Some 1.5 million refugees—more than five times the population of Haifa—have reached Poland over the last two weeks via its border with war-torn Ukraine. Ukrainians, Israelis, Indians, Americans, Nigerians and nationals of more than 160 other countries have crossed the border to Poland and been told, “You’re safe now.”
Since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, approximately 100,000 people have entered Poland daily, escaping bombs, ruined houses, wrecked hospitals, fear, famine and freezing cold. One and a half million human tragedies, fleeing the horrors of war.
Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has triggered a humanitarian crisis unseen in Europe since World War II. More than 2.5 million people had fled Ukraine as of March 11. The forecasts say the number of refugees could quickly reach 5 million, and even higher numbers are not unlikely. Some will continue on to other destinations, mostly in Europe. More than half have remained in Poland so far, and in all likelihood will stay for a long time.
A quick and adequate response to humanitarian disaster on this scale requires efficient coordination and logistics, long-term vision and a systemic approach to providing assistance.
From the very first day of this unparalleled crisis, Poland has been demonstrating great solidarity and providing immense humanitarian assistance to its neighbor. The Polish government, which had been preparing for various scenarios, set up temporary reception centers and assigned an agency to coordinate the delivery of the aid flowing into Poland, some from international donors, to Ukrainian territory. Every day, 100 trucks full of aid have entered Ukraine from Poland. Nearly 8,000 tons of humanitarian assistance have been delivered to Ukraine thus far.
The flood of aid had to be streamlined through a dedicated hub close to the border to reduce the number of parties in contact with already-strained Ukrainian authorities. The aid Israel is sending to Ukraine through Poland, too, has also been delivered in close coordination with official Polish entities.
Countless grassroots goodwill initiatives have sprung up across Poland. The Poles have opened their homes to host people they do not know. The railway has offered refugees free travel. Telecom companies have offered them free phone calls and internet service. Newspapers and internet portals have started publishing news and guidance in Ukrainian. Dedicated radio stations have been launched by broadcasters near the border to spread up-to-date practical advice in Ukrainian. Hoteliers, small and large entrepreneurs from the tourist industry, as well as municipalities, NGOs and local volunteer-based civil society are providing shelter and feeding those in need.
According to a recent poll, some 75% of Poles have already engaged in some form of aid to refugees from Ukraine. To encourage such endeavors, the Polish government is introducing stipends for people who host refugees. Measures undertaken and coordinated by the government and grassroots efforts combined with the actions of the Ukrainian diaspora already present in Poland have so far averted a need for refugee camps.
Obviously, in such a crisis, a society’s generosity and massive mobilization can only be complementary to long-term solutions at the state level. That is why Polish authorities have just adopted special legislation giving Ukrainian refugees the right to work and access social services and benefits, under the same conditions as citizens of Poland. Children who recently fled from Ukraine are already attending school in Poland. Universities are admitting students unable to continue their studies at home. Healthcare coverage and family benefits have been extended to Ukrainian refugees, as well.
Poland is struggling to see that nobody fleeing Ukraine is left behind, and encourages international partners to match our efforts.
You might ask, what has made Poland the champion of the Ukrainian refugees’ cause? The answer is that the memory of the atrocities of World War II and the suffering of the civilian population is still alive in Poland.
Eighty years after the war, we know what it means to lose everybody and everything in a single day. We know what it means to have to flee your home and wander the world for years, searching for refuge. We also remember the asylum and assistance extended to the Polish people in the early 1980s when the harsh measures of martial law were introduced by the then-Communist authorities of Poland, with the blessing of Soviet Moscow, to suppress the massive “Solidarity” movement that dared to oppose the communist regime. Solidarity is the brand of Poland.
Agata Czaplińska is acting ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Israel.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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