Matthew Luxmoore

In Poland, a challenge to integrate ‘invisible’ Ukrainian refugees

Increased demand for visas met with higher rejection rate by government in Warsaw

This is part 6 in an occasional series about tensions between Moscow and the West at key flashpoints along Russia’s borders and in the territories of the former Soviet Union.

WARSAW, Poland — Vladimir Kovalenko does not take his good fortune for granted. With a steady income and his own rented room in Poland’s capital, Kovalenko, a 32-year-old from eastern Ukraine’s Horlivka never forgets things could have turned out very differently.

In the end, a mere 40 minutes decided his fate. In June of last year, tipped off that pro-Russian separatists were searching for him, he spent three hours hiding under the stairway of a local hospital before being discovered and driven to a courthouse where the nascent Moscow-allied regime’s prisoners were kept. Within minutes of arriving, he fled his captors as the sound of warplanes boomed overhead.

“Those guys scattered when they heard the engines,” he said.

That evening, he ran across fields to escape. He eventually took up work with a charity in Dnipropetrovsk, helping drive supplies to Ukrainian soldiers stationed 150 miles away on the front line. Friends concerned for his mental health pooled resources to buy him a European work visa, he said. So he headed west to try his luck in Poland.

Today Kovalenko spends six hours of each day volunteering at Ukrainian World, a drop-in center in Warsaw where Poland’s Ukrainian community finds help. Aside from providing humanitarian aid, free language classes and other services aimed at assimilating newcomers, the center runs a hotline to provide advice on anything from signing employment contracts to securing refugee status. A resident psychologist is on hand for those scarred by memories of war in the country’s east.

Amid an unprecedented influx of Ukrainian nationals into Poland, Ukrainian World has emerged as a lifeline for those fleeing violence or economic hardship back home. A report released July 21 by Poland’s Office for Foreigners reveals a 50-fold increase in Ukrainian claims for refugee status from 2013 to 2014. In the same period, applications for temporary residence more than doubled, from 13,000 to 29,000. The pace continues: In the first seven months of 2015, over 32,000 Ukrainians applied to legalize their status in Poland.

The majority of those requests have been approved, and Ukrainians now account for one quarter of Poland’s immigrant population. Most arrive on temporary work visas like Kovalenko’s, which more than 300,000 of his compatriots requested last year. According to the Center for European Studies, a Warsaw think tank, Ukrainians in Poland now number 400,000. Higher applicant numbers coincide with a rising proportion of rejections, however. The same report shows that 91 percent of permit requests were granted in 2013. In 2015 that figure was just 67 percent.

Changes introduced in May 2014 have streamlined the system, but processing delays are leaving some of Poland’s Ukrainians in a precarious legal position. Kovalenko’s work visa expired March 1, and he said he has heard nothing about his application for temporary residence since submitting it in February. Forced to give up legal employment, he now makes money under the table through odd jobs to cover his rent and living expenses. 

The facility provides services to Ukrainians like Vladimir Kovalenko, a volunteer at the center.
Matthew Luxmoore

As they watch their compatriots arrive in droves, longer-term members of Poland’s Ukrainian community have felt the impact. Natalia Panchenko has lived and worked in Warsaw since 2010 and is a fluent speaker of Polish, which, like her native Ukrainian, is a Slavic language. Legalizing her status was a simple process in the past, she said, but a seven-month wait for her latest residence permit left her unable to travel abroad and caused problems for her and her employer. With some of her friends waiting 12 months, she suspects the delays may not be due purely to rising demand.

“Officially [the Office for Foreigners] says it has shortages in staff, but I don’t believe it. It’s nearly impossible to reach it by phone, and when you do, the workers have no answers. I’m beginning to think there might be some quotas for these permits,” she said.

Ewa Piechota of the Office for Foreigners insisted that despite what she calls an “astronomic” increase in applications, the spike in demand did not catch the government by surprise. “Watching events in Ukraine and seeing the situation change in 2014, we already drafted emergency plans for a wave of people seeking refugee status in the country,” she said. Nevertheless, she admitted that the government’s resources have been stretched to the limit since the crisis in Ukraine began, with staffers struggling to cope with the increased workload.

