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Polish cities feel the strain of helping Ukrainian refugees

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities. Sign up here.

RZESZÓW, Poland — Rzeszów has welcomed more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, swelling its population by more than half. But with no end in sight to the conflict, the Polish city is now having to work out how to be a home for these new arrivals for the long term.

Since Russian tanks first rolled into Ukraine, around 1 million people have passed through the southeastern city, which lies just 100 kilometers from the border.

The first port of call for most Ukrainians fleeing the war, it went into emergency mode: Volunteers welcomed refugees at the railway station with a hot meal; local authorities turned sporting complexes into humanitarian aid warehouses and the local shopping mall became a shelter.

Elżbieta Sobusiak, who co-owns a small private daycare, said she was approached by so many Ukrainian parents that she opened a new group — with a Ukrainian childminder — to take care of their young children.

“Thanks to enormous efforts, the city … didn’t fall down, there was no drama, no [refugee] camps, everything was under control,” the mayor of Rzeszów, Konrad Fijołek, told POLITICO.  

Now that the sense of emergency has passed, the city faces a new challenge: how to integrate those who have decided to stay.

While many refugees have since moved on to other cities in Poland or elsewhere in the EU, or decided to go back to Ukraine, those still in Rzeszów have added pressure to an already strained housing market and tight local budgets.

Rzeszów is an extreme example of a challenge facing cities across the country. Of the 3.2 million Ukrainians who have fled to Poland, 2.2 million live in cities, according to a report by the Union of Polish Metropolises published last month. The population of Poland’s capital, Warsaw, has grown by 15 percent; in Kraków it swelled by 23 percent; in Gdańsk by 34 percent. 

A recent poll by ARC Rynek i Opinia, an independent pollster, found that 58 percent of Ukrainians in Poland say they intend to stay as long as the war continues, while 27 percent say they plan to stay for good.

That means local governments need to come up with long-term strategies to integrate their new arrivals, including massively expanding schools and creating new jobs, said Marek Wójcik, a regulatory expert at the Association of Polish Cities.

“At the beginning it was about guaranteeing the basic security: aid, food, clothes, flats,” he said. “But now we have moved to the second phase.”

Capacity crunch 

Thanks to an emergency mechanism triggered by the EU, Ukrainian refugees can legally live and work across the bloc. They are also entitled to the same benefits as Polish citizens: health insurance, free public education, a child allowance. 

At the local level, Fijołek said his focus is on providing refugees with jobs, access to education and longer-term accommodation.

Most Ukrainian students are finishing up their school year remotely, but if they stay in Poland, they will have to integrate into the Polish system and learn the language. That means larger classes and more teachers.

“We can make it through the end of [this] school year … but then we will need some real action,” said Fijołek.

Wójcik, from the Association of Polish Cities, said other Polish municipalities are facing similar issues.

“There are cities where there are so many new children that a few or a dozen new schools and kindergartens need to be built,” he said.  

In Warsaw, which is home to around 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, “if all Ukrainian kids would like to learn [in person], then we would need four times more infrastructure that we have today for young refugees,” Wójcik said.

The other looming problem is housing. Across the country, Polish people have welcomed around 700,000 refugees into their own homes, and many refugees live in temporary flatshares.

But those short-term solutions paper over a deeper problem: The rental market in most Polish cities is saturated — demand already exceeds supply and prices are on the rise.

In Rzeszów, every rental property is currently occupied, according to Fijołek: “We’re full.”

Money problems

Polish mayors aren’t shy about the fact that they need more money to adapt to their new reality.

Wójcik said his association has spoken to EU officials and experts who are keen to give cities advice and “tell us how to help in such situations.” But expertise is only part of the equation, he stressed: “We simply need [financial] means so we could take up the responsibility for helping the refugees.”

In the first month of the war, the Polish government set up an emergency fund of 500 million złoty (€109 million) to help local authorities.

That support hasn’t made much difference yet, Fijołek said in early May, as it’s only slowly starting to be handed out.

“We will see if we get this money: for schools, for social care, for building new infrastructure, for transport, for houses. This is a real test ahead of us,” he added. 

But Warsaw is struggling to find new funds to cover those extra costs — and it’s looking to the EU for help.

So far, Brussels has allocated €144.6 million to Poland as a part of a new fund aimed at helping the countries most affected by the refugee crisis. Brussels also said Poland could tap €1.2 billion in unused funds from REACT EU, part of the bloc’s post-pandemic recovery assistance, and use chunks of its cohesion funding for policies to support Ukrainian refugees.

According to Paweł Szefernaker, Poland’s minister responsible for aid for Ukraine, that is “insufficient.” 

“From the beginning, we said that the help we provide translates into billions, not millions, of euros. EU aid to countries that help refugees should also amount to billions of euros,” he told Polish media last week. 

On Wednesday, the European Commission approved Poland’s national recovery plan, under which the country can receive around €24 billion in grants €12 billion in ultra-cheap loans. The move — which some commissioners argue is premature amid an ongoing dispute over the rule of law in Poland — is expected to boost Warsaw’s ability to respond to the influx of Ukrainian refugees. The deal requires the government to meet certain “milestones,” including rule of law before it can access the money.

Some local politicians — among them Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw — have appealed to the EU to send funds directly to regional authorities rather than the national government.

“The money is essential and not only the money that is already in Poland but also new money, fresh money,” he told reporters in Brussels last week following a meeting with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “It’s very important that the European money doesn’t go only to the central government but also to support the local authorities, to support NGOs.”

If sending money to cities proves impossible, he added, the Commission should set strict criteria for how the funds it provides to Poland should be allocated to ensure that they aren’t misused.

Such support is urgent, according to Wójcik. “We would be very grateful if in the European structures this would get noticed, for real.”

This article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.

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