News | Participation / Civil Rights - Migration / Flight - Eastern Europe - Europe2024 Poland: Bi-Cultural, but Not Multi-Cultural

While Ukrainian refugees are welcomed with open arms, others are turned away


Used clothes in a forest.
The abandoned clothes of Said, a refugee from Congo who wandered in the woods for four days to escape Polish border patrols, August 2022. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

For the first time since World War II, Poland has become a country with more than one culture. This was caused by Vladimir Putin’s illegal war against Ukraine and the terror exercised by Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. The refugees from Ukraine — which is culturally, historically, and linguistically close to Poland — are welcomed warmly, and receive support and a relatively high degree of empathy from the public. The Belarusians fleeing from the President Lukashenko are also welcomed, even if their numbers cannot be compared to that of the refugees from Ukraine.

Zuzanna Dąbrowska was active in the democratic opposition in the 1980s. She currently writes for the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita.

However, things look completely different with several thousand refugees from other countries who have been trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border since August 2021. People from countries including Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, and Eritrea, as well as Palestinians and Kurds, who have been brought to Minsk by human traffickers, represented a possibility for the Belarusian dictator to destabilize the border region and — according to military experts — a means for Putin to test Poland’s reaction to his war of aggression in Ukraine.

Poland did not pass the test — we closed the border and turned back refugees, including women and children. But surprisingly Poland handled the later test, helping millions of Ukrainians, well.

Barbed Wire on the EU Border

Nonetheless, refugees continue to use the route from Minsk, despite barbed wire, swamps, and border patrols. A routine communique from the Polish Border Guard from 24 April 2023 states:

Border guards from the Podlasie unit have discovered that 78 people attempted to illegally cross from Belarus to Poland. Four persons have crossed the border river Svisloch. The foreigners who illegally crossed the border of our country were detected at the sections protected by the border guard posts in Białowieża, Krynki, Mielnik, Bobrowniki, Dubicze Cerkiewne, Czeremcha, and in Narewka. In the area of the border guard post in Bobrowniki, four emigrants from Ethiopia ... crossed the border river Svisloch. Since the beginning of 2023, citizens from 38 different countries have attempted to cross the Podlasie section of the Polish-Belarusian border.

An additional piece of information was transmitted by the Border Guard on 2 May:

Yesterday, there were 101 attempts to illegally cross the border from Belarus to Poland. On Sunday (30 April) 56 incidents of illegal emigration were registered, on Saturday 31, and on Friday 75. In the section of the border protected by the border guard post in Bobrowniki, foreigners attempted to enter Poland illegally across the Svisloch border river — three people (a Congolese, a Togolese and a Sudanese man) on Monday, 1 May, and two people (from Gabon and Guinea) on Sunday, 30 April of this year. Six helpers involved in organizing the illegal border crossing were also arrested.

From this information, it can be concluded that an average of approximately 100 people per day tried to cross the border that spring, despite the strict border controls, dangerous barriers, and naturally occurring swamps, flood areas, and bodies of water in the border regions. This means the route is still being used for human trafficking and that it is possible to cross into the European Union this way — or that the refugees’ determination is so great that they still try taking this perilous route to a better place in the world despite the information about being sent back.

Polish authorities do not respond to questions regarding the estimated number of people who have managed to cross the border. Humanitarian organizations report that more than 220 people have died on the Polish-Belarusian border since the crisis began.

The families of people who have gone missing like Mohammed Sabah from Ethiopia have also travelled to the border area. The Polish Embassy in Ethiopia helped issue visas for his uncle and brother. His uncle, Rekaut Rahid, is searching for him.  Mohammed has been missing since November 2021, when the Polish Border Guard deported him to Belarus. On 16 February, a dead body was found in the forest of Bialowieza. It is expected that DNA tests will determine whether it is Mohammed.

A 58-year-old Syrian refugee named Mohammad had an accident at the border. Doctors fought for his life for three weeks in the intensive care unit of the University Hospital in Bialystok. His wife Fatima was not granted a Polish visa — neither when Mohammad was fighting for his life, nor when she wanted to attend his funeral. The Polish embassy in Syria categorically refused to issue the document.

The funeral of 42-year-old Livine from Cameroon, who died at the border on 16 February, took place on 9 May. The ceremony was attended by volunteers, as well as relatives of the deceased. Money was collected communally for their travel. Donations were also collected to defray the funeral costs.

