Gender and the Ukrainian refugee crisis: the case of Poland

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  • 1 Jagiellonian University, Poland
  • | 2 Occidental College, USA
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Russia’s aggression against Ukraine triggered a devastating humanitarian crisis, including massive casualties and the unprecedented displacement of Ukrainians. Over 6 million refugees have fled Ukraine and 8 million people were internally displaced by May 2022 (International Organization for Migration, 2022). This emergency of historic proportions has had especially dire consequences for women, who comprise roughly 90 per cent of those who have fled the country and 60 per cent of those displaced. We highlight some of the ripple effects of this in Poland, including the ‘usual’ issues surrounding women refugees and the unprecedented nature of the impact on the host society.

Poland has received more refugees than all other European countries combined, totalling almost 3.5 million, or 60 per cent of the total exodus (Polish Border Guard, 2022).1 According to official data, 96.5 per cent of the refugees who registered for a PESEL (Polish ID number) are women and children (Chancellery of the Prime Minister, 2022). This enormous humanitarian crisis is transforming neighbouring countries like Poland in several ways.

The gender composition of the refugee population has played a significant part at every turn of the response. Women are disproportionately affected by war and face different, though no less traumatic, challenges and experiences than men who take to the battlefield. A rapid gender analysis by UN Women and CARE International (2022) emphasised the gendered nature of the refugee crisis and drew attention to the challenges, in particular: a lack of safe and accessible accommodation; shortages of food, water and energy supplies; barriers to accessing cash and financial and social support; acute disruptions to health services, including access to sexual and reproductive health; disruptions to education, impacting children, young people and their caregivers; and lack of civil status documentation, which can limit access to humanitarian assistance in the host country. Women shoulder the burden of care work, protecting and supporting their children and elderly relatives, as well as the difficult task of securing jobs to survive as refugees. This involves dealing with language barriers, competition in the labour market and recognition of their professional qualifications, which heightens the risk of exploitation via low-paid jobs or forced sex work and human trafficking. Mothers of younger children have fewer opportunities to join the workforce because the number of places in day-care centres or kindergartens is limited or unaffordable. Most of these concerns have been significant issues in Poland.

Moreover, while the influx of refugees united Polish society in many ways in bringing immediate relief (in large part, because most of them are women and children), it also highlighted pressing gendered issues, like access to abortion, emergency contraception, gynaecological and psychological help, and HIV prevention (Reuters, 2022). The existing legal and policy restrictions on sexual and reproductive rights in Poland severely limit access to such care and services. Furthermore, Polish and international organisations must also join forces to raise awareness and prevent the aforementioned human trafficking and gender-based abuses while fleeing war, which they do by distributing information electronically, at border crossing points and reception centres, and through electronic media.

Finally, the socio-political implications for the host society have been profound. The dynamics of the response to the crisis included the rapid growth of the volunteer movement. Polish society – ordinary citizens and non-governmental organisation (NGOs) – showed extraordinary commitment to people fleeing war in Ukraine by providing emergency shelters, as well as offering many other types of assistance. The scale and scope of this grass-roots engagement – before local governments and the state could provide systemic help to newcomers – is unparalleled.

While civil society actors paved the way for systemic help, the burden of hosting Ukrainians soon shifted to local government to provide public services, access to education and healthcare. Local governments proved very important, as the majority of refugees decided to stay in or around cities. Data show that the 12 largest metropolitan areas in Poland hosted almost 70 per cent of all Ukrainians arriving in Poland. For example, the population of Rzeszów (a city close to the border with Ukraine) increased by 53 per cent and that of Warsaw (the capital city) by 15 per cent (Wojdat and Cywiński, 2022). However, insufficient systemic organisation and coordination at the national level caused chaos and made it impossible to provide full protection and safety to all arriving in the country. It took until 12 March for the Polish government to adopt the Act on Assistance to Ukrainian Citizens in Connection with the Armed Conflict in Ukraine, which offers provisions for refugees to access existing education and health systems, as well as the labour market.

The crisis is likely to play an enormous role in Polish politics for years to come, as the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has captured the issue in the interest of advancing its anti-democratic agenda by selectively applying international laws to which Poland is a signatory. The ‘refugee agenda’ is in competition with different state policy agendas, and the extent to which this is the case as regards the gender aspect is important here. The PiS has been notorious for holding an exclusionary narrative against refugees, which had to be altered in light of the response of civil society to the Russian invasion. The worldwide acknowledgement of Polish citizens’ efforts to help their neighbours provoked a change of tune in the government, which is now officially supportive of Ukrainian refugees.

Much remains unclear about even the immediate future of the refugee situation in Poland. For some, Poland is a stop on the way westward to other European countries, while many others hope to return home. Much depends on whether the refugees wish to stay, return home or welcome their male relatives in Poland. Regardless of the burden or the uncertainty of future developments, this crisis will have long-term effects in Poland. The immediate, admirable response of NGOs and civil society helped secure the most urgent needs, yet institutionally coordinated help and strategic measures are needed to enable refugees to access public services, medical care, childcare, education and the labour market, especially considering the different needs resulting from the gendered composition of the influx. Last but not least, it is of vital importance to raise awareness and build a compelling narrative of solidarity and support among the host society in order to help the integration and inclusion of refugees, especially if they decide to settle in Poland for a longer period, or for good.

Note

1

Over 5 million people fled west to Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, while over a million Ukrainians fled or were forcibly relocated to Russia (Birnbaum and Ilyushina, 2022).

Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge the editors of the EJPG for their invaluable and timely feedback.

Author biographies

Olga Brzezinska is a university lecturer at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. She is President of the City of Literature Foundation and a cultural manager, publicist and podcast host. She is currently working with civil society organisations supporting Ukrainian refugees.

Igor Logvinenko is an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, USA. He is the author, most recently, of Global Finance and Local Control: Corruption and Wealth in Contemporary Russia (Cornell University Press, 2021).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • 1 Jagiellonian University, Poland
  • | 2 Occidental College, USA

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