Refugees in Poland: the sound of silence?

While Poland’s border with non-EU countries is over 1000 kilometers long, it has not been infiltrated by large numbers of refugees, especially when compared with southern EU countries. So far the attitude of Poles towards immigrants, including refugees, is positive, but the country’s immigration policies are in need of urgent amendment.

Photo: Fedir "Feodor" Rykhtik


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While much of the EU has been concerned with the refugees coming across the Mediterranean waters from the Middle East and Africa, Polish authorities have been more concerned with immigrants from the East. Since the second half of the 90s, the main country of origin for asylum seekers in Poland has been the Russian Federation due to the arrival of Chechens escaping war. However the recent escalating conflict in Ukraine has made Ukrainians the second most frequent applicants for refugee status. In 2014, the amount of Ukrainian asylum applications in the EU-28 was 13 times higher than in the previous year. 1

In Poland, 2,253 Ukrainians applied for refugee status last year – a sharp increase from the 46 applicants that applied in 2013. In 2014, only 8,193 people applied for refugee status in Poland, and even if it were two times lower than 2013’s record year, it would not be prudent to expect this trend to continue.

Poland: statistics and comparisons

1992 marked the first year Poland granted refugee status to immigrants under 1951 Geneva Convention. That year 568 refugees submitted applications and by 2004 (the year Poland joined the EU) 8079 people applied for refugee status. 2

Over the years, not only the scale, but also the nationality of foreigners seeking protection in Poland has changed. The leading group of applicants for refugee status in the early 90s came from Armenia and the war-torn Balkans. In the later 90s Poland accepted many foreigners from Asia and Africa, mainly from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Then due to the escalation of the Chechen-Russian conflict, Poland was granting asylum mostly to citizens of the Russian Federation, the majority of which came from the Caucasus, becoming the largest immigrant group in Poland today. 3 For example, as a result of the armed conflict in Georgia a number of applications increased from 71 in 2008 to 4214 in 2009. Thus, Poles should expect similar outcomes due to the conflict in Ukraine, as more and more Ukrainians seek refuge across the border.

In spite of several thousand submitted applications, very few asylum-seekers obtain protection in Poland. In 2014, the Head of the Office for Foreigners only granted protection to 732 foreigners, which means almost two thousand people were denied and as many as 5,500 cases were simply discontinued. Refugee status was granted to 115 Syrian, 27 Afghani, 22 Kazakhstani, as well as 14 Belarusian and 13 Russian citizens; while subsidiary protection was granted to 107 Russians, 17 Syrians, 15 Iraqis, 11 Kazakhstanis and only 6 Ukrainians. 4

When looking at other European countries in comparison, in 2014 Sweden had the highest number of asylum applicants relative to population (8,415 applicants per million population), while the figures for the V4 countries were significantly lower. Poland had 210 applicants per million inhabitants, while Slovakia had 60, the Czech Republic 110 and Hungary 940. 5

On the border crossing: the beginning of a long procedure

The procedure to grant refugee status in Poland can take a year or two, despite the fact that the statute time limit is defined as 6 months. 6 The excessive length of time for which applicants must wait is an immigration problem that Poland should be solving – but it is not the only one.

Most people begin their efforts to obtain protection in Poland at one of the Polish border crossings, after which they are placed in a refugee center. The unfavorable location of these centers, which are often far away from the major urban areas, makes access to health services, schools and NGOs difficult.

Moreover, people staying in the centers may only seek work six months after submitting the application, which is not helping them to become active on the work market and gives rise to great frustration among some of them. As highlighted in the Helsinki Foundation’s Human Rights report, the recently observed intensification of this problem is linked to a change in the nationality of people applying for international protection in Poland, i.e. an rise in number of Ukrainian citizens, many who were professionally active in their country, often having to abandon their jobs overnight. 7

Such a long period of inactivity during their stay, resulting from a lack of pre-integration policy, hinders an immigrant’s ability to begin an independent life in Poland. Foreigners can only count on state funded Polish language lessons, while workshops or professional training courses are conducted by NGOs.