On the way to the airport, the family was detained by the Border Guard. Only after intervention by superior officers was the family able to continue on their way.

War Refugees

The war in Ukraine has lasted for more than a year now, and the scope of emigration exceeds anything the Polish state has previously dealt with. According to the Polish Border Guard, 11.34 million Ukrainian refugees have crossed the Polish-Ukraine border since the beginning of Russian aggression on 24 February 2022. On their account, the refugees are mainly women and children.

What is the current situation with border traffic at the Polish-Ukrainian border? An example of the transfer of people from the end of April 2023:

In the course of the day, 27,600 people arrived in Poland on 23 April. That same day, 26,100 left Poland for Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, a total of 9.569 million people have returned to Ukraine.

These are frequently people who return for a brief amount of time, for example to see their husbands who have been given leave from the military, to visit their families, or to take care of official business. Over 3 million refugees have remained permanently in Poland.

This past year, Polish public assistance for Ukraine amounted to 30 billion zloty (in addition to the 10 billion zloty in private support from Polish citizens), which is around 1 percent of the gross domestic product. Since March of this year, Ukrainians who have been living in Poland for more than 120 days have to contribute to accommodation and food costs. As of 1 May 2023, refugees who have been there for more 180 days have to cover 75 percent of the costs, albeit no more than 60 zloty per person per day. This is based on the Polish law on assistance for Ukrainian citizens, which applies for people in the care of state and local authorities. According to the Polish Ministry of Interior and Administration, there are almost 82,500 people still living in student dormitories, hostels, or halls.

It should be noted that when the war started more than 1.5 million Ukrainians, most of them men, were already in Poland, mainly for work reasons. Since the Russian attack on Ukraine, the number of people in Poland of Ukrainian origin has increased by 1,602,976. The largest increase, of 3,468,068 people, was recorded in May 2022.

The situation began to stabilize in August last year. In February 2023, the number of refugees was 3,166,418 — mostly women and children. According to official numbers (not everyone is officially registered), only around 58,000 are over 60 years old, almost 385,000 are women of working age, and the largest age group is 35–49 years old. Over 120,000 are men. Most men aged 19–24 (nearly 26,000) are students, who are not affected by the mobilization requirement and the ban on travel outside Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, more than 900,000 people of Ukrainian origin have left Poland for other countries, which can be attributed to eased border crossing introduced by the European Union.

One Country, One Nation

According to Statistics Poland, the population of Poland is 37.767 million. It can be asserted that the enormous scale of Ukrainian emigration has changed the population structure of Poland.

The phenomenon of mass migration currently confronting Poland should be seen in historical perspective. Poland’s borders were determined at the conferences of the Big Three — the Western powers and the USSR — in Teheran (28 November to 1 December 1943), Yalta (4–11 February 1945), and finally in Potsdam (17 July to 2 August 1945). Poland’s eastern border was determined by the so-called Curzon Line, which limited the eastern regions of the country to ethnically Polish areas.

The citizens of the People’s Republic of Poland were practically “left to their own devices,” almost without national minorities, other religions, languages, or customs. The border largely coincided with the German-Soviet agreement from 28 September 1939, one of the clauses from the famous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Which is also why it is unsurprising that this plan pleased Stalin most of all.

This ethnic uniformity was carefully cultivated by the authorities in the People’s Republic of Poland. They held the same fundamental conception of the nation as the pre-war nationalists, who were led by their most important activist, Roman Dmowski. He was the one who wrote, in the interwar period, in Thoughts of a Modern Pole: “If Poland were to move significantly eastward, into linguistically non-Polish areas, and not include the autochthonous Polish areas in the West within its borders, it would cease to be a nation state, and — in view of political developments in Europe — would soon cease to be a state at all.” This idea of limiting the state to the ethnic Polish population became the rationale for the post-1945 Polish nation state.

Opinion polls continue to demonstrate the Polish public’s generally positive attitude towards refugees from Ukraine.

It should be noted that before World War II, 35 percent of the Polish population were made up of national minority groups, the largest being the Jewish diaspora. The Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were pushed out by the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic in two main waves: in the late 1950s, and with the so-called March events in the year 1968.

The history of Polish-Ukrainian tensions and conflicts during the interwar period is a political thriller, not without assassinations and violent deaths — one only has to consider the 1934 assassination of Bronisław Pieracki, a politician close to Piłsudski. Pieracki, the Minister of Internal Affairs, was shot in the middle of Warsaw by a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), Hryhoriy Maciejka, and died from his injuries.

