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The biggest group of migrants in Poland comes from Ukraine. Due to its geographical closeness to Poland and the language that is much related, it seems to be easy for Ukrainians to integrate. Social isolation, problems with the status of residence and other difficulties occur as well, though.

Waiting inside the bus on the Polish-Ukrainian border requires patience. Nobody really knows for sure how long people will have to wait…It is not uncommon to wait for eight to ten hours even. The travelers don´t get any excuse for the long waiting periods. Without any information, you just have to wait inside the bus like an uninvited guest. In quite a harsh manner, the Polish border control demand the Ukrainians to show the papers necessary for immigration. A fellow traveler asking the other travelers whether or not this condescending way of being treated is common will receive sarcastic reactions. They have gotten used to it.

It is hard to tell how many Ukrainians really live in Poland. As a lot of them use to commute between both countries, many work in one country for several months and then in another one for several months, but are only employed in Poland as seasonal laborers. Their visas oftentimes are only granted for a limited period of time. In 2015, Polish consulates in the Ukraine granted 900.000 temporary visas. Out of which working visas make up 63% and study visas 19%. In total, 65.000 Ukrainians have the right for permanent residency. The rush is higher than ever and the tendency is rising. In 2015 alone, 23.000 more permanent residence permits have been added to that. That makes it 65.000 Ukrainians in total with a permanent residence permit.

There are two important milestones for migration from Ukraine to Poland. In 2004, Poland joined the EU and Poland could reduce its high unemployment rate by losing many Poles heading west. The country experienced economic growth, only to be slightly hindered by the financial crisis. More and more jobs for Ukrainians started opening up. By overthrowing Janukowitsch, the annexation of Krim by Russia and the military operation against the separatists in Donezk and Luhansk, Ukraine fell into a deep economic crisis which forced people to emigration. A law has been passed that will facilitate the prolonging of Ukrainian visa after May 1st, 2015.

Ukrainians Support each Other

Visiting a Ukrainian community center. During the course of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, many Ukrainians living abroad have been politicized as well. While protestors at the Maidan in Kiev demonstrated against election fraud and successfully fought for new elections, a Ukrainian citizen called Myroslava Keryk living in Warsaw started to campaign for the issues of the Ukrainian community in the Polish capital. Out of her dedication grew the Nasz Wybór Foundation (English: Our choice; Ukrainian: Фонд «Наш Вибір») in 2009, with Myroslava Keryk as its chairwoman. She is the head of the House of Ukraine in the center of Warsaw. The house serves as a meeting place for the Ukrainian community in Warsaw. The center serves the purpose of simplifying the community’s contact with Poles. Since January, the Centrum Pomocy Cudzoziemcom (English: “Center for the support of foreigners”) can also be found there. The center offers psychological, legal and general help for migrants. Most of all, Ukrainian migrants receive help there with prolonging their residence permits. Bureaucracy leads to psychological stress for many. “Every single Ukrainian has his or her problems with the immigration office”, someone tells us in a conversation. This stress does not only affect basic cleaning workers or night guards, but also academics.

Nasz Wybór hosts many projects: There has been a meeting point for Ukrainian women for two years, the “klub Ukraińskich Kobiet”. Mostly Ukrainian women who work in underpaid and hard labor jobs mostly lack the opportunity to build a network of friends in Warsaw without any support. The women’s meeting point is there to foster mutual exchange of experiences and mediation of support. The elders teach cooking the younger ones. The younger ones help with handling computers and with writing CVs. Another offer are Polish classes divided in four groups of 10 people each. Presentations and debates are held every Sunday at 1pm, when people use to come back from the Greek Catholic mass. Historians, sociologists and journalists are invited to those events that are held in Polish, Ukrainian or Russian. Every Saturday, about 10 – 20 Ukrainian children meet for three hours at the Children’s Club “Glove”. Also, a newspaper is published in Ukrainian. It mostly addresses older Ukrainians who oftentimes do not use the internet. This NGO mostly connects families and retirees.

Students and young workers prefer to be involved in another organization: Euromaidan-Warszawa. In total, Nasz Wybór employs a staff of ten people. The employments are temporary and bound to certain projects being supported by EU grants. In November 2015, our interview partners did not feel the change in government at their jobs yet. What makes them worry though are the xenophobic rhetorics by the PiS-government and the opinions of Tadeusz Rydzyk, head of the most influential radio station Radio Maryja. They are concerned whether or not there will be enough money for their projects in the future.