People who have been granted refugee status or subsidiary protection qualify for participation in annual Individual Integration Program (Indywidualny Program Integracji), or IPI, while migrants who have obtained permission for so-called tolerated stay are deprived of this assistance, only having the right to assistance in the form of shelter, food, necessary clothing and designated benefits that cover costs of the purchase of food, medicines, household goods, etc.

The main goal of programs coordinated by District Family Assistance Centers (Powiatowe Centra Pomocy Rodzinie), is to assist migrants in overcoming the language, material and social barriers that they might come up against in their new homes. Integration assistance consists of the following components: financial support, health insurance contributions, support from social workers and counseling specialists and assistance locating a flat. Although the establishment of IPIs has been considered a positive development, the programs have been criticized for limited effectiveness – few participants speak Polish and have actually found stable work or a flat at the end of the program. 8

It should be emphasized that due to EU membership and international law obligations, the situation for those seeking protection in Poland is much better than it was in the 90s, when the refugee system was still being developed. 2003 saw the introduction of the tolerated stay status, which gives certain rights to those who do not qualify for refugee status; and in 2008 the Granting Protection of Aliens in the Territory of Republic of Poland Act was amended and subsidiary protection was introduced. Before the creation of the Individual Integration Programs, integration support in Poland was entirely in the hands of NGOs, but now recognized refugees can also benefit from a wide range of projects financed from EU funds, including the European Refugee Fund.

New life in a new country: difficulties and chances

As already mentioned, the main problem facing refugees in Poland is the unavailability of permanent work and a surplus of jobs below their qualifications; this is linked to their poor command of the Polish language. As studies by the Institute of Public Affairs show, many refugees residing in refugee centers report difficulties learning the Polish language, subsequently creating a significant obstacle to getting a job – even those requiring few qualifications. 9 All foreigners applying for refugee status are offered free Polish language lessons in the centers, but in some cases, the amount or quality of these lessons remains a problematic matter. Only a few foreigners make use of this limited educational offer, while many of those who have already obtained protection in Poland still do not pursue language acquisition. This is due to several possible reasons including plans to leave for another EU country, the need to work during lesson hours, and the unavailability of lessons in smaller urban centers. 10

What’s more, is that many migrants experience housing exclusion and homelessness. The scale of this phenomenon is alarming. According to experts’ estimates, only 20% of refugees’ housing needs have been secured in Poland. Taking into account the number of refugees with a valid residence permit (4,920 at the end of 2011), it is estimated that about 40%, or about 2,000 refugees experience homelessness or some form of housing exclusion. 11

This situation is a result of the difficulty to access housing in Poland, both social housing and accommodations on the commercial market, due to high rental prices. Although refugees are entitled to apply for an apartment from the communal (local council) resources, very few manage to obtain this type of apartment, which is at least partially due to the generally poor condition of this type of housing. 12

Refugees seeking accommodations can also experience various forms of inferior treatment. This may take the form of a refusal to rent, or a tenant offer that includes bad conditions, like requiring a higher deposit or higher payments, or offering inferior quality premises in unattractive locations. 13

It is worth considering two cities, Lublin and Warsaw, which have implemented special solutions in the matter of social housing for forced migrants. In Warsaw, five council flats per year are set-aside for refugees and persons with subsidiary protection. In Lublin, there are 3 sheltered flats for refugees, which they can use for six months, with the possibility of extending their stay another three months. 14

A great unknown: Poles on refugees

So far, Poland has not been confronted with a significant number of applications for asylum. This is something that Poles hear about from TV news programs rather than experience themselves. This could partly explain the relatively positive attitudes Poles have towards refugees. According to a 2014 TNS Hoffmann survey commissioned by UNHCR, 70% of Poles believe that accepting refugees is beneficial to Poland. More than one-quarter of the respondents declared that they were ready to personally help refugees. The most frequently reported type of voluntary assistance was helping refugees in a shop or office, and the least often declared was assistance finding work.

