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.