24 May 2023 — As the war in Ukraine has no end in sight, humanitarian needs of people in refugee hosting countries remain dire. 1.6 million refugees in Poland (UNHCR) are living in a limbo, unsure whether they will be able to return home. Regardless of whether they have just arrived in the country, or they have been displaced for months, refugee groups face specific risks and challenges. The International Rescue Committee in Poland (IRC) is identifying and analysing risks and trends linked to the protection and assistance of affected populations to empower people in taking informed decisions about their future and continuously improve the design of humanitarian response in Poland.
The IRC’s recent protection monitoring report, conducted among over 200 representatives of the most vulnerable groups, has found that lack of emergency aid, appropriate access to services, medical assistance and jobs, as well as unsafe border crossings constitute the most pressing needs for people displaced from Ukraine. Most of the respondents interviewed are those who benefitted from financial assistance provided by the IRC to people who came to Poland after October 2022, including vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities, chronic illness, or elders from eastern regions of Ukraine.
Alan Moseley, the IRC’s Country Director in Poland, explains:
“The IRC’s latest report identifies five key challenges people fleeing Ukraine are facing in Poland and offers concrete solutions to ensure they are protected from harm. This includes combining integration assistance with emergency support to cover for their basic needs, continuous monitoring whether refugees can still afford accommodation, and the need for extended information and legal assistance, which would include transportation to the locations where legal services are available and coverage of state fees.
“Refugees often mention that uncertainty about the future makes it difficult for them to decide about their next steps, let alone settle in Poland - an emotional decision for those who are uprooted from their homes and communities. Immediate extension of the temporary protection status and residence permits until 2025 could provide them with some levels of predictability and stability.
“Moving on from the emergency phase of the response, and to empower refugees to make informed and voluntary decisions about their future, the humanitarian community in Poland needs to continuously adapt programming to serve the changing needs of refugees and to tackle the potential risks people are facing, such as limited access to medical assistance or high reliance on free accommodation.”
IRC’s Protection Monitoring Team has identified the following risks:
1. Border crossing with Russian Federation is associated with the increased risk of protection incidents on the border and potential risks of detention, human trafficking, or smuggling.
There are two main routes people fleeing Ukraine use to make it to Poland, with most people crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border directly. However, approximately 10% - with the actual number likely higher - of respondents, primarily residents of the territories which are currently not under the Ukrainian government’s control, had to cross the border with the Russian Federation first, then travel to Latvia or Estonia and Lithuania, to finally reach Poland. This route is considered to be more dangerous and expensive, moreover some groups of refugees are exposed to risks or detention in Russia or lengthy interrogations exceeding standard border crossing procedures, which can increase risks of psychological stress or even physical trauma.
2. Limited access to medical services rooted in structural limitations of the Polish healthcare system - long waiting times, limited availability of free specialised services - may cause returns to Ukraine to obtain medical services or cover expensive private healthcare.
While a quarter of participants reported that they had not used any healthcare services in Poland, among those who did, an almost half of them reported that they did face the difficulties accessing medical aid in the country. Participants who reported that at least one person in their household is suffering from a chronic illness admitted they are more often facing obstacles in accessing healthcare in Poland. The same is true for older participants. One of the coping mechanisms is travelling back to Ukraine to access healthcare - 24% of participants traveled to Ukraine for this reason. It was the second most quoted reason to return temporarily to the country while premature returns may cause safety risks and additional costs for refugees.
3. A high degree of reliance on free accommodation and the risk of premature returns.
Over 60% of respondents live in collective accommodations or are hosted by local families or friends/family. With changes to the refugee hosting laws as of 1 March, some groups will have to pay for their stay in collective shelters, which may overstretch their financial resources, often limited to social benefits or humanitarian assistance. 18% of participants reported they have been informed they can stay in their current accommodation for one to three months (15%) or less than one month (3%). The main reason to leave the accommodation within one month is the end of the free accommodation programme (3 in 5 cases). Due to these economic pressures some refugees may feel compelled to return to Ukraine before it is safe to do so.
4. Diminishing access to emergency aid for new arrivals.
While refugees continue arriving in Poland, many international NGOs and local NGOs are shifting from the emergency phase of the crisis to longer-term integration efforts; as a result, refugees’ access to immediate help such as food, clothes and cash is diminishing. However, refugees who are now arriving in Poland after many months of the conflict are often more impoverished. Their adaptation in Poland, if relying only on the state-provided benefits, is more challenging that it was for people who arrived right after the escalation of the war. Among those who arrived during the last period December 2022- March 2023, 26% of participants reported that their most urgent needs are material assistance, 20% spoke about employment and 17% about medical treatment.
5. High reliance on social benefits and limited capacity of the labor market.
Elderly refugees, refugees with disabilities and mothers accompanied by children are especially reliant on social benefits and face difficulties finding employment in Poland. According to a labour market assessment conducted by the IRC last year, 70% of Ukrainian refugees interviewed identified finding a job as their primary need. As the war enters a second year, people who have found safety in Poland still report that securing a sustainable source of income remains among their primary concerns. At the same time, poor working conditions, which include low wages, no contractual protection, rigid schedules, and sometimes missed payments or other forms of abuse, have been reported among the top concerns of those seeking stable employment in Poland.
Since February 2023 the IRC has been implementing a protection analysis through the Protection Monitoring of Persons of Concern (PoC) living in Warsaw, Katowice and Poznan regions covering 204 individuals. The individual survey consists of questions that allow for the collection of data at individual level.
The quantitative data collected were further contextualised based on qualitative data, collected mainly through Focus Group Discussions, stakeholder interviews (KIIs) and direct observation. The primary data collection was complemented by secondary information, including social media monitoring.
81% of the respondents are female, and 19% are male. The highest proportion of the male population is to be found in the age groups 18-24 (36%), 35-49 (25%), and 60-69 (19%). Men of the age below 60 years old can leave Ukraine only on an exceptional basis, but it should be noted that some of the interviewed men did not use the conventional border crossing points between Ukraine and Poland and therefore these limitations were not applicable to them. Three-quarters of the participants arrived in Poland between October 2022 to March 2023.
The IRC's work in Poland
IRC launched an emergency response to the war in Ukraine in February 2022, working directly and with local partners to reach those most in need. In Poland, we are providing cash assistance to the most vulnerable households, improving access to legal assistance and providing a variety of tailor-made protection services, including safe spaces for women and children and Integration and Support Centres “One Step to Employment” in Poznań and Katowice