Poland might have experienced relatively few deaths from the coronavirus, but the country is under a very strict lockdown. The economy has come to a halt – posing a challenge for the entire country, but especially for the 1.2 million-1.5 million Ukrainians who make up its biggest minority group. Although the Polish government has now allowed foreigners without valid insurance to access the healthcare system, and has said that they should not worry about overstaying their visas or residence permits, 143,000 Ukrainians left Poland between 15 March and 7 April. At least another 11,000 intend to leave soon. How the Polish government deals with this challenge will shape not only the future of the Polish agriculture and construction sectors, but also Polish-Ukrainian relations.
Most Ukrainians come to Poland only for a short period of time (up to six months) while just 215,000 of them have the status of a temporary or a permanent resident. The rest obtain visas or else enter the country under the terms of the visa-free regime, which allows for 90 days of residency within a 180-day span without a work permit. So far, the Polish government has mostly tried to attract labourers from small Ukrainian towns for short-term work rather than highly educated professionals or potential citizens. This approach is driven by the need to provide the construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and service sectors with people willing to work for low wages.
The government may value these workers, but it has a rather ambivalent attitude towards Ukrainians generally due to disagreements over the interpretation of history, which still haunt the minds of many Poles, particularly those with right-wing views. As significant numbers of Ukrainians flowed into Poland in 2014, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and an economic downturn in the country, the Polish government did little to make them feel welcome. On the contrary, at the moment when Ukraine was at its most vulnerable, the Polish government decided to reignite some painful historical disputes related to Ukrainian militant leader Stepan Bandera and the massacre at Volhynia. More than five years later, the Polish government has still not come up with a coherent and transparent integration policy. This has only made Polish-Ukrainian relations more turbulent in recent years.
As both the Polish and Ukrainian governments seemingly want to stem the massive outflow of Ukrainians from Poland, they need to communicate and coordinate with each other more than they have so far
No less important are economic concerns: popular fears that Ukrainians would take Poles’ jobs are grounded in little more than unconvincing slogans. Indeed, for years, there were too few Ukrainians to meet the needs of the Polish labour market, forcing Polish entrepreneurs to recruit additional workers from Asian countries. However, Ukrainians may now be the first to be laid off – even if it is still unclear whether Poles want the jobs they vacate. Concerned about a lack of manpower, Polish farmers and construction firms are already asking the government to hold onto Ukrainian migrant workers until at least the end of the harvest season.
In Poland’s state-controlled media, the issue of Ukrainian migrants is conspicuous by its absence. Though it took Ukrainians into account in the package of solutions it prepared to protect the Polish state and citizens from the crisis, the ruling party does not want to draw attention to migrant workers. It is eager not to spark a reaction from nationalists, who would demand that the authorities take care of Poles as their first priority.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is poorly equipped to deal with the pandemic, due to unfinished Poroshenko-era reforms of the healthcare system. Hospitals lack money, personnel, and equipment. This is compounded by poor coordination and communication between central and local administrations. On top of that, following a reshuffle in early March, Ukraine is on its third minister of health in two months – reflecting the rashness of measures taken by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government.
Though Zelensky claimed in his inauguration speech a year ago that he dreamed about persuading all Ukrainian migrants to come home, the return of many has not only reduced remittances to Ukraine (which have consistently exceeded 10 percent of GDP since 2016) but also led to a rise in unemployment. Ukraine is now trying to avert a default on its debts by carrying out the reforms the International Monetary Fund demands in return for financial assistance – and finding even that to be a struggle.
Many Ukrainian citizens cannot afford to adhere to the social distancing measures put in place by the government, known locally as “quarantine”: 57 percent of Ukrainians say they only have enough savings to last four weeks or less. In a defiant spirit, many of them aren’t taking the virus threat seriously. After the government declared that those coming from abroad should be confined in special venues for mandatory medical observation, Ukrainian tourists returning from Vietnam broke through doors at the airport and fled. Residents of some parts of Ukraine treat returning migrants with suspicion, due to fear of the virus. The prime minister, Denys Shmygal, recently made the situation worse by claiming that Ukraine’s returning citizens are its only source of the coronavirus.
As both the Polish and Ukrainian governments seemingly want to stem the massive outflow of Ukrainians from Poland, they need to communicate and coordinate with each other more than they have so far. This could even be an opportunity to mend long-strained relations. The Polish government would do well to recognise the value of Ukrainian workers, while the Ukrainian government should acknowledge that the Polish state cares for Ukrainians during these trying times.
It is no less important for them to create a sense of solidarity among Poles and Ukrainians – a task that might be easier if the Polish government and state-controlled media outlets were more outspoken about its assistance for the Ukrainian minority. Polish citizens ought to feel reassured by the knowledge that the government protects the country’s largest minority, many of whom are key workers who play a crucial role in helping Poland through the crisis.
Oleksandra Iwaniuk is a political analyst and literary journalist who writes for Polish weekly news magazine Polityka, as well as for numerous English-language publications. She also teaches at Warsaw University.
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