Ideas on Europe

The mobilisation of help in Poland

The mobilisation of help in Poland

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research, we welcome Karolina Czerska-Shaw from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

One of your research areas is migration, and the Russian aggression on Ukraine has triggered a forced migration of unprecedented scale in your country. How has Poland responded to this challenge?

Remarkably well. Perhaps it was the speed at which it happened. It may have also been the proximity of the conflict, just next door. It may have been the fact that over 1.5 million Ukrainians were already residing in Poland, and now account for roughly 80% of the foreign-born population in Poland. Or the fact that the people who were arriving in Polish cities were mostly women and children as well as the elderly, fulfilling a sort of “ideal-type refugee” image.

It's probably all of the above factors that contributed to the unprecedented civic mobilisation in Poland, which has been praised for its speed, effectiveness, grass-roots nature and longevity.

Has this mobilisation changed over time?

In the first weeks, it is accurate to state that ‘everyone did everything’.

At Krakow or Warsaw train station, amongst others, you would find a hodgepodge of volunteers; from scouts, ladies serving warm soup, volunteer paramedics, to random people holding signs stating that they could accommodate people in their homes.

Amongst this turmoil it was hard to see where the local or regional authorities were, although most often they were there, organising ad hoc registration points and providing information. This ad hoc system of non-systematicness worked, to an extent, because there was a mass mobilisation of very diverse actors: from private individuals to grassroots movements, national and international institutions and NGOs, religious groups, businesses, cultural and educational institutions, and local and regional authorities.

Yet this initial adrenaline rush wore off, and we saw a significant decline in volunteerism after about 3 to 6 months. Those groups that carried on formalised themselves into foundations to keep up with demand and to legitimise their finances. This is also when we saw a specialisation of help. Some organisations focused on psychological support; others specialised in providing housing options. Others still focused on sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. This specialisation was in part channelled through cooperation with international NGOs as well as United Nations bodies like UNICEF, UNHCR and the IOM. While the cooperation of local NGOs and big international donors was very much needed and often produced positive results, this cooperation was not without its difficulties and sore points.

What does this landscape of mobilisation look like today, in the summer of 2023?

It’s different. The number of people hosted in private homes has come down to a trickle, the material aid has in large part been rerouted to Ukraine, and organisations have diversified their activities. This is the moment when the next, critical stage is upon us, that of adaptation of both the host society and incomers. Now is the time to deal with the effects of trauma, educational challenges, as well as critical housing shortages and growing tensions within society.

While there are some remarkably good practices within local communities, cultural spaces, NGOs, and businesses, it is a drop of water in the ocean of what is needed in this next phase, which may last years. Yet it is also the time when big international organisations are starting to pull out, and with them some longer-term funding schemes.

Does that mean that we have reached a critical moment?

Yes, Poland is in the difficult context of record high inflation, a deep sense of geo-political insecurity, and looming parliamentary elections. While according to a public survey conducted in December 2022, 79% of Poles think that Poland should still accept refugees from Ukraine, downward trends can already be traced, particularly when it comes to anxieties about access to social and public services.

Overall, however, it can be observed that civil society has been successfully activated, gained valuable collective experience and accumulated social capital as a result. Together with the extension of the EU Temporary Protection Directive until August 2024, which represents an unusually proud moment in EU asylum policy, this is a good basis for the time to come.

I recall you are professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

Entretien réalisé par Laurence Aubron.