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Poland prepares for possible influx of refugees fleeing Ukraine

In a chilly supermarket car park near the Polish town of Hrubieszow stand a handful of Ukrainian vans – evidence of cross-border shoppers hunting for cheap goods. But the 17,500 people in this town 5km inside Poland’s border would face the prospect of much more traffic heading west if Russia invades Ukraine.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it is planning an invasion. But it has massed more than 100,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine, and in recent weeks there has been a drumbeat of warnings from western officials that an attack is imminent and could trigger an exodus of refugees. In recent days, western embassies in Kyiv have stepped up evacuations of staff.

Many in Hrubieszow – close to one of the EU’s eastern borders – are unsure how to interpret the blizzard of claim and counterclaim about Russia’s intentions. But, as elsewhere in Poland, officials are sizing up the implications.

“If [there was a wave of] refugees and it was necessary to ensure those families livelihoods and housing, it would be difficult, ”said Pawel Wojciechowski, the town’s deputy mayor. “We do not have enough [social housing] for our compatriots, so it would be hard to find spaces for others. ”

Poland’s conservative-nationalist government vehemently opposed EU efforts to make member states accept quotas of asylum seekers during the 2015-16 crisis sparked by the war in Syria. But in the event of a serious escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, Poland is likely to be one of the main destinations for those fleeing.

Although Poland and Ukraine share a complicated and sometimes painful history, they have close linguistic and cultural ties. Poland is also already home to a sizeable Ukrainian community, having taken in more than a million since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and fueled a separatist war in Donbas.

Map of Poland and Ukraine

“We have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and for some time [we] have been taking actions to ensure that we are prepared for the arrival of a wave of up to a million people, ”Poland’s deputy interior minister, Maciej Wasik, said last month.

However, others question whether the central European nation could cope with such a large number of refugees, particularly if they arrived over a short period of time.

“The capacity of Poland to absorb people coming from Ukraine is quite high because of the community of Ukrainians who are already here,” said Agnieszka Kosowicz, president of the Polish Migration Forum.

“But as far as the state system is concerned, I am quite skeptical about whether we can call Poland prepared. . . We have very inadequate integration procedures, and the integration institutions have not been given more resources or capacity or staff. ”

In Hrubieszow, which until the second world war was home to a mix of Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox populations, locals are generally open to the idea of ​​Poland taking in Ukrainians, not least because it would help plug gaps in the country’s labor market.

Orthodox Catholic Church in Hrubieszow, Poland.

An Orthodox Catholic church in Hrubieszow. Until the second world war the town was home to a mix of Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox populations © Trkowalski / Dreamstime

But they expect that, rather than seeking work in Hrubieszow, or on the farms that dot the rolling countryside around it, most would head further west to Poland’s big cities such as Lublin, Warsaw and Wroclaw, or even seek higher wages in Germany.

“My sister [who works in a supermarket] said that they had a problem with finding Poles, but the Ukrainians want to work there, and for them it is very good, ”said Kamil Rodzik, from Zamosc, a town some 50km west of Hrubieszow.

“Maybe we will hear Ukrainian more on the street, but we have got used to that. It is also hard to use Ukrainians politically as a card to scare people. . . We treat them as our partners, we want to help them. ”

Wary of being accused of double standards given their resistance to quotas in the 2015-16 migrant crisis, Polish officials shy away from suggesting a similar way of sharing out the refugee burden in the event of a crisis in Ukraine. But they argue that the EU and other member states have a duty to help.

“It was our choice – a European choice – to support Ukraine, offering them [a free trade deal], offering them an association agreement with the EU, offering them free visa programs. It was not only a Polish decision, ”said Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy foreign minister.

“And now when there is a price to be paid. . . I think that responsibility should be shared among all member states, but we are already in the front line, and we are ready to be in the first row to offer this assistance. ”

In Hrubieszow, however, people are still hoping that the worst-case scenarios will still prove wide of the mark. “Of course there is a possibility that Ukrainians will come, but Poland will not be their only destination,” said Lukasz Koszyniuk, who works in customer services.

“I do not think that 60- or 70-year-olds will come to a new country because you do not pull up your roots when you are old. Maybe some younger people will come, but I do not think that the whole country will come. . . I think we can manage. But we can not take all of them. ”

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