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.
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."
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.”
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.