For Ukrainian refugees in Poland these days, “PESEL” is the magic word. It is the abbreviation for the Polish Social Insurance Number. Poland’s government has promised all war refugees from neighboring Ukraine stays of up to 180 days and access to the labor market, health care system and social services. PESEL makes all this possible. The largest registration office where refugees can apply for a PESEL number has been located at the National Stadium in Warsaw since this Saturday (March 19).
Long queues formed there the night before. Thermos flasks with hot tea were provided at the gate to the stadium. “I’ll wait here as long as it will be necessary. I need a work permit, I need to find work, and as soon as possible,” 24-year-old Viktoria told DW.
The next morning at around 9 a.m., the IT specialist from Kyiv is allowed into the stadium. During the night she took turns queuing with her friends and slept in the car in the huge parking lot in front of the stadium. She should get the PESEL number within a few days. Anyone who came to the stadium after 7 a.m. had no chance of being served on the same day. The volunteers had prepared purple bracelets and are handing them out to those whose turn is guaranteed to come the next day.
Challenge for Poland’s administration
There are currently over two million Ukrainian refugees in Poland. On Wednesday and Thursday, the first days of the registration campaign, 123,000 of them were registered. Additional registration points – like the one at the national stadium – and registration buses that will drive to the refugee shelters should speed up the action. City and local government offices, which normally issue Social Security numbers, are overwhelmed.
In the Polish town of Przemysl near the Ukrainian border, the city office is working at full speed, but with only four fingerprint machines and a total of seven officers, there are long waiting times here too. Oxana Kolesnyk worked as a bank clerk. “I can’t speak Polish and it probably won’t be possible to work in a bank – I reckon that will be the case. But I have to find some job quickly to guarantee the upkeep of me and my son,” she says. She took her passport with her when she fled, which makes the formalities easier. The procedures take longer for people who fled the war without their identity documents. They too are admitted to Poland, although their identity cannot be fully verified.
insecurity in the new country
The special law recently passed by Parliament gives refugees access to the labor market, healthcare and social services, including monthly child benefits of EUR 110 per child. The arrivals receive the equivalent of 70 euros in welcome money, after which they have to organize their own living expenses. The special law also guarantees Polish citizens who take in the Ukrainians the equivalent of 9 euros per day for expenses.
Alexandra Stefaniv from Lviv is sitting in the waiting room, her Polish relative Leon Bortnik is helping her fill out the application. The logistics entrepreneur from Przemysl gives his Ukrainian relatives care in a recently inherited apartment that was previously empty. “Suddenly I got a call from my mother’s sister from Ukraine. She asked me if I would take her and her next family in. There was only one right answer to that,” Bortnik told DW.
He wants to help Alexandra find a job, he knows many people in the region. For the 46-year-old, her own future is a question mark. “I’m confused, I have no idea what to do in Poland. Should I look for a job? But I hope that the war will be over soon and that I can return home,” she says. Her husband stayed in Lviv and she herself never planned to emigrate from Ukraine.
The great wave of migration – a new phenomenon
Since the beginning of the war, 3.3 million Ukrainians have emigrated, many of them to Poland. Even before that, there were over a million Ukrainian migrants in the country of 38 million people who left their country since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In a 2021 survey by the Center for Prejudice Research at the University of Warsaw, 90 percent of respondents said they accept Ukrainians as colleagues and neighbors. In recent decades, migrants have been a small fraction of society in Poland. Except for the Ukrainian emigrants since 2014, there is no migrant group of comparable size.
The flight movement from Ukraine (as of March 18, 2022)
Compared to other EU countries, Poland has closed itself off to migrants. The current wave of refugees is a completely new phenomenon. After more than three weeks of great willingness to help, during which the Ukrainian war refugees were welcomed with open arms, the media is increasingly asking how the already overburdened social and health system can serve millions more people. In some parents’ councils there is growing resentment about the prospect of overcrowded school classes.
Polish society is required
dr Agnieszka Lada-Konefal, Vice Director of the German Poland Institute in Darmstadt, speaks of an enormous challenge for the administration and society, which will certainly change the country. “The Poles will have to learn to live with people who are a little different.
Many Poles have already had this experience in recent years, including with the Ukrainians, and this experience was positive,” she tells DW. This also applies to the schoolchildren, who have classmates with a different language and culture, but also with difficult war experiences “Children and young people have to deal with that. You will have to learn to live with others, to open up. That means development.”
But parts of society could feel overwhelmed by the great wave of migration. “It is difficult to say if Polish society will be able to accept this and learn to live with it if the costs are high and the crisis and war will be long-lasting.” The political scientist warns that the wave of migration from Ukraine can be used by populists to “spread hatred and dislike.”