The changing situation of migrants and refugees as a result of “freezing the Polish economy”

12 June 2020

Katarzyna Kubińska (Ocalenie Foundation)

The situation of non-EU migrants in Poland has been affected in different ways through COVID-19 epidemic. Migrants working in the service sector face unemployment, there is limited access to public social assistance (access varies depending on their legal status of the migrant) and also delays in access to legal support have impact on the living conditions of migrants.  

Economic challenges

It is estimated that there are about 1 million migrants in Poland. Most of them are labour force from Ukraine, but there was also a growing number of Belarusians, Moldovans, Georgians, Indians, and Nepalese. In mid-March, the Polish government ordered the closure of all sales and services outlets, except for pharmacies and grocery stores. As a result, thousands of migrants lost their work and the right to social assistance. About 150,000 Ukrainians left Poland in March, which is about 10% of the entire Ukrainian community in Poland. There is no data on how many of them lived in Warsaw. It is also difficult to estimate how many people of other nationalities have left. For many of them leaving for their home countries became impossible due to the suspension of international flights.

One of the examples can be found in the Georgian community. Many Georgians came to Poland on the basis of visa-free travel and, after their period of legal stay expired, they could not legalise their stay and had to work without a work permit. Many people in this situation were employed in Georgian restaurants, popular in Poland. After the economy “froze”, many of them were dismissed immediately, sometimes without getting paid and without any legal basis to claim their rights. Their return to Georgia was not always possible. The Georgian government organised a return plane, but it turned out that the number of seats was insufficient for all interested and the prices exceeded the financial capabilities of those in crisis.

Difficult situation of asylum-seekers

Asylum-seekers who decide to live outside foreigners’ centres receive financial aid, but the money is not enough to cover the cost of living in Warsaw (the aid is less than an average monthly cost of renting a single room). Asylum-seekers have the right to apply for a work permit after 6 months from their application (unless they receive the decision earlier), and most of them find at least part-time employment. When this group of foreigners lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, the Foreigners’ Office suggested they should return to the centres. However, the centre where the Warsaw based asylum-seeker could return to is several hundred kilometres away from their current location. Asylum-seeker families in Warsaw do not want to return to these centres, because their children would have to change school. In addition, after restrictions are lifted, these families would like to return to Warsaw. Moving back to a centre would mean looking for a flat, work, and school in Warsaw again. The Ocalenie Foundation has stepped in to support migrants through food aid, 391 people in Warsaw with food coupons or food.  

Łomża: Urban area within a shrinking region

The situation of migrants living in Łomża, which is situated in a shrinking region in North-East Poland, is different and to some extent better. Almost all clients of the Ocalenie Foundation are refugees (about 60 families). Only few have lost their right to social assistance for various reasons. As Łomża does not have such a well-developed service sector, which was most affected by the lockdown, people did not lose their jobs as was the case in Warsaw. Migrants working in Łomża usually work in the construction and transport sectors, which have suffered less from the freezing of the economy. Due to the fact that the cost of living in Łomża is much lower, loss of jobs or reduced income have not led to such extreme situations as in Warsaw. The only families who have found themselves in a critical situation are those who have lost their right to social benefits and work due to protracted procedures, delayed court cases or other legal causes.

Poor legal support for refugees

Already before the lockdown, legal assistance to deportees was restricted by physical and administrative barriers and those marked as deportee were taken to an airport or locked in a guarded centre without prior notice. Contact with a lawyer was impeded. Now, the situation has become even more difficult, because the restrictions on contact with a lawyer are explained through epidemiological regulations. The legal situation of people who before the epidemic applied for the extension of their residence card has also become complicated, as border guards in charge of the applications decided that there are reasons to refuse further residence. Their cases must be considered by a court, and from mid-March courts proceed at a slower pace and postpone many cases. This means that some refugees live in a legal vacuum. Their stay permits in Poland are no longer valid, they have lost ability to take up legal work, and they fear deportation.

COVID-19 and the situation of migrants in Poland: Challenges in home schooling and the work situation

By Ewa Jastrzębska and Paulina Legutko-Kobus (SGH Warsaw School of Economics)

In his position dated 13 May 2020, the Commissioner for Human Rights stressed that the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects did do not affect everyone equally. Regularly excluded persons and groups, including refugees and immigrants, are particularly exposed to the consequences of pandemic-related restrictions, such as closed borders and the inability to apply for international protection. In the case of Poland, we see challenges for migrants in home schooling and in the work situation.

One of the areas of exclusion of foreigners, especially children, is home (remote) schooling (which started in Poland on 25 March). Access to home schooling is hindered for children staying in foreigner centers, guarded facilities and those applying for international protection. The main challenge, especially shortly after switching to distance learning, was the lack of computer hardware and equipment for video and audio communication with the teacher. The situation has improved over time owing to citizens’ campaigns and not as a result of systemic solutions. The pandemic has also prevented a significant number of foreign children from participating in extra Polish language classes provided for in the relevant regulations (this is partly managed by cultural assistants, most often volunteers from community or civil society organisations). The deepening of the educational gap among foreign children is also attributed to the lack of or inadequate support from their parents in home schooling. The possible reasons are:

1) the lack of ICT skills and competences (moreover, online communication tools provided by teachers are only in Polish),

2) language barrier: parents do not speak Polish well enough to support their children’s remote education. Parents’ digital exclusion and insufficient conduct of the Polish language also translate into the lack of communication with teachers.

Another challenging area for migrants during the pandemic is the situation on the labour market (especially since many of them operate in the shadow economy, and obtaining work permits during the pandemic is much more difficult).

In March, at the beginning of the pandemic, when the government announced the freezing of the economy and the sealing of state borders, migrants, especially Ukrainians working in Poland, started to leave the country in great numbers. Reasons for leaving Poland were the loss of a job, uncertain future, and vague and unclear communication and information from the government (including the lack of information in languages other than Polish at the beginning of the lock down) coinciding with unclear government messages from Kiev.

It is common property that the “defrosting” of the economy without migrants returning will not go smoothly (about 90% of Ukrainians who left Poland after the lockdown work in catering, services, and the hospitality industry). This is already evident in the agricultural sector which is lacking workforce. For this reason, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Chief Sanitary Inspector issued Guidelines for Agricultural Producers Employing Foreigners for Seasonal Work in the Face of SARS COV-2 (Warsaw, 8 May 2020).

Entrepreneurs are encouraged to get acquainted with the document by the IRIS Ethical Recruitment, COVID-19: Guidance for employers and business to enhance migrant worker protection during the current health crisis. The Responsible Business Forum, a renowned organisation promoting the subject of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), has also drawn up guidelines on how business can support employees from Ukraine.

In a sociological study conducted on 9-15 April, foreign employees, who stayed in Poland for the period of the pandemic, clearly respond (85% of respondents) that they prefer to stay in Poland because of their earnings and work opportunities. 26.6% of them admit that they were forced to change their sector of employment because of the pandemic. The surveyed foreigners feel safer in Poland than in their own country (72.5%) and, just like Poles, they are mostly concerned about losing their job due to the COVID-19 pandemic (57.8%).

In conclusion, the situation in the country is dynamic and it is worth waiting for further government decisions regarding restrictions on mobility, especially considering the important role of foreigners (e.g., from Ukraine) for the domestic labour market.