Polish volunteer army crumbles as Ukrainian ‘refugee fatigue’ sets in

When millions of refugees crossed its border following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland was hailed as a model. Almost overnight, its citizens formed a grassroots volunteer army to help the displaced, donated money and welcomed Ukrainians into their homes.

There has been a slowdown in arrivals since the February 24 invasion, but the need remains acute – and the flow of aid is drying up, with aid campaigners saying “refugee fatigue” has set in.

“It becomes very difficult to reach new people with the message that they should come and help Ukrainians,” said Jakub Tasiemski, senior coordinator at the heart for animals Foundation based in Warsaw, the Polish capital, which provides food and equipment for the pets of refugees. “We are now short of volunteers.

In the city of Lublin, the lack of new funding forced another Polish foundation, Skakanka, to close a warehouse where it stored food and clothing for refugees.

“Ukrainians keep calling and asking for help, but we are helpless because we have no money to replenish the stocks,” said foundation president Tamara Rutkowska.

Jakub Tasiemski says the regional government has stopped funding his charity, which provides food and equipment for refugee pets © Maciek Jazwiecki/FT

In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 51% of Polish adults bought items for refugees, according to a survey published in July by the Polish Economic Institute, an EU-funded think tank. ‘State. But within two months, the proportion who did fell to 39%, while those who gave cash donations fell to 33% from 46% previously.

Nonetheless, Poles donated nearly 10 billion zlotys ($2 billion) to help Ukrainians between late February and late June, exceeding their charitable contributions for the whole of 2021, according to the survey. He attributed the most recent decline to factors ranging from “moral exhaustion” to feeling that as refugees settled down they needed less help.

The drop in support comes as Polish households themselves face economic headwinds. The country has one of the highest inflation rates in Europe – 15.6% in July – caused in part by the war in Ukraine.

Activists also say interest is waning because many Ukrainians have recently returned to the safer western half of their country, changing the way Poles view the situation across the border.

Ukrainian volunteer Irina Mishina poses for a portrait at the Camillian Mission information desk in the hall of Warszawa Centralna (also known as Warsaw Central) station in Warsaw, Poland, July 29, 2022
Ukrainian volunteer Irina Mishyna says new arrivals from her country often need more help than those who came before © Maciek Jazwiecki/FT

“Everyone knows that there are now fewer refugees, but people should also know that those who arrive often need more help than before, because they come from eastern towns that have been destroyed and occupied by the Russians,” said Irina Mishyna, a Ukrainian. volunteer who fled to Warsaw with her 5-year-old child.

Polish authorities have also ended some grants for refugees. Ukrainians can no longer travel for free on public transport in Warsaw, while last month the government scrapped a subsidy for Poles hosting Ukrainians that was worth 40 zlotys a day for each person helped. Government officials stressed that the housing subsidy program was never intended to expand beyond an emergency response.

Yet Tasiemski said the regional government also stopped funding Heart for Animals. “If you ask me again in a week if we have enough cat and dog food, we’ll probably have run out,” he said.

Meanwhile, as in other countries hosting large numbers of displaced people, the relationship between refugees and their hosts has become more ambivalent.

American volunteer Hannah Ballew poses for a portrait in front of the Warszawa Centralna (also known as Warsaw Central) station building in Warsaw, Poland, July 29, 2022
US volunteer Hannah Ballew says people in Warsaw are evenly split between those who pledge to help refugees and those who want them to leave © Maciek Jazwiecki/FT

Hannah Ballew, an American who traveled to Warsaw in April to work serving food to refugees, said: “If I look at the people around me, it’s a 50-50 situation, between those who are still very determined to help Ukrainians and those who I just want them to come out.

The massive influx of Ukrainians to Warsaw since February has also pushed up rents. Online property search engine Otodom reported that average apartment rental prices in the capital in June were around 24-32% higher than in the same month last year. But some Polish landlords have recently started to veto Ukrainian tenants, fearing they will leave without notice, according to local estate agents. In some cases, “apartments are run down and tenants cannot be found,” said Milena Piotrowska, a Warsaw-based real estate agent.

Map showing Ukrainian refugees seeking safety in several countries – estimated number of registered refugees, source UNHCR

Others resent what they see as the preferential treatment given to Ukrainians. Queuing at a soup kitchen in central Warsaw that serves the homeless, Kamil Wasilowski, 38, said: “Ukrainians can come here whenever they want while we can’t go to their special dining rooms, they get apartments while we sleep on the streets, so of course that’s unfair.

Konstantin Kisieliov, a 46-year-old Ukrainian, has found a part-time job as a courier in Warsaw and lives with his wife and three children in an apartment provided free of charge by Poles. But he senses a change in attitude among his hosts as the situation drags on. “They haven’t told us to move out yet, but we’re afraid we will,” he said.

However, the government has highlighted the benefits for the country of hosting Ukrainians, many of whom are highly skilled. “The work of Ukrainians living in Poland can be a great added value for our economy,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a May interview with the Gazeta Polska newspaper.

Analysts also note that Poland’s far-right politicians, led by the Konfederacja party, have so far failed to stir up hostility or garner support over claims that refugees are prioritized over locals. . And Piotr Arak, director of the Polish Economic Institute, said Poles remain grateful to Ukrainians. “Compared to other Western Europeans, the Poles still know that the Ukrainians are really fighting our war,” he said.

Refugee fatigue was “absolutely normal because people are very tired after helping for many months,” said Maciej Duszczyk, a migration expert and professor at the University of Warsaw.

Despite the drop in support, Duszczyk stressed that Poland’s reception of refugees was unprecedented. He estimates that in the two weeks following the Russian invasion, 600,000 Polish households took in Ukrainians even before government subsidies were offered.

“I have looked at dozens of refugee crises around the world, and I sincerely believe that the Polish response should go down in the history books,” he said.

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