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A tale of two borders: Why Poland is dealing with Ukrainian and Belarusian refugees differently

The NATO member has been exemplary in handling Ukrainian refugees, and condemned for handling refugees at the Belarusian border.

Ukrainian woman gives flower to passing Polish motorist as a show of gratitude during rally
Ukrainian woman gives flower to passing Polish motorist as a show of gratitude during rally

About 130 miles west of the Ukrainian city of Lviv lies the Polish city of Lublin.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February of 2022, the approximately 350,000 citizens of Lublin saw their city transform into a critical transitory point for Ukrainians fleeing from the dangers back home.

“It was mostly women and children,” says Lidka, a Polish woman living in the farmland surrounding the city. “All men 18-65 had to men had to stay in Ukraine.”

Lidka hosted a Ukrainian family — a mother and her 22-year-old daughter — in her home earlier this year. “They actually went back to Ukraine recently,” Lidka added. “We stay in touch.”

Since they moved on, Lidka and her husband, Zbyś, have volunteered their home as a stopover for Ukrainians making their way westward.

“I pick them up in the city and take them back here for some home cooked food, a shower, and a place to sleep,” her husband, Zbyś, a taxi driver says. “They head toward Warsaw, usually on their way to family around Europe.”

The Polish people rally for Ukrainian refugees

Poland received international praise for the people’s mobilization in supporting the massive population influx with more than just lip service.

Millions of Polish citizens collected supplies including clothing, blankets, bottled water, toys and more for the displaced Ukrainians. The outpour of donations was so overwhelming that officials in the city of Krakow temporarily closed drop offs several times because the city’s warehouses had reached capacity. Hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens opened their homes to strangers, unsure of how long they would need to stay.

Car full of supply donations for Ukrainian refugee in Poland
Car full of supply donations for Ukrainian refugees in Poland

“The government streamlined border crossing procedures,” Zbyś says, “But really, the material support was coming directly from the people.”

About a month after the invasion, the Polish government set up a temporary program to financially support Polish households hosting Ukrainian refugees. The usually nationalist and far right-wing Polish government took a pro-Ukrainian refugee stance — if in part motivated by popular support. For two months, Polish citizens were paid a daily 40 zloty (approximately $8) stipend, per hosted person.

That program ended in July of 2022, but Polish civilians continue to willingly host Ukrainians.

“Young people in particular really stepped up,” Lidka says. “They were the ones organizing around this, and have been passionate about it. But some of the older people were a little hesitant. Poland and Ukraine have a bloody history that greatly affected their lives,” she adds.

Poland and Ukraine’s bitter past 

In the second half of World War II, as Nazi Germans began losing key battles, both Ukrainians and Polish were eager to take back their sovereignty. The agricultural regions of western Ukraine that share a border with modern-day Poland had mixed populations. The area had been through years of frequent border rearrangement, first by the Soviets, then by the Germans.

As the probability of the Third Reich’s defeat became increasingly certain, Ukrainian nationalist militias grew in ranks, often supported by Ukrainian villagers. Fears that the Polish would seek to claim the region in a borders redraw gained momentum among a Ukrainian nationalists group, known as the UPA.

Less than a week after the Nazis surrendered in Stalingrad in 1943, the UPA began sweeping Volhynia and Galicia, massacring Polish villagers. The campaign lasted nearly two years and claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 Poles. Though the Polish in the area launched a revenge campaign, their numbers had significantly dwindled between the German and Soviet occupations of the region. Retaliatory attacks resulted in the deaths of an estimated 12,000 Ukrainians.

“For some of the older people, it’s much more real than something they read in a book. The Polish youth are the ones doing the organizing and leading the support efforts, and for them, the history seems more distant than it really is,” Lidka says. “Of course, the Ukrainian people coming into Poland today are different people. No one can change the past — but maybe we can change the future.”

War and daily life marches on

At its peak, Poland accommodated over 3.3 million Ukrainians. Since then, many Ukrainians have returned home or continued into other countries. Poland remains the largest absorber of the Ukraine war-displaced people. One point four million refugees remain in Poland today.

Lidka and Zbyś say that overall, the Ukrainians in Lublin have integrated well. Many have found jobs and live among Polish civilians. As the school year began in September, nearly 200,000 Ukrainian students were enrolled in the country’s schools — well under the earlier projections of 700,000 from March.

The Ukrainians in Poland have not taken the Polish people’s altruism for granted. Hundreds of refugees organizeddemonstrations in Polish city squares bringing with them with signs, Polish flags, and small gifts of appreciation.

Ukrainians in Poland march holding a sign that reads "We thank you" in Polish
Ukrainians in Poland march holding a sign that reads “We thank you” in Polish.

The Polish people have set the bar of what it means to be allies and humanitarians. Despite their exemplary handling of the situation, they have come under fire for another refugee crisis. Even before the very first reports of the Russia’s attack on Ukraine made headlines, another refugee crisis had been brewing on the Belarusian border for over a year.

Poland’s other refugee crisis: Belarus

Poland has two neighbors along its eastern border: Ukraine to the south, and Belarus to the north.

For nearly a year, Syrian, Kurds, Afghani, and Iraqi refugees have been arriving along Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia’s border with Belarus. There, they have been living in tent camps under increasingly desperate conditions and mostly without aid.

“Our daughter-in-law lives near the forest,” Lidka says. “She’s told us that Polish people have tried to bring food and other supplies to the refugees but have been blocked by border guards.”

Relative to the Ukrainian border, the number of refugees as the Belarusian borders is significantly smaller — only a few thousand.

“It’s an ugly situation,” Zbyś says. “There’s kids out in that forest. Some people froze to death last winter. It’s a terrible, terrible thing. Last time we went to visit family near that border, border patrol checked our truck for people on our way home.”

According to news reports, Kremlin-backed Belarusian authorities have been actively transporting in people from war-torn regions to Minsk for “tours.” Upon their arrival, Belarusian officials then escort the refugees to its border with NATO countries where they are denied entry. Reportedly, Belarusian state travel agencies promised migrants that the E.U. would allow entry despite never clearing this with European authorities.

To make matters worse, once there, refugees are not allowed to return to Minsk. They are physically trapped between the two countries, blocked by armed guards in both countries.

“The problem in that situation is that if we do allow them in, [Belarusian president] Lukashenko will continue to fly them into Minsk,” Zbyś says. “This is a cruel political stunt to make Polish people look bad. In reality, Belarus is creating this situation on purpose.”

Lukashenko himself doesn’t deny this. “If they keep coming to my country, I won’t stop them,” he told BBC. “They aren’t coming to my country — they are coming to yours.”

In fall of last year, it was revealed that flights from the Middle East to Minsk had significantly increased. The European Union called on airlines operating in the region to block migrants from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen from boarding flights to Minsk.

On social media, footage of Belarusian authorities physically pushing migrants into barbed wire fences, and intimidating them to cross the border despite armed Polish guard watching closely.

“If we take them in, even more people will be brought up there for this reason,” Zbyś. “There really aren’t good options here.”

For the few refugees that have crossed into Poland, Polish activists have quickly aided them with supplies and shelter. Polish lawyers have filed for their asylum.

Still, Polish authorities instituted a ban on journalists getting within three kilometers of the Polish-Belarusian border in September of 2021. That order remained in effect through July of 2022 after Poland completed construction of a 116-mile-long barbed wire wall along the Belarusian border.

Author

  • Tanja Fijalkowski

    Tanja Fijalkowski is an award-winning writer, editor, and designer. A North Bay Area native, she has written for various financial, business, history, and science publications. She's a deep-dive researcher with a strong command of data analysis and simplifying complex concepts.

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