Yet, results from the Pew Research Center report on attitudes towards immigrants generally in Poland, not only refugees, paint a more complex picture of Polish attitudes. According to the report, Poles are divided between those who want less immigration and those who say immigration levels should remain the same. Only 9% think the level of immigration could be higher. About half of Poles say immigrants are a burden on the country because they take jobs and consume social benefits. Only 24% state that immigrants make our country stronger because of their work and talents. 15

At the same time it should be noted that no broad public debate on migration and the integration of migrants has taken place in Poland yet. Mechanisms concerning provisions for migrant’s seasonal work or amnesty for illegal immigrants have been introduced without much response from the public. This is probably related to the smaller scale of the phenomenon and convictions that migration to Poland has a temporary character. Yet, this assumption can be very misleading, especially now that we are observing increases in settlement migration to Poland. The current crisis in Ukraine and the displacement of Ukrainian citizens is making it apparent that Poland’s refugee situation, like other EU border countries, can change overnight.

Notes:

  1. Asylum applicants and first instance decisions on asylum applications: 2014 – Issue number 3/2015, Eurostat.
  2. Office for Foreigners data. Accessed 10 May 2015.
  3. A, Kosowicz and A., “Maciejko, Integracja uchodźców w Polsce w liczbach (Refugee integration in Poland in numbers),” Polskie Forum Migracyjne (Polish Migration Forum), Warsaw 2007.
  4. Office for Foreigners data. Accessed 10 May 2015.
  5. Asylum applicants and first instance decisions on asylum applications: 2014 – Issue number 3/2015.
  6. Standard procedures, on average, last from 8 months to 1.5 years – information obtained in author’s personal communication with European Migration Network.
  7. Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, W poszukiwaniu ochrony (Looking for Shelter), Warsaw 2014.
  8. J. Frelak, W.Klaus and J. Wiśniewski,  (Eds.), Przystanek Polska. Analiza programów integracyjnych dla uchodźców (Next stop Poland. Analysis of refugee integration programmes), Warsaw: Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 2008.
  9. K. Wysieńska and Z. Karpiński, “Kapitał ludzki i społeczny uchodźców w Polsce podsumowanie wyników badania” (Human and social capital of refugees in Poland – summary of results of research), Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 2012.
  10. A, Kosowicz, A. Maciejko, “Integracja uchodźców w Polsce w liczbach” (Refugee integration in Poland in numbers), Polskie Forum Migracyjne (Polish Migration Forum), Warsaw 2007.
  11. K. Wysieńska, Gdzie jest mój dom? Bezdomność i dostęp do mieszkań wśród ubiegających się o status uchodźcy, uchodźców i osób z przyznaną ochroną międzynarodową w Polsce (Where is my home? Homelessness and access to housing among asylum seekers, refugees and persons granted international protection in Poland), IPA, UNHCR 2012.
  12. Study on Mobility, Migration and Destitution in the European Union, European Commission 2014.
  13. K. Wysieńska, Czyj jest ten kawałek podłogi? Wyniki badan dyskryminacji uchodźców w dostępie do mieszkań (Whose piece of floor is this? Results of research on discrimination against refugees in access to housing), Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 2013.
  14. M. Szlachetka, “Pomoc dla uchodźców. Warszawa bierze z nas przykład” (Assistance for refugees. Warsaw is following our example), Gazeta Wyborcza, Lublin: December 19, 2011.
  15. Pew Research Center: A Fragile Rebound for EU Image on Eve of European Parliament Elections. Accessed 15 May 2015.
Justyna Segeš Frelak

Justyna Segeš Frelak

is a senior analyst and the head of the Migration Policy Programme at the Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) in Warsaw. She was granted a scholarship in the International Visegrad Scholarship Programme and from the Open Society Institute. She is the author of numerous publications and reports published in Poland and abroad.