The group Euromaidan-Warszawa was found in 2013. When Ukrainian students were beaten up brutally by the militia in Kiev in November 2013, Ukrainians united to protest in front of the Ukrainian embassy. As the only Maidan outside of the Ukraine, the protests went on all winter continuously. Natalia Panchenko, one of the activists of Euromaidan-Warszawa, tells us about it.

The Euromaidan was a turning point for the Polish-Ukrainian relations. Ukrainians often report that the Poles reacted quite positively on it. They were interested in the situation in their neighbor country and took part in the demonstrations and supported it generously – not only in Warsaw, but also in Poznań or Gdańsk. Also the political leaders reacted in a supporting way. A number of Sejm representatives used to visit the demonstrations held by Euromaidan-Warszawa on a regular basis. The dedication crossed party lines: From the right Conservative representative of the PiS, Małgorzata Gosiewska, who handed out Polish bigos on the Maidan of Kiev out of solidarity, the spectrum of engagement went to the Social Democrat and former president Aleksander Kwaśniewski.

Graffito in Kiev, Author: Lukas Latz ©

Graffito in Kiev, Author: Lukas Latz ©

According to Natalia, this interest is declining now clearly, because the media does not report as much about the situation in the Ukraine anymore. “As if everything was alright yet”. It seems to also be true though, that this help is not as needed as it used to be anymore. Two years after the war, the state can handle the most urgent challenges itself. When the anti-terror-organization in Donbass and Luhansk started out, the soldiers and volunteer fighters encountered a catastrophic shortage of supply. They adressed Warsaw directly to seek support. Thanks to donations, the Warsaw department of Euromaidan was able to buy bulletproof vests, helmets and hemostatic drugs for 1 Million Złoty (about 0,25 Million Euro). 80 Tons of socks, bed linen have been sent to the East as well, says Panchenko one of the activists of Euromaidan-Warszawa.

“Euromaidan-Warszawa”, other than “Nasz Wybór” does not have any financial support and employees. All of their work is based on young Ukrainian volunteers. No money means fewer problems. There are no reasons to argue. Nonetheless, Euromaidan works closely with the foundation „Otwarty Dialog“ (English: open dialogue), in which Natalia is engaged actually. They have been contacted by this very foundation during the protests. This made it possible to get a big apartment house for the NGO right in the center of Warsaw.

Euromaidan, as opposed to Nasz Wybór, deals less with the issues of migrants. They are looking more in the other directions. They want to raise awareness for the Ukraine in Poland, attract support for their homeland by foreign countries and stand up for good Polish-Ukrainian relations. They organize political discussions with political scientists, journalists and high officials. When we met Natalia in March, they have just stood up for the release of Nadiya Savchenko. The Ukrainian military pilot who was held in custody in Russia until May 2016 and was then released in a prisoners’ exchange. During the Euromaidan, one main demand by the group was to exchange the Ukrainian ambassador on point. The newly established government coming to power after the escape of Yanukovych met this demand in the end.

One Million Refugees

The attitude of the Polish government towards the Ukrainians is ambiguous. On the one hand, the Ukrainians are not addressed by the xenophobic rhetorics. These rhetorics are mostly directed towards Arab Muslims. At a speech in the European Parliament in January 2016, Beata Szydło mentioned that Poland took one million refugees from Ukraine. This upset a lot of Ukrainians. The Ukrainian ambassador protested against that statement. After all, almost all Ukrainians in Poland are not offered asylum. They have a working visa. Many people fleeing Donbass and the Luhansk region to Poland did actually seek for asylum. According to a report by the Polish-Ukrainian chamber of commerce, only two Ukrainians are offered asylum right now, 23 more are receiving subsidiary protection and about 200 Ukrainians have a residence permit for humanitarian reasons. Refugees from Luhansk and Donetsk are rejected with the justification that most parts of Ukraine are supposed to be safe enough.

Working in Poland is still particularly attractive for Ukrainians. It is close to their homeland. The fact, the languages are related can make it considerably easy to be integrated. Natalia also feels that the Polish population is prone to distrust towards migrants. She is not recognizable as a migrant on the streets herself, but through her political engagement, she experienced hostility on the internet. However, she feels comfortable in the country: “Poland is the country, where I feel at home the most”, she tells us. Also, the hassles at the border when she travels back home, will not change that.

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Embroidery on a Ukrainian dress, Author: All Eminov, CC BY-NC 2.0, source:

Lukas Latz, holds a bachelor degree in Comparative Literature and Philosophy. He currently studies Eastern European Studies at Free University Berlin and works as a free-lance journalist mainly for the weekly newspaper „Der Freitag“. He passed an Erasmus year at University of Warsaw.

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