Poland feels the strain of Ukrainian refugee crisis

·7 min read

Of the estimated 3 million Ukrainian refugees to have fled from Russia’s invasion of their homeland, nearly 2 million have sought safety in Poland.

The massive surge of people has created a challenge for all the countries housing them, but none more so than Poland, which has received about 60% of the arrivals.

“If you ask me whether there is a strain already, yes, there is, absolutely,” Rafal Kostrzynski, spokesperson for the U.N. Refugee Agency in Poland, told Yahoo News.

“It's a huge humanitarian burden, but also in terms of assistance needed, in terms of protection. This is a very challenging situation,” he added.

People who fled the war in Ukraine walk toward a humanitarian train in Krakow, Poland, that will relocate refugees to Berlin.
People who fled the war in Ukraine walk toward a humanitarian train in Krakow, Poland, that will relocate refugees to Berlin. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

The sudden influx of refugees, which is almost twice what authorities had said they anticipated, has increased Poland’s population by about 5% in less than a month. All those people require immediate housing, food, clothes, medicine and much more. Long term, they will need access to jobs, health care and schools.

There has been an outpouring of support across Poland, which shares deep cultural and historical ties with Ukraine. Vast swaths of Polish society have rallied to do what they can for the refugees, bringing many of them into their homes. But with Russian bombs continuing to rain down on Ukrainian cities, causing untold suffering on the civilians within them, the wave of refugees is sure to continue.

Meanwhile, the burden of organizing and providing assistance has fallen for the most part on local municipalities, nonprofits and thousands of local volunteers, Kostrzynski said.

“A more sustainable approach, a multisectoral approach, is definitely needed now, because you cannot put such a huge burden just on local authorities and local governments, because they simply are not prepared to deal with such big problems. They don't have the required capacity,” Kostrzynski said.

The United Nations has described the Ukrainian refugee emergency as “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.” Kostrzynski said the number of arrivals has decreased in recent days to slightly less than 100,000 people a day, compared with the 150,000 who were arriving daily in the first two weeks of the exodus. However, he said, that number could increase again as the fighting intensifies. Helping this many refugees with limited resources is “energy-draining,” and “fatigue syndrome” has started to kick in.

Kostrzynski recently visited one of the reception centers close to Medyka, the busiest border crossing between Poland and Ukraine. He said that in the first days of the conflict, many local Poles were delivering some kind of basic humanitarian aid such as food, medicine and hygiene products there. But when he visited recently, that was no longer the case.

“As far as the local population is concerned, there was almost nobody. There were, of course, volunteers, visibly tired and exhausted, but without any substantial support from other actors,” he said.

With thousands crossing every day, aid is now stretched to its limits. Other border crossings, such as Korczowa, he said, have begun to see a shortage of certain medications: "They have a lot of paracetamol for headaches, but they don't, for instance, have eye drops or other stuff that is fairly needed. But simply none is available."

People fleeing Ukraine register for a bus that will take them to Germany at the train station in Przemysl, Poland.
People fleeing Ukraine register for a bus that will take them to Germany at the train station in Przemysl, Poland. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Jakub Rybicki is a Polish dance instructor who lives in Tomaszów Mazowiecki, a small city in central Poland. A day after Russia launched its full-scale invasion last month, Rybicki decided to drive more than 200 miles to the Polish-Ukrainian border to help.

“I saw crowds of people scared for their lives, looking for help. I wanted to help out as many people as I could, so I fit six people in my car. This included four adults and two children. Then we drove the entire 248 miles back to my house,” he said.

Since then, with the help of friends and other volunteers, Rybicki has been raising money via social media to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland, as well as to send much-needed medical aid to Ukraine. So far, his team has managed to help approximately 1,000 refugees find accommodations.

“We've rented out six flats and are planning to rent another 20. We help people find jobs and try to make them feel as welcome as possible,” Rybicki said. “For the last two weeks there hasn't been a single moment when my house was not shared with Ukrainian war refugees. Currently there are 10 people staying with me.”

efugees from Ukraine rest in the main train station in Krakow, as they wait to be relocated to other temporary accommodations in Poland or abroad.
Refugees from Ukraine rest in the main train station in Krakow as they wait to be relocated to other temporary accommodations in Poland or abroad. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)

Rybicki said he is passionate about helping these refugees, and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. But he said the situation is unsustainable in the long term, and it has started to take a toll on him. “Sometimes it's very difficult for me to manage everything on my own. I also don't really sleep,” he said.

