The borders of solidarity
When Russia started its open aggression against Ukraine on February 24th, millions of Ukrainians started to flee from the rockets that were now falling on their homes and cities. Clearly, the most obvious direction of escape was to the West, and Poland in particular. However, it was not so clear how Poland would react to this inflow of migrants. A huge conventional war in the 21st century in a neighbouring country was once something unimaginable. As a result, it was difficult for the nation to prepare.
The fact that should be repeated time and time again is that Polish society showed great solidarity towards the Ukrainians. Millions of people put aside their daily activities and came to help the displaced. Almost right away, the necessary infrastructure for the refugees was built at the Polish-Ukrainian border. Polish families took fleeing families into their homes. Polish security services, non-governmental organisations and ordinary people, who overnight became volunteers, were doing everything they could to provide care for the frightened and traumatised people arriving in their country. At the central station in Warsaw there was even a special 24/7 volunteer service for pets and their owners, who had fled with their animal friends in any way they could.
At the train station, pet owners would receive adequate transport boxes, dry and wet food, veterinary medicine and assistance. I am not using this example of the pet emergency service for the refugees because I believe that their fate was more important or moving than that of people. Instead, I believe that it shows how efficient and complex the Polish volunteers’ work was even in the war’s early days. Everyone did what they could the best. People and organisations who before the war were working with children, took care of children; those who worked with the disabled, offered care to those who were sick or disabled; and activists helping animals, took care of animals. At that time, other volunteers were sorting and packing humanitarian aid against the odds and taking what they could to Ukraine. In the early phase of the war, few people understood how things would further develop. As a result, they used their own initiative.
This reaction of Polish society, which for sure was the result of years of close contacts with Ukraine and Ukrainians living in Poland, amazed the whole world. In western press we could even read that Polish society should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Representatives of this society would quickly take up this idea, promote it on social media and refer to it in different conversations. Whilst some did this in good faith, others were motivated by the narcissistic desire to take credit for sacrifice and bravery. This problem started to be quite visible in the weeks following the Russian invasion.
This hope for the Nobel Peace Prize was soon shattered as the Nobel Committee responded to this idea with a resounding “no”. First of all, you cannot nominate the whole society of a given country. It is too large a group and it is clear that efforts are never made in an equal manner. In Poland’s case, the assistance given to the refugees was mainly the work of private persons and the third sector. Whilst the engagement of state agencies was in fact very limited, their leaders naturally and willingly – especially in the international arena – took credit for Polish assistance to Ukraine. Even more importantly, these figures bragged that no refugee camps had been established in Poland, even though the coming weeks would change this reality. Unfortunately, many of the refugees got stuck at the so-called reception points, which were perceived as temporary shelter options. These places, in the majority of cases, were huge gyms or former supermarket spaces where dozens of emergency beds were set up. Given the ongoing housing crisis in Poland, the provision of proper living conditions to everyone who does not have them goes beyond the organisational skills of the volunteers and aid organisations. Yet, the Polish state agencies have done nothing to take part in this process.
As a result, after three months of war the country’s initial enthusiasm is increasingly being replaced by tiredness and burnout. The heartfelt reactions of ordinary people were not replaced by systemic solutions. The programme to financially support people who took refugees into their homes also came to an end. Migration specialists have been warning us that what lies ahead resembles a marathon more than a sprint and that nobody really knows how long the war will last. They have also said that assisting millions of people, the majority of whom are women with children and the elderly, is a challenge that requires cooperation between state agencies, local governments, non-governmental organisations and even religious institutions.
And here Poland is showing its second face, which is just as real as the one it showed in the first days of the war. Dialogue and cooperation in the search for solutions are hindered by our internal political conflict. At the same time, Polish families are starting to feel the economic costs of the war and are rightly expecting that the state will free them from some of their obligations towards the Ukrainian refugees that they took into their homes. Even though the situation is far from tragic, it certainly requires immediate action. For sure, it is too early for the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, when discussing this possible award we should reflect on something other than just the fact that accepting Ukrainian refugees is accompanied by expected problems. It is a bit surprising that Poles embraced the idea of the peace prize so quickly. It is as if they forgot that for many months now the country’s border with Belarus has been the sight of brutal violence. The majority of Polish society agrees with what the government is doing with regards to the migrants and refugees who are approaching the border upon Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s initiative. The activities of the Polish government there include creating a closed zone along the border, which was introduced unconstitutionally and which remained closed to media representatives and humanitarian organisations for 10 months (from September 2021-June 2022). They have also pursued illegal pushback measures (there have already been court decisions in this regard) and some persons have already experienced these policies even dozens of times. At the moment, we know of 15 people who, as a result of the activities of Polish state agencies, died in the forest near the border. Their deaths were the result of low temperatures and/or exhaustion. What is indicative here is that the Polish authorities made no effort to deal with the issue on the border by entering into dialogue with non-governmental organisations, which offered their support in finding humanitarian solutions. Decisions in this regard were made in an arbitrary way, but after ten months of the closed zone and a military presence in the region there has been no visible effect. There are still dozens of people trying to cross the border on a daily basis. They hide in the forest from the Polish authorities in order to avoid being pushed back to Belarus.
There is nothing wrong with the fact that Poles identify more closely with Ukrainians than with people from Syria, Iraq or Yemen. It is natural and expected that a shared neighbourhood, common history and cultural proximity have made this a reality. After all, the years of Ukrainian economic migration to Poland have forged strong links between ordinary people on both sides. It is also inspiring that the majority of Polish society understands that Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia’s aggression is also our war. Ukrainians are also defending us and our freedom and interests and for that we owe them our support. This, however, does not change the fact that refugees are still present and maltreated at the Polish-Belarusian border.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Paulina Siegień is a freelance journalist writing about the Polish-Russian neighbourhood and general Russian developments. Her latest book Miasto Bajka. Wiele Historii Kaliningradu (City of fairy tales. The many stories of Kaliningrad) will be published later this year.