Poland braces for ‘up to a million people’ fleeing war in Ukraine

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WARSAW — Poland is preparing for a massive influx of refugees if Russia attacks Ukraine.

“We have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and [we have] been taking steps so as to be prepared for a wave of up to a million people,” Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wąsik told Polish radio.

The Polish government has pledged solidarity with Ukraine as tensions with Russia rise and said people fleeing the country in case of a Russian invasion would be “real refugees” and will receive help, Wąsik said. “In line with the Geneva Convention, these people will be under Polish protection, and we absolutely won’t say no to helping them.”

Ukraine shares borders with EU members Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, but has the closest ties with Poland.

However, there are doubts whether Poland has the capacity to deal with such a huge influx of people fleeing war. Last year, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko sparked a political and humanitarian crisis in Poland by encouraging a few thousand migrants from the Middle East to fly to Minsk and then make their way into the European Union.

Polish border guards pushed many people back into Belarus — with human rights groups saying that violated their right to claim asylum.

A Ukrainian crisis would be very different. Ukrainians have the right to visa-free entry into the EU and Ukraine borders the EU — meaning authorities won’t be able to claim that refugees should seek asylum elsewhere.

The interior ministry told POLITICO in an email that it is “constantly monitoring the situation in connection with the crisis on the Ukrainian-Russian border.”

“The situation is analyzed on an ongoing basis in close cooperation with the Border Guard and the Office for Foreigners, including in terms of the availability of places in centers for foreigners,” the ministry said.

The ministry did not answer questions on what concrete steps it has taken to handle the scenario outlined by Wąsik.

Observers have doubts if Poland can do much. There are no more than 2,000 places to house refugees across 10 centers run by the Office for Foreigners — the government department responsible for migration. The Border Guard has just over 2,300 spots, but only 800 are currently available. “The Border Guard is prepared to make additional places available,” a spokesperson said.

“To say that Poland will help a million people fleeing war is simply irresponsible,” said Agnieszka Kosowicz, who heads the Polish Migration Forum, to an NGO promoting the rights of migrants in Poland.

There are already more than a million Ukrainians in Poland who arrived to seek better jobs and have effectively become a part of Polish society. But a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and death is not something Poland will be able to handle, said Jan Piekło, former Polish ambassador to Ukraine.

“The Polish government is — or should be — aware that the crisis will be quite different. It will be a wave of terrified people who will try to find a safe place and not migration for jobs stretched over time in which people take care of themselves. Poland will need help,” Piekło said.

Poland also has little experience with such a crisis. The Office for Foreigners’ most recent data covering the first nine months of 2021 shows that just 5,200 people applied for international protection, a term that includes being recognized as a refugee or granting subsidiary protection.

Out of that number, most applicants were citizens of Afghanistan and Belarus. There were only 200 Ukrainians.

The Warsaw office of the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, says it’s on standby to help as soon as it is asked, said spokesperson Rafał Kostrzyński.

“Poland should do what the Geneva Convention requires it to do. It should create capacity for people to apply for refugee status. It should also turn to other countries for help to ensure that procedures run smoothly. We are ready to help both in implementing asylum procedures as well as with humanitarian help,” said Kostrzyński.

Poland’s nationalist government has long rejected the idea that EU countries should share out asylum seekers — a demand made by frontline states like Greece and Italy when dealing with migration surges.

The reality of hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border will very quickly test Poland said Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director with Human Rights Watch.

“In the Belarus border case, there were ‘only’ thousands of people concerned, and Poland’s authorities, with the EU fully behind them, couldn’t even deal with the situation properly,” Stroehlein said. “That doesn’t bode well for a worst-case, big-numbers scenario in Ukraine.”

The problem will likely be less acute in other EU member countries bordering Ukraine, said Oana Popescu-Zamfir, director of the Bucharest-based GlobalFocus Center, a foreign policy think tank.

“Historically, we haven’t had that much migration from Ukraine and in the event of a war, most refugees would head for Poland where there are so many of their compatriots already,” Popescu-Zamfir said.

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