Ukrainians Find Economic Refuge in Poland—For Now

Contrary to its reputation for disliking foreign workers and refugees, Poland has emerged as one of Europe’s largest grantors of residence permits. After Malta and Cyprus, where foreigners can easily purchase residency, Poland is the European Union’s largest issuer of such permits.

Their main beneficiaries are Ukrainians. Indeed, of the over half a million (first-time) residence permits issued by Poland in 2015, about 80 percent went to Ukrainians. Despite the Polish Prime Minister’s claim that these are “refugees,” the bulk of these permits were issued to allow the recipient to pursue work—largely temporary—in Poland. Furthermore, these permissions are not the product of an asylum application. They are technically considered economic migrants. In fact, according to Poland’s own statistics, Poland has only given twenty-one people refugee status in 2016.

A growing number of residence permits are also being issued to Ukrainian students studying in Poland. Ukrainians are also the top recipients of residence permits issued by the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovakia.

Poland’s vibrant economy and significantly higher wages, along with its familiar language and culture, are attractive to Ukrainians who are frustrated with the continuously poor state of their own country’s sluggish economy that suffers from successive governments’ failure to implement needed reforms. Meanwhile, Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region has also created a modest surge of residence and job seekers.

Statistics on the specific origins of these Ukrainian migrants are not available, but Mirosław Czech from the Association of Ukrainians in Poland recently told Deutsche Welle that most of these workers are not from the parts of Ukraine where there is war, but “about 70 percent of Ukrainians living in Poland come from the country's west”.

These Ukrainian workers often take the places of the Polish workers who have themselves left their country in search of work and even higher wages in western Europe, particularly the United Kingdom. And, for the moment, given Poland’s relatively strong economy and its all-time low unemployment rates, large numbers of Polish employers are actively recruiting Ukrainians to fill those job vacancies.

But, that could change if large numbers of Poles return home after Britain leaves the European Union, presumably in a few years. In that case, their Ukrainian replacements may be encouraged by the Polish government to return home. Similar numbers of Poles work in Britain as Ukrainians who work in Poland. And these migrant Ukrainians tend to work similar jobs as do Poles in Britain.

According to a publication from the Polish Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, around 60 percent of Ukrainian workers are registered for employment in the agricultural sector, while 20 percent work in construction, and nine percent are employed in the domestic sphere.

For now, Poland has proven to be a comfortable if not permanent home for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who seek a better life. The remittances they send back home—on average 4,348 USD in 2014—have been a major help to their families during Ukraine’s war-time financial crisis. They will continue to do so as long as Poland’s door remains open to them.

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