Organizations like Ukrainian World have stepped in to help shoulder that burden. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the center, on Warsaw’s Nowy Swiat Street, were busy, as usual. While several volunteers saw to visitors at the reception area, a small group huddled around three computers at the room’s other end, browsing job and accommodation offers. Above them on the first floor, 20 Ukrainians waited in a brightly lit hall for a Polish lesson to begin.

Anya Konyukhova was attending her first class, having finally managed to negotiate time off work. A shy but animated 31-year-old from Zaporizhia, she left Ukraine with her best friend one month ago, frustrated with low pay and the rising cost of living. A six-month work visa cost her 500 hryvnia ($23), she said, and the line to get one meant she had to delay her departure several times. Both women found work as cleaners in a Warsaw hotel, where, they said, all their colleagues are Ukrainian.

“What can we do? We don’t know the language,” Konyukhova said. Although she insisted she earns more now than she did as a pharmacist in Ukraine, she hopes knowledge of Polish will lead to a better-paying job.

“Achtung Russia,” part of an exhibit at Ukrainian World’s Museum of Maidan, depicts the “little green man,” exalted in Russia as a hero of the Crimean operation in March 2014, as an aggressive occupier.
Matthew Luxmoore

Ukrainian World receives over 100 visitors per day, according to its director, Mateusz Kramek — a number that includes tourists as well as people seeking help. Ordinary Poles have shown solidarity for the cause. According to Tomasz Czuwara of the Open Dialog Foundation, which runs Ukrainian World, Poles donated over 1 million zlotys ($264,000) to the center last year — almost half of which went to bulletproof vests, helmets and other nonlethal military aid for Ukrainian soldiers.

Poland, an EU member state of 38 million, has been one of the most vocal supporters of the government in Kiev, despite a mutual history of forced deportations and massacres that continues to plague Polish-Ukrainian relations. A reaction to Russia’s regional involvement has, at least for the moment, triumphed over lingering animosity. According to Paweł Kowal, a Polish politician who until recently headed the EU-Ukraine Commission in the European Parliament, awareness of Russia’s “territorial ambitions” drives a pragmatic policy of political support for Ukraine.

“Historical memory is the key element. The last 300 years are dominated by problems with Russia. Every Polish family holds memories about terrible events. So a lack of trust toward Russia’s policies is completely justified,” he said.

Ethnic and cultural proximity have enabled Ukrainians to assimilate better than most other minorities into Polish society, one of Europe’s most homogeneous. Maciej Duszczyk, a senior researcher at Warsaw University’s Center of Migration Research, calls them the “invisible migration,” blending into the morning rush on the bus or subway. Few Ukrainians claim to have encountered discrimination in or outside of work, although Panchenko has noticed an increase in tension since the recent influx began.

“Poles have started treating us differently. Some are scared we’ll take their jobs or are just used to being alone in their country. I see blame on both sides, as many Ukrainians think the world should fall at their feet and do nothing to learn the language. And it’s other Ukrainians like me that have the biggest problem with such people,” she said, adding that anti-Ukrainian sentiment is marginal.

An Ipsos poll released on July 23 suggests an enduring distrust of foreigners in Poland, with 36 percent of respondents saying immigrants have a negative effect on the economy — topping the percentages for those who said immigrants have a positive or negligible effect. Though fewer than 1 in 5 of those surveyed claimed to have had contact with foreigners in the past year, Ukrainians were specified by far as the most-encountered group. A quarter of Poles guessed the proportion of immigrants to be more than a tenth of the population, yet the real figure is less than 1 percent.

With the country expected to take in more than 2,000 refugees from North Africa and the Middle East under European Union quotas, the issue of the country’s economic and mental preparedness has divided opinion and provoked heated debates on national media. Yet with thousands of qualified Polish plumbers and carpenters making permanent homes in the U.K., Germany and elsewhere since EU accession in 2004, representatives of the invisible migration are only too happy to fill the empty spots. As soon as their permits come through, that is.

In the meantime, Kovalenko and others in his position are left waiting. After he gets his documents, he hopes to make trips to Ukraine and help in any way he can.

Asked when he sees himself returning home to Horlivka, he said, “I’m positive and confident about the future. I’m sure things will turn out fine. But right now I don’t know what to say. There is nowhere to return to.”

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