However, the greatest tragedy of the Polish-Ukrainian relations was the Massacre of Poles in Volhynia, which was a genocide of the Polish minority carried out in 1943 by Ukrainian nationalists with the active support of the local Ukrainian population. Historians estimate that about 50,000 Poles and, in retaliation, several thousand Ukrainians were killed as a result of these events. The truth remained hidden from researchers and the public for many years, and since the 2000s the slow release of this information has led to tension and nationalist incidents on both sides.

According to the census in 2021, the largest minority groups in Poland were Germans, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. However, more than 97.7 percent claimed Polish ethnicity in the census. Poland’s process of transforming into a bi-national society began on 24 February 2022. What will be the result? It will be determined by the outcome of the war, the decisions made by international institutions such as NATO or the European Union, the aid provided to Ukraine after the war, and personal decisions by Ukrainians.

At the moment, Polish authorities are confronted with various challenges related to presence of refugees as well as the economic consequences of the war, for example the flooding of the Polish market with foodstuffs, especially grain.

Who Are the Refugees?

In April, the Rzeczpospolita daily published a report based on mobile data collected by Selectivv. The analysis of mobile devices by Ukrainians in Poland was based on geodata, the device language settings, visits in the Ukraine, and the use of Ukrainian SIM cards. The study compared the Ukrainians living in Poland before 24 February 2022 and today. It revealed that only one of every five Ukrainian citizens in Poland in January 2023 had been in the country one year before, in January 2022.

The newspaper quoted Aleksander Luchowski, the president of Selectivv, who is of the opinion that “we are dealing with two completely different groups of Ukrainians in Poland.” He is referring to the fact that the analysis allegedly shows that the material status of the new emigrants from Ukraine differs greatly from that those who were already in Poland prior to the war. While only 6 percent of the Ukrainian population in Poland had a very good material position, 24 percent had a good position, and 64 percent an average one in January 2022, significant changes could be ascertained just one year later.

According to Luchoski, the percentage with a very good material position rose by seven percent to 13 percent, and the number with a good material position even rose by 30 percent to 54 percent. As the expert in the Rzeczpospolita article explained, “You can therefore assume that the war refugees who have come to Poland in the last 12 months are mostly people with a good and very good material status.” Miroslaw Skroka, Chair of the Association of Ukrainians in Poland, commented on the analysis: “Ukrainian studies show that about 70 percent of female emigrants have received higher education. Hence their interests, for instance in culture.”

Their better material situation apparently influences the newer migrants’ use of leisure time: according to the study, the proportion of people going to swimming pools and gyms rose from 5 percent in 2022 to 18 percent, and people attending cinemas and theatres went from one percent to four percent. By contrast, the share of visitors to pubs and restaurants fell by a full 30 percentage points from 36 percent to 6 percent.

Children Who Do Not Go to School

One of the greatest changes in the group of the population with Ukrainian background is that the number of people under 18 increased from 200,000 to 1.4 million within twelve months. Studies also show that non-parents have tended to leave Poland over the past year.

Unfortunately, there was a large group of Ukrainian children outside the Polish educational system. Experts estimate that up to 300,000 school-aged children may be in this situation. Only 200,000 of them attend Polish schools, and the rest usually report that they study online. However, this can be very difficult to confirm in times of war.

Amnesty International (Amnesty)  has produced a report on this issue, partly based on data from the Ministry of National Education (MEN), which are unfortunately very sparse. In response to a query from Amnesty, the ministry stated it “does not monitor the number of children and young people coming to Poland from Ukraine as of 24 February 2022, who are not enrolled in Polish educational institutions.” MEN also does not collect information on how many Ukrainian refugees and female refugees of school age residing in Poland are participating in the Ukrainian education system online.

The absence of an overview or even of attempts to gather information on this issue are all the more dangerous because, as Amnesty points out, “some Ukrainian children experience discrimination and hostility from Polish schoolchildren and their parents, despite the extensive support and warm welcome they receive from Polish society.” In light of this, it seems necessary to introduce systematic intercultural and anti-discrimination education.

Setting up a support system for refugees that makes it possible for them to live, settle down, and find employment, proves that Poland is capable to taking in people fleeing war or looking for better economic opportunities.

