Wiktor Babinski: The response of Polish civil society to the tragedy being visited upon Ukrainians has outmatched the most optimistic predictions. Individuals and civil society, however, can only take us so far with a challenge of this magnitude. What key actions must the state now adopt, to sustain Poland’s initial success?
Piotr Trabinski: Indeed, the Poles’ unequivocally opening up of their hearts, minds, and homes to all Ukrainians fleeing the unprovoked war has been inspiring. The response probably surprised the Poles themselves, but I think it has reiterated an enduring Polish support to timeless principles of independence, solidarity, freedom, and the self-determination of nations.
Now that the first wave of refugees has settled in Poland, the authorities should turn their focus from short-term to medium-term support mechanisms for Ukrainian families staying in the country—enacting policies that would allow a sustained accommodation of the needs of everyday life. Given that a substantial part of the refugees consists of women and children, providing medical and educational services should remain the top priority of the Polish government.
But these needs must be considered simultaneously with other policy areas made urgent by this crisis. Among them are a proper adoption of sanctions against Belarus and Russia, diversification of energy resources, a possible scale up of food production for increased global needs, and the diversification of trade away from rogue actors.
WB: What are the greatest challenges that Poland faces in managing nearly 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees?
PT: First is the fiscal cost of accommodating Ukrainian mothers and children. These people need access to basic social services such as healthcare and education, while those who can work need access to jobs. While labor market access is less of a problem, since Ukrainian workers have been present in Poland for nearly a decade, the provision of proper health care and education services requires significant government spending. That includes a scale up of infrastructure, as well as the hiring of high-quality healthcare providers and teachers, not to mention the time needed to properly introduce necessary measures. The provision of temporary housing is also important, given that the Polish real estate market is already in a squeeze.
WB: Poland, partly by choice, did not face a sudden, large influx of refugees that befell some other EU countries during the 2015 migration crisis, and hence could not use that opportunity to develop know-how. Do you think this lack of experience hurt the Polish response efforts?
PT: I don’t think Poland lost an opportunity to learn from that missed experience. We need to remember that simultaneously with the EU dealing with the refugee crisis, Poland did open to very significant migration from its Eastern neighbors, including Belarus, Ukraine, and some Asian countries. Although the people coming to Poland were not strictly refugees, but rather economic immigrants, this movement of people allowed the Polish administration to gain some understanding and experience of working with migrants in general.
But no amount of experience could possibly be enough to prepare any country for an influx of 2 million refugees in one month. This was a shock. As such, it was handled well, due to a concerted effort of Polish society and administration.
WB: A paradox brought up in international media contrasts Polish society’s rather frosty reaction to mass migration from the Middle East in 2015 and 2021 to the truly amazing outpouring of support to Ukrainian refugees now. How can this be explained?
PT: First, it is important to understand that Poland has been traditionally an open society, where for centuries different ethnic, religious, and language groups lived peacefully under one roof. Being a Pole wasn’t at that time associated with belonging to any group, but with values commonly shared among those who would decide to live in Poland. Openness in Poland was thus always associated with a free choice of those who would migrate to Poland, but also with responsibilities taken by the migrants upon settling in Poland (such as responsibility for defending the country, or for living harmoniously with others). It is with this spirit that Poles look at migrants, and also because Poland has a long story of outflow migration and Poles do understand instinctively what it means to be a migrant. At the same time, Polish society is against any forced migration, such as the one pushed by Belarus, or centrally decided regional mechanisms that support forced migration without even checking where migrants would like to live, which was the case in 2015.
Nevertheless, it is true that, broadly speaking, the plight of Ukrainians attracts more public support in Poland than other crises. This is not hypocritical: The Ukrainians are our neighbors. They look and speak similarly; they are fighting for the same aspirations that us Poles managed to realize at the turn of this century; we share a thousand years of history and a common security threat. Of course the Ukrainian cause will attract a unique level of support in Poland.
The focus ought rather to be on how to catalyze and maintain that momentum, because upon it rests two very real and tangible stakes—the wellbeing of millions of Ukrainian civilians and a fundamental policy question for the West.
WB: What should be the role of Poland’s partners and allies in managing this crisis? Should Warsaw call for a partial organized redistribution of refugees, request indirect assistance, or perhaps a measure of both?
PT: The current situation calls for a coordinated strategy to align needs with available help. It is heartwarming to see all the help that is coming to Poland or through Poland to Ukrainian citizens. However, private and public organizations from abroad often have no clue about what is really needed. There’s a waste of products that otherwise could have been better allocated.
At this moment, the primary challenge is financial support. The administrations of respective host countries, including Poland, can most effectively distribute it. Therefore, any international support from foreign governments, non‑governmental organizations, or international institutions should be coordinated with the authorities of those countries hosting our Ukrainians friends.
WB: Considering the medium and long-term perspective, the hundreds of thousands of people that choose to stay in Poland for the foreseeable future will require much more than temporary housing. What challenges and opportunities does this raise for the Polish economy?
PT: We have already described longer-term challenges: Providing education for children whose families remain would be the most pressing long-term challenge and probably the costliest one in terms of infrastructure and financial support for the most vulnerable families.
There are, however, many opportunities for Poland, stemming from both the migration influx as well as from the current geopolitical situation. The Polish economy needs foreign workers in order to maintain its high growth pace. This need stems from the rapidly ageing Polish society. Ukrainians that remain and work in Poland would be more than welcome, given the cultural, linguistic, and historical proximity of both nations. Poles can learn much from Ukrainians and vice versa.
More broadly, the Russian aggression on Ukraine will likely create global food shortages among other negative spillovers such as high energy prices, trade disruptions, and inflation. Poland could relatively easily scale up its food production and tap into the global food supply chains, benefiting from increased food prices.
WB: Once this war ends and a measure of stability returns to Ukraine, a massive rebuilding effort will be needed that is likely to bring Ukraine closer to its Western neighbors. Is there any unique place for the Ukrainians now staying in Poland to become involved in this future effort?
PT: I cannot imagine any reconstruction effort being carried out without the active participation of the Ukrainian people, including those who temporarily fled seeking safety. It will be their major generational experience, but one in which I hope Poland and other countries from Central Europe can significantly help. Already there exist some international mechanisms, such as the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund, that could play a major role in facilitating reconstruction efforts in cooperation with Ukraine’s closest Western neighbors.
Piotr Trabinski is an executive director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). All views expressed in this interview are his alone. They do not represent the views of the IMF, its staff, or the IMF executive board.
Wiktor Babinski is a graduate student in history at Yale University and researcher at the Hoover Institution.
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