WARSAW — As migrants to Poland, Vasyl Setrin and Anna Setrina might have been expected to have a hard time. They knew nobody, spoke no Polish and had arrived in a country where the government would soon promise a firm crackdown on immigration. Instead, they were quickly made to feel right at home — along with the 2 million other Ukrainians who have resettled in the country in the last four years.
When it comes to the European refugee crisis, Polands ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has distinguished itself with fiery anti-migrant rhetoric. But when it comes to finding workers to take on the low-paying jobs Poles no longer want, the government has been quite happy to let in a historic influx of badly needed foreigners.
In 2017, the last year for which figures are available, Poland issued more visas to foreign workers than any other country in Europe. Eighty-five percent of them went to people from Ukraine — a predominantly white, Christian country — looking for work.
“This has been, as far as Im aware, the single biggest migration of people from one European country to another in such a short space of time in recent history,” said Daniel Tilles, an assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Kraków.
More than 680,000 foreigners received legal residency in Poland in 2017 alone, according to Eurostat. Nine out of 10 received work visas, rather than student or other residency permits. Many of those newcomers do unskilled work as replacements for Polish nationals, who are either rejecting lower-paid jobs after five years of falling unemployment in the booming country, or have migrated elsewhere in Europe, chasing higher salaries. A growing number also come to attend Polish universities.
“In Poland, if youre talented, you can succeed. In Ukraine, if you have no connections, its really hard” — Vasyl Setrin
Despite official warnings to stay away, foreigners have flocked to a booming economy. Most are Ukrainians, for whom the fact that Poland has a language and culture similar to their own is a bonus. Much smaller numbers of Belarussians, Moldavans, Indians, and Nepalis are also choosing to move to the country.
“In Poland, if youre talented, you can succeed,” said Vasyl Setrin. “In Ukraine, if you have no connections, its really hard.”
Vasyl said he first worked as a cook after arriving in 2013 in a dreary bistro in Warsaws Old Town. Anna, a trained nurse, found work as a nanny because Poland did not recognize her certification, she said.
Polands massive migration numbers, and the warm welcome Ukrainians have received, stands in marked opposition to the anti-migrant electoral campaign that helped bring PiS to power four years ago. The party crushed a coalition of opposition parties with 46 percent of the vote in last months European Parliament election, its strongest ever result. Stumping in 2015, PiS head and Polands de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, said that “refugees” would “bring in all kinds of parasites, which are not dangerous in their own countries, but which could prove dangerous for the local populations.”
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Polands ruling Law and Justice party | Jakub Kaminski/EPA
Many Polish media outlets, some connected to PiS, also took a harsh anti-migrant line. In 2016, even as Ukrainian migration was roaring, right-wing magazine wSieci featured an infamous story headlined “The Islamic Rape of Europe,” with a cover image showing brown hands gripping a white woman dressed in an EU flag.
Hardly any Muslim refugees, including those fleeing wars in Syria and Yemen, have been resettled in Poland. The Ukrainians migrating to Poland are white Christians.
Migrants in Warsaw, refugees in Brussels
PiS has at times drawn attention to Polands surprisingly high migration tally. In 2016, with European governments scrambling for responses to the then-mounting refugee crisis in Greece and Italy, then PiS Prime Minister Beata Szydło claimed Poland could not do more to help, having already done its part by welcoming 1 million Ukrainians.
At the time, Ukraines Ambassador to Poland Andriy Deshchytsia rejected the claim, arguing that Ukrainians living in Poland are primarily jobseekers who had not applied for refugee status and did not qualify for refugee-related assistance programs.
“What theyre saying by omission is that We want to admit Ukrainians rather than take people from the Middle East, who the EU is trying to force us to take,” said Ben Stanley, an associate professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw (SWPS).
Though identified as jobseekers, not refugees, Ukraines own political difficulties played an undeniable role in the surge of newcomers. Statistical spikes in Ukrainian migration to Poland appear in parallel with the Euromaidan protests, the 2014 revolution and the war in the eastern region of Donbas. Ukraines GDP fell by half between 2013 and 2015, and inflation hovered near 48 percent. Meanwhile, Poland was booming.
The ongoing war in Ukraine has driven many people toward Poland | Anatolii Boiko/AFP via Getty Images
“After the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian currency fell,” said Ihor Babenko, a construction worker in Warsaw who came to Poland from the city of Pervomaisk, Ukraine, where hed worked in his familys shop. “People stopped coming to buy stuff. Everything became more and more expensive.”
Fewer than 400 Ukrainians were granted asylum status in Poland between 2015 and 2017, according to Eurostat, instead opting for work visas, which were easier to get. Joblessness has fallen in Poland every year since 2014, leaving unskilled jobs vacant as Poles climb the employment ladder. Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of Poles have left to work in other EU countries, especially the U.K. Unsurprisingly, the pace of Ukrainian migration to Poland tracks closely with Polands economy catching fire.
According to Stanley of SWPS University, the PiS-led government knows Polands economy needs immigrant labor, even if it wont readily admit it. “They know they will need to bring in immigrants if Poland is to maintain the economic growth its been achieving over the last few years,” he said.