This is regrettably lacking in Polish schools. Such instruction is only introduced when initiated by school in cooperation with non-governmental organizations. Amnesty warns that “[i]n the meantime, the ministry is focusing on introducing more controls in schools and is pushing for an amendment to the Education Act, which has been vetoed twice by the Polish president, the passage of which would make it much more difficult to implement such teaching.”

Amnesty also indicates that according to the recommendations of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, only those Ukrainian pupils and students who can communicate well enough in Polish to attend classes should attend so-called mixed classes, i.e. classes together with Polish children. Meanwhile, most Ukrainian children are attending mixed schools for lack of preparatory facilities, not because of their good knowledge of Polish. Compared to the last school year, the number of these institutions has decreased significantly — from 2,414 to 956, with only 15,000 Ukrainian children in attendance.

According to the AI report, these preparatory facilities pose a significant a challenge because “Poland has been struggling with serious staff shortages in schools for years, especially in the big cities. A further problem is the inadequate infrastructure. That is why pupils and students who do not understand Polish attend classes in that language along with Polish children.”

Disinformation and Hate Speech

Opinion polls continue to demonstrate the Polish public’s generally positive attitude towards refugees from Ukraine. As the head of the IBRiS polling institute, Marcin Duma, points out, a distinction can be drawn between three phases of public sentiment since the outbreak of the war.

Initially, there was a “widespread mobilization of support,” self-organization, and a determination to provide as much as possible for people fleeing the war zones. Gradually, however, this attitude was tempered by fears of the consequences of emigration and of the war itself, for example. There were bottlenecks in energy supplies. Such fears were especially prominent in the fall, when the prospect of coal and gas shortages loomed. During the winter, however, many of these threats did not materialize after all.

We are now in the phase of easing and rationalizing attitudes toward mass migration. The stoking of fears and prejudices has been influenced by Internet disinformation campaigns, carried out both by “Kremlin trolls” and by certain political circles in Poland, including the anti-vaccination movement. For want of the occasion to inspire fear about the consequences of COVID-19 vaccination, it has switched to spreading fears about Ukrainians.

Together with the Institute for Media Studies, an association called Demagog produces reports regarding disinformation about Ukrainians. For example, in November 2022 a study was produced revealing that no less than 73,000 Polish language posts and comments were identified that month that “referred negatively to the Ukrainian community.”

The authors noted that “one of the most popular Twitter accounts (the medium where more than 90 percent of anti-Ukrainian posts are concentrated) spreading disinformation about Ukrainians is the account of Grzegorz Braun, a member of the Polish parliament, one of the leaders of the Konfederacja coalition.” The latter party also produced a pamphlet that includes statements like “the presence of a large Ukrainian minority in Poland will lead to the negative importation of numerous damages to social life from across the eastern border; from corruption and crime to demands for easier access to abortion.”

As a characteristic example of political influence, the authors of the report cite the posts by Barbara Nowak, Education Commissioner of the Małopolska region, who repeatedly had to be protected by Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek (Law and Justice Party) on several occasions for extreme statements. For example, Nowak wrote,

The wave of Ukrainians fleeing the war has filled domestic anti-Polish circles with the hope of eradicating at least part of Polishness. Under the pretext of caring for the feelings of Ukrainians, they demand the end of teaching Polish history and literature. We do not agree to give up Polishness.

In their third report on anti-Ukrainian propaganda, the media-monitoring organization IMM registered a total of nearly 180,000 posts and comments demeaned Ukraine and Ukrainians from 1 November 2022 to 31 January 2023. In January, an average of 77 posts and comments per hour were published that referred negatively to Ukraine and Ukrainians.

The report’s authors indicate that anti-Ukrainian content is often not moderated by site administrators. This was the case with sites including,,, and, where anti-Ukrainian comments posted in January were still visible on 14 March, when the report was produced. The authors of the study stated:

Once again, we have identified the ten most popular Facebook and Twitter accounts spreading anti-Ukrainian propaganda. Most of them were already on our list in November and December last year, which means that anti-Ukrainian propaganda is mainly being produced by the same figures. Once again, this included MP Grzegorz Braun’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as the accounts of the parties represented in the Sejm that are part of Konfederacja.

