Tide of Ukrainian refugees transforms Polish society

Tide of Ukrainian refugees transforms Polish society
Ukrainian refugees at Przemysl station. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw January 4, 2023

Almost immediately after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on February 24 last year, there was a forced exodus across Poland’s 535-kilometre long border on a scale not seen since World War Two.

To date, nearly 8.1mn Ukrainians have crossed into Poland – the main refugee exit route – according to the Polish Border Guard’s daily reports. Almost 6.2mn have since crossed back.

Of the remaining 1.9mn, some have moved on elsewhere in the European Union, but Poland estimates that more than one million have made Poland their more or less permanent home, attracted by existing Ukrainian communities in the country and linguistic affinities between Ukrainian and Polish.

These migrants have been encouraged to stay the winter by Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelinskiy, as constant Russian bombardments of infrastructure make life in the country increasingly difficult.

This influx should be compared with 7.8mn registered refugees across the whole of Europe, including 4.5mn in the EU. Poland has received by far the largest number in total in the EU, although Czechia has received more in relation to its population.

Such an influx over just a few months – the bulk of the arrivals came in the first weeks and months of the war – have had a profound impact on Poland’s society and economy.

Poland predicts that by the end of 2022, it will have spent PLN18bn (€3.83bn) to help Ukrainian refugees, including welfare payouts, organising education for Ukrainian children, or providing refugees with health care – all that and more on a par with what Poles receive.

Poles have, in fact, spent much more helping refugees, as hundreds of thousands – if not millions – rolled out privately funded relief efforts, ranging from one-off donations of money and essentials to long-time renting out of apartments or rooms in their own homes.

Ukrainians are not just receivers, however. Over one million new consumers have helped prop up retail sales, which have declined as inflation ate away household incomes.

While the average Polish consumer cut spending because of the diminishing purchasing power of his or her income, Ukrainians kept on shopping.

Ukrainian spending on clothing, food and other essentials boosted Poland’s retail sales figures in March and April, just after the invasion. For example, sales of textiles, clothing and shoes jumped 41.9% year on year in March before going up by 121.4% y/y in April, data from Poland’s statistical office GUS show.

It took until October for inflation and the creeping economic slowdown to significantly affect spending, and refugees apparently still drove sales of textiles, clothing and footwear, as well as of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Since the early months of the exodus, Ukrainians have moved on from just finding a refuge to seeking to earn a living, though as many refugees are mothers with young children they are often constrained in how much work they can do. Some 71% of the refugees are women and 47% are children under 18, according to the EBRD Transition Report.

A recent study carried out by the University of Lodz, covering the period between the outbreak of the war and the end of September, showed that half of refugees worked, while 25% were seeking employment. Ukrainians have therefore also become significant contributors to the tax system through social security payments.

Some are even active as small businesspeople, a recent report by ZPP, a business lobby, showed. Only until the end of September, Ukrainians in Poland started close to 10,000 businesses, the report said. Most – over 1,100 – were hairdressers and beauty parlours, typically owned by women. But Ukrainians also set up software service companies as well as firms offering construction and renovation services.

With more sophistication in life comes more sophistication in using services, such as banking. Ukrainians’ loans in Polish banks made up an estimated 0.8% of Polish banks’ entire loan portfolio and are worth PLN6.34bn – four times the figure in 2018, BIK, a market analysis company, reported in late November (data includes Ukrainians who lived in Poland before the war).

Over three quarters of Ukrainian loans in Polish banks are housing loans, with 18% cash loans, BIK data also showed.

The influx of over one million more people could help alleviate Poland’s problems with the tight labour market and – if they stay longer term – its low birth rates and ageing society.

According to the Transition Report, this refugee inflow could increase the EU’s labour force by 0.5% by the end of 2022, twice the impact of the flow of migrants across the bloc’s southern borders in 2015-6.

These refugees are also well educated. The University of Lodz study showed that as much as half of Ukrainian refugees have higher education.

“People who leave their counties are ‘positively self-selected’ as economists say,” EBRD Chief Economist Beata Javorcik told bne IntelliNews in November. “They are better educated, more entrepreneurial. They provide a benefit to their recipient countries.”

The Ukrainian influx has already improved the hitherto hostile Polish attitudes to refugees, which had attracted criticism during the 2015-16 wave from Syria. Positive attitudes have increased by 19 percentage points compared to 2021, according to an Ipsos poll in April and May quoted in the EBRD’s Transition Report. The percentage of Poles supporting people’s right to seek refuge in another country rose from  66% to 85%.

However, the pretty picture of a great mass of people settling in a friendly country after a brutal war forced them out of their homes is marred a little by research suggesting that Poles may be overwhelmingly in support of Ukraine but do not necessarily like Ukrainian refugees next door. There are also fears that the Polish welcome to refugees may soon wear out.

“Ukrainians have become victims of dissatisfaction with the deteriorating economic situation of Poles, fears related to the paralysis of the state and the low level of public services, rampant inflation and skyrocketing energy prices,” a report “Poles for Ukraine but against Ukrainians,” claimed after in-depth interviews with several dozen Poles and a representative poll of 1,000 people.

“Most of the respondents, and in some groups all of them, especially in the working class, believe that refugees are privileged, demanding and treated better than Poles,” wrote the authors of the report, sociologists Przemyslaw Sadura and Slawomir Sierakowski.

“There is concern about the loss of priority in access to benefits and public services like health, education, or care) … Refugees are accused of pushing in and getting what the patiently waiting Poles can only dream of: a place in a nursery or kindergarten, a visit to a specialist, an upcoming surgery appointment.”