Housing the refugees, Rybicki said, has now become the biggest challenge, as his city is running out of places to accommodate them. “We spend hours just searching for available flats or hotel rooms, and this is just our small city in central Poland. The situation is significantly worse in the biggest cities and cities near the border,” he said.

Some of that help is on the way from the U.S., EU and elsewhere. But more international help is needed, and soon — either in the form of humanitarian assistance or the housing of hundreds of thousands of refugees — to alleviate the burden on Ukraine’s neighbors like Poland.

“People are arriving at a rate we couldn't have been prepared for. Soon we will desperately need more help from other European countries, especially our neighbors,” Rybicki said.

A Ukrainian refugee and her small child arrive in Przemysl, Poland.
Ukrainian refugees arrive in Przemysl, Poland. (Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Refugees stand in line in the cold as they wait to be transferred to a train station after crossing the Ukrainian border into Poland.
Refugees stand in line in the cold as they wait to be transferred to a train station after crossing the Ukrainian border into Poland. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)
Refugees arriving from Ukraine embrace at the border crossing in Medyka, in eastern Poland.
Refugees arriving from Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, in eastern Poland. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)
A young girl named Helena and her brother Bodia, from Lviv, are seen with their belongings at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in eastern Poland.
A girl named Helena and her brother Bodia, from Lviv, at the Medyka border crossing. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian refugees crowd aboard a train that will take them into Polish territory to flee the war.
Ukrainian refugees board a train that will take them into Polish territory to flee the war. (Hector Adolfo Quintanar Perez/ZumaPress Wire)
People who fled the war in Ukraine rest on cots inside an indoor sports stadium being used as a refugee center in the village of Medyka, a border crossing between Poland and Ukraine.
People who fled the war in Ukraine rest inside an indoor sports stadium being used as a refugee center in the border village of Medyka. (Petros Giannakouris/AP)
A woman puts her head in her hands as she sits on a cot in a shelter, set up for displaced persons fleeing Ukraine, inside a school gymnasium in Przemysl, Poland.
A woman in a shelter set up for displaced persons fleeing Ukraine, inside a school gymnasium in Przemysl, Poland. (Markus Schreiber/AP)
Refugees from Ukraine crowd together at a reception point in a sports hall in Wroclaw, Poland.
Refugees from Ukraine at a reception point in a sports hall in Wroclaw, Poland. (Krzysztof Kaniewski/Zuma Press Wire)
Local volunteers sort packages of children's diapers at a gymnasium that has been turned into a warehouse for donations to help arriving Ukrainian refugees in Przemysl, Poland.
Volunteers sort packages of children's diapers at a gymnasium that has been turned into a warehouse for donations to help Ukrainian refugees in Przemysl, Poland. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A little girl holds her baby sibling in a temporary shelter for Ukrainian refugees in a school in Przemysl, near the Ukrainian-Polish border.
A girl holds her baby sibling in a temporary shelter for Ukrainian refugees in a school in Przemysl, near the Ukrainian-Polish border. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)
A girl, a refugee from the Ukrainian war, exhaustedly holds her head in her hands in the Medika refugee camp, Poland. (
A refugee from the Ukrainian war in the Medyka refugee camp in Poland. (Hector Adolfo Quintanar Perez/Zuma Press Wire)
A soldier serves soup to a Ukrainian woman in the building of the main railway station of Przemysl, which has been turned into a temporary reception center for refugees from Ukraine fleeing the conflict in their country, in eastern Poland.
A soldier serves soup to a Ukrainian woman in the main railway station of Przemysl in eastern Poland, which has been turned into a temporary reception center for refugees. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)
People who fled the war in Ukraine rest inside a temporary refugee shelter that was an abandoned Tesco supermarket in Przemysl, Poland, after being transported from the Polish-Ukrainian border.
People who fled the war in Ukraine at a temporary refugee shelter that was an abandoned Tesco supermarket in Przemysl, Poland. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)
People who fled the war in Ukraine rest inside a temporary refugee shelter that was once a Tesco supermarket in Przemysl, Poland.
People who fled the war in Ukraine at a refugee shelter that was once a Tesco supermarket in Przemysl, Poland. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

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