This did not change in the following edition of the report. There were nearly 120,000 anti-Ukrainian posts and comments recorded in February and March of this year. On average, there were over 80 anti-Ukrainian posts every hour. The IMM analysts calculated on the basis of data collected that over a thousand people were expressing themselves in this way on Polish social media every day.

In February as well as March there were over 110,000 such tweets (including retweets), which made up 92 percent of all identified posts and comments. Regarding the number of anti-Ukrainian posts, the IMM emphasized that Facebook was well behind Twitter with 6,200 posts in both months (five percent).

What amplifies the negative campaigns on the Internet? In February 2023, for instance, the greatest number of negative posts were made on 3 February and coincided with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence Mariusz Błaszczak’s visit to Kyiv. In the following month, the highest number of hate-filled posts occurred on 18 and 19 March, at the same time as a demonstration by Ukrainians in Kraków demanding the release of Ukrainian prisoners from Russian prisons.

Although racist incidents do happen in Poland, they are no more frequent than in other European countries.

Monika Ezman, director of the Quality Management Centre and Analyses Department at the Institute for Media Observation, said, “there was a significant increase in anti-Ukrainian posts on the Internet during both events. It is clear from our reports that current events and news related to Ukraine repeatedly become a focal point of increased activity by the Internet users who most often post negative opinions about Ukraine.”

This problem was also studied by the “Never Again” association in conjunction with SentiOne. They reported that there were “almost 400,000 anti-Ukrainian statements with approximately 550 million page views on the Polish Internet during the last 12 months.” According to the NGO, the most popular xenophobic slogans on the Polish-language web are “#stopukrainizacjiPolski”, “banderowcy”, “banderyzm” and “banderyzacja” as well as “Ukropol”/“Ukrpol” (ukropol is a conspiracy theory that claims Ukrainians will replace Poles as the rulers of Poland).

According to the state research institute NASK, “anti-Ukrainian disinformation content is mostly spread by people, not bots.” The industry site Virtual Media reports that since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the NASK has be able to identify 1,592 highly toxic accounts on social media, but it is important to note that none of these were bots. NASK reported 521 cases of disinformation to administration authorities.

Support Is Not for Everyone

Despite the problems that, due both to the historical background and current events, arise in relation to mass wartime migration from Ukraine, the overall process can be seen as positive to date. The war refugees have received the necessary support and have been welcomed in Poland. The Polish economy and pension system profit from the increase in new workers — at present, mostly women who can fill employment gaps in the service sector, health care, or retail.

The most significant tensions relate to the macroeconomic phenomena connected to opening the EU border for Ukrainian food supplies. This has a negative effect on the relations between the two countries, but hardly affects the atmosphere between people and the establishment of new social relationships.

Setting up a support system for refugees that — despite its limitations — makes it possible for them to live, settle down, and find employment, proves that Poland is capable to taking in people fleeing war or looking for better economic opportunities. This makes it all the more astonishing how differently other emigrants with differently coloured skin are treated who cross the Polish-Belarusian border illegally.

Certainly, the war directly appeals to our compassionate side. However, the people from the Middle East or Africa also usually come from places where their lives and livelihoods are threatened. Because there are fewer of them, there is no doubt that Poland could easily welcome them into its territory.

It is also not certain that Polish citizens would deny refugees the right to live in Polish society on the basis of cultural differences. Although racist incidents do happen in Poland, they are no more frequent than in other European countries. However, instead of trying, authorities have focused on stoking fear and proving that the refugees do not deserve even elementary humanitarian aid because the Lukashenko regime is responsible for them being trafficked.

Even if they are not sent back to Belarus, they are usually sent to guarded centres, with no contact with their families, and treated like criminals. This is why protests and hunger strikes repeatedly occurred at these detention centres in 2022 and the spring of 2023. In April, at least 20 people were on hunger strike in the detention centres in Przemyśl, Wędrzyn, Białystok, and Krosno Odrzańskie. They all demanded to be released because they did not understand why they were still imprisoned. As the demonstrators in Lesznowola wrote, they demanded “an end to the unjustified extension of detention that is completely inexplicable for people seeking international protection.”

The history of these two migration movements on Poland’s eastern border demonstrates there is no unified migration policy based on rational, humanistic grounds. Moreover, the European Union’s regulations are inadequate to ensure that the same measures are applied on its borders for all victims of war, and that people with differing cultural backgrounds and skin colour are treated equally.

An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in maldekstra #20. Translated by Bradley Schmidt and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.