During the first half of March, the number of Ukrainian refugees crossing the border with Poland daily exceeded over 100,000,000, reaching a total of over 2 million at the time of this writing. These refugees are made up only of women, children and the elderly, because any Ukrainian between the ages of eighteen and sixty is not allowed to leave the country. Poland, for its part, has implemented a fully open door policy for anyone fleeing Russian bombardment.
Although this generosity is unprecedented in Polish history, it is also at an unprecedented cost. Poland’s social structure and economy will soon face far-reaching challenges that could affect the very stability of the country.
Shortly after the start of the Russian invasion, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that no refugees would be refused entry to Poland. He even said that passports were not essential to cross the border and that even pets would be welcome. Government statements were accompanied by a huge commitment from ordinary Poles, who overwhelmingly volunteered to help the refugees in various ways. . Before the state could organize a centralized system for distributing refugees across the country, individuals, parishes, local governments and NGOs had already established a vast network of support, providing everything from free housing to provision of food, clothing, medicine, blankets and psychological aid. and legal aid.
Within days, border crossings saw mile-long queues of cars offering free transport to major urban areas. The reception points were flooded with volunteers from all over the country. Having volunteered myself, I can say that I have never encountered such an outpouring of selfless goodwill, motivated solely by a desire to support neighbors in need.
Emotion, however, must give way to rationality. Three weeks have passed since the start of the invasion, and the capacities of Polish cities have reached their limits. Although volunteers, border guards, the Territorial Defense Force and a number of local institutions did an impeccable job of securing the influx of refugees, Warsaw’s crisis management effort fell short. . Recent measures – establishing a centrally coordinated refugee resettlement mission, organizing special trains and alternative transport to the western states of the country, setting up a new coordination team at the Ministry of Infrastructure – will help short term. But with potentially a few million more refugees to come, Poland will soon face huge long-term challenges.
Count the costs
First and foremost, the heaviest burden will be borne by the Polish social system. Mothers with children, as well as the elderly, will obviously need access to the country’s healthcare system, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Without a significant increase in hospital budgets, many of them will not be able to accommodate as many additional patients. If more funds are made available through an increase in public debt and a second wave of “helicopter money” (i.e. unconventional monetary policies), which has been widely practiced during the pandemic , it will accelerate the existing inflation. This would cause significant social unrest, especially since Poland’s consumer price index (CPI) has already risen by almost double digits. Additionally, the country’s central bank has just signaled that the banking system should prepare for a possible 5% hike in interest rates, a move that would slow the economy, to say the least.
Ukrainian mothers, who have to earn a living, will have to enter the country’s labor market. This will trigger a need to invest in nurseries, kindergartens and the education system more broadly. The children of Ukraine obviously do not speak Polish; hiring Ukrainian teachers, at least in the short term, will therefore be essential. The public transport system will have to adapt to the new reality and offer mobility to millions of new users who have little or no income. To top it off, the real estate market will face some turbulence. Apartment prices were already a major issue in public debates. The pandemic has only accelerated the spike in the cost of building materials as many consumers shift their savings to the relatively safe and stable housing market.
Among the challenges, however, there are relatively positives in this situation – this is short-term demand that could significantly boost long-term growth. As Warsaw saw an average wage increase of 9.2% in January and the unemployment rate hit historic lows, in December 2021 the country’s parliament introduced a long-awaited reform bill regarding the employment of foreign workers. In 2019, Poland was a world leader in terms of short-term immigration, and it overwhelms other European countries as the top place to work for foreigners from outside the EU. Since the beginning of this year, it has become much easier for Polish entrepreneurs to employ Ukrainians and allow them to extend their stay in Poland. The reform was endorsed by all parties in both legislative chambers of parliament and was widely applauded.
The limits of generosity
Although refugees can help Poland solve its demographic problems – the country has one of the lowest population growth rates in the EU – the fact remains that the Polish economic and social system will need time, effort and money to adapt to these new conditions. European support with regard to the funds currently allocated – the 500 million euros pledged so far is certainly not enough – and efforts to relocate Ukrainian refugees throughout the Union will be essential but will not solve the overall problem . The current enthusiasm of Polish citizens will slowly fade over time, and Polish society will have to find a balance between helping Ukrainian refugees and safeguarding its own well-being.
Although the duty of every state is to support those in need fairly, its first duty is always to its own citizens. Poles will soon be faced with tough questions about what they can afford, what is the limit of their generosity, and whether the international community is providing enough aid given the burdens Poland is being asked to bear.
Jacek Płaza heads the foreign affairs editorial team of the Jagiellonian Club, a Polish conservative think tank. He is also an advisor at East Analytics, a consulting firm.