted”, admits Pola Gorska, a 28-year-old Polish volunteer in the Grupa Centrum Grassroots group at West Station, where several of her colleagues play in a room with Ukrainian children. It is one of the main connection centers as it is next to a major bus station.
Although about 25,000 people (about five times less than a month ago) enter Poland from Ukraine every day, the figure of 300,000 refugees in Warsaw due to departures to other parts of the country or to third countries has remained stagnant for more than a week. Is. But those who do come need more help now, which puts pressure on the coffers, public services and the solidarity of the Poles. “A month ago, 97% of the people who visited were looked after by their family or friends. Now, between 30% and 40% need help and housing”, explains Meyer.
Of that 97% had ties with many Ukrainians who lived before the war in Poland, the EU’s sixth-largest economy, thirsty for labor and liberal of everything (280,000 work permits in 2020) with countries that are culturally close. Not in 2015-2016. A few thousand Muslim diaspora.
Reunions are already part of everyday life in Warsaw. In the most touristy area – the historic center torn to the ground by the Nazis, rebuilt and declared a World Heritage Site in 1980 – it is easy to hear veterans guiding newcomers in Ukrainian or Russian. In the neighborhood of Prague, on the banks of the Vistula River, which was better drained during World War II, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Magdalena has won over the faithful and has no room for the spirit of the collective. It is the main Orthodox church, the majority religion among Ukrainians in the city.
Refugees receive free housing, food, drink, medical aid and psychological support. For those who need accommodation after a few nights before continuing on their way, there is a database of municipal properties and people who offer their homes as well as companies, NGOs or religious organizations. In the busiest streets and cafes, refugees can be heard conversing with the Poles who are hosting them, in a mix of their languages or in English.
The city is also filled with messages of support for Ukraine, including the headquarters of the Central Bank and the markets. The famous Royal Route is decorated with the flags of Warsaw and Ukraine, and the Royal Castle (where US President Joe Biden gave a speech last month) is illuminated at night in the Polish flag and colors of Ukraine.
On the outskirts of the capital, in the city of Nadarzin, is the country’s largest refugee reception center, the Patak Fairground, with a capacity of 150,000 square meters and 20,000 refugees. It is not coordinated by the city council, but by the regional and central governments. The contract has just been renegotiated downwards after a dispute due to the initial count per refugee. At its height, it housed 11,000 people, but it is usually between 6,000 and 7,000. They usually last between three and four days. “If there are more, it is usually because they are larger families, for which housing is more difficult to find,” explains Anna Chorozzak, its public relations manager.
Digital screens display the names and flags of Belgium, Germany, Estonia, the United Kingdom and Spain (along with images of firefighters without borders volunteers). Simply sign up to get free transportation to that country, even by plane. A bus waits at the entrance with the engine idling.
One is surprised to see the photo booth at the entrance. This is for Paycel’s process. Refugees in search of employment can also register there. There is a religious space with hundreds of emergency folding beds, three palettes of donated clothing, a children’s room – with mats, hopscotch and stroller – and an Orthodox priest.
The system works, but it doesn’t give much by itself and “some refugees are sent to other cities”, admits the mayor. “At the peak when 30,000 to 40,000 Ukrainians were arriving in the city every day, we had to go to other cities in Poland to say: ‘Send me two buses, because we are full.’ A municipal source cited by the newspaper reexpopolita It was learned last month that a group had been transferred by bus from Warsaw to Biaystok in northeastern Poland, and refused to disembark when they arrived. He ended up back in the capital.
Trzaskowski emphasizes the need for two functions. The first is to “start distributing people” under the “Voluntary Rehabilitation” program based on promoting displacement. “They are not mandatory quotas. They are not necessary. have enough commitments [de acogida de otros países]”, that specifics.
The second is that the Polish government “requests the EU and the United Nations to establish a system”, as there are now “repetitions”. Trzaskowski – who lost the 2020 presidential election to Andrzej Duda of the ultra-conservative Law and Justice (PIS) party – also proposes that the money go not only to the central government, which leads the PiS, but also directly. There is the local administration, NGOs and the refugees themselves. “A strategy is needed, because the war is not going to end in a week. And even if I did, hopefully people won’t be able to go back to Mariupol, because you have to rebuild it first.”
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