After the outbreak of the full-scale war, millions of Ukrainian refugees crossed the Polish border, fleeing from Russian aggression. Hearing Ukrainian conversations on the streets of Polish cities no longer surprises anyone – it has become a part of the landscape. When speaking of Ukrainians living in Poland, the first thing that comes to mind is war refugees seeking safe shelter. However, this is not the full picture – the issue is much more complex and it goes for the economy, social integration, and all other aspects of life. Who are they, what is their life like in Poland, how do they interact with Poles, and what are the prospects for the future?

The background

Currently it’s estimated that roughly one million Ukrainian citizens live in Poland, though determining the actual number, which would include Poles of Ukrainian descent, is challenging. This calculation is further complicated by the fact that many Ukrainians frequently travel between Poland, Ukraine, and other countries. This migration is mainly due to family reasons, seasonal work, or cross-border trade. In attempting to depict the contemporary Ukrainian community living in Poland, one must start with the end of World War II and present the three main waves of resettlement, migration, and refugees.

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The first of these is the resettlement of 140,000 Ukrainians, Lemkos, and Polish-Ukrainian families from the southeastern territories of contemporary Poland to the Pomerania region as part of the Operation Vistula campaign in 1947-1950. Over several generations, despite efforts to preserve their cultural heritage, this population has been largely Polonized and assimilated. However, it doesn’t mean that their heritage has disappeared – today, one can still see worshippers attending Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches, and many families celebrate Christmas twice a year – Latin-rite in December and Byzantine-rite in January.

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Several decades later, according to the national census conducted in 2011, over 50,000 Polish citizens declared Ukrainian or dual Polish and Ukrainian nationality. The next significant increase in Ukrainian migration to Poland took place between 2014 and 2022 and it was driven by Ukraine’s political and economic situation. In 2021, there were 1.45 million Ukrainian citizens legally residing in Poland.

The situation changed with the Russian invasion in February 2022. Nearly 9 million refugees crossed the Polish border and 1.55 million of them took advantage of temporary protection in Poland. The numbers perfectly illustrate the scale and nature of this phenomenon. It was a significant humanitarian challenge for Poland.

Yet society and central and local authorities managed it well. Despite the massive number of refugees, the creation of refugee camps was avoided, which was unprecedented on a global scale. We can distinguish two main waves of refugees. The first consisted mainly of people from larger cities, characterized by better economic situations and foreign language skills. The second wave was driven by displacement – many refugees who previously lived in frontline areas, occupied territories, or directly threatened by the Russian invasion sought refuge in Poland.

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Ukrainian refugees in Poland

The refugees who arrived in Poland differ significantly from previous migrations. Unlike economic migrants, they didn’t leave their homes willingly – they were forced to flee due to war. So, what does their life look like in Poland and what impact do they have on the country?

“According to our observations, refugees from Ukraine are very active in the labor market. We have the highest rate in the EU – about 70% of working-age individuals are employed. Even more express a will to work, but they cannot do so due to, for example, the need of taking care of children. Ukrainian refugees establish their own businesses, develop themselves and archive their professional ambitions. They don’t want to work below their qualifications or rely on what the market offers but want to create it themselves,” said Bartłomiej Potocki, Director of the Department of Social Integration at the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Policy.

This is confirmed by the facts – in 2023, out of over 300,000 companies founded in Poland, 10 percent were established by Ukrainians. Viktoria Pogrebniak, an activist from Euromaidan Warsaw, shares a similar opinion: “Most people adapted to life in Poland, however in the beginning the new rules were surprising for them. I can confidently say that after 2 years, 80 percent of the community has integrated with Polish society. They work and establish businesses. We can see synergy between Poles and Ukrainians in Poland.”

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An essential element of integration and starting a new life is education. It’s crucial to note that a significant majority of refugees are women and children. All underage children in Poland are subject to compulsory education. Their parents can choose between Polish schools or online classes in Ukrainian schools. Poland provides a monthly support of around $203 available to all children until they turn 18. However, changes are announced. From June 2025 the benefit will only apply to children attending Polish schools. As a result, an increase in students at the expense of Ukrainian online schools is expected.

Were Polish schools ready to accommodate such a large number of new students? “We see systemic shortcomings, but it doesn’t result from ill will. Simply put, till now Poland wasn’t the destination for such a large group of refugees,” said Potocki. “Our teaching and teacher professional development programs didn’t account for working with a multicultural environment. We are trying to make up for this. Certain problems arise in humanities subjects such as history or Polish language classes. They require teachers to be very sensitive. Currently, we are working on introducing intercultural assistants to schools, which will ultimately facilitate many things. The large wave of refugees was a sudden shock for Poland. Today we recognize it as a new normal,” added the ministry official.

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Socialization and integration are also key functions of the education system. “Problems arise in overcrowded schools. There is competition for resources. Potocki added.

Upon closer inspection, one might get the impression that despite some difficulties, mutual coexistence and gradual integration of Poles and Ukrainians are progressing successfully – and indeed, it’s not an incorrect conclusion.

However, there are certain challenges. Ukrainians face issues common to all residents of Poland, such as housing problems. Many refugees are unaware of their rights regarding the job market. Concerns also arise when it comes to the future of their legal status. “After two years spent in Poland, people want to plan their future. Extending the special refugee status raises uncertainty. What will the future of refugees look like when this status expires?” noted Viktoria Pogrebniak. Uncertainty among Ukrainians – especially men – is also fueled by ideas of repatriating them back to Ukraine, such as when the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs temporarily suspended consular services for draft-age men recently. It’s a controversial topic. Many men from Ukraine have been living in Poland for years, running their businesses, starting families, and having loans. Others, while working in Poland, financially support their families who remain in Ukraine.

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This issue doesn’t concern Ukrainian citizens only – it would be a significant challenge for the Polish job market.

Social coexistence is a process which has its own rules and dynamics, leading to both friendships and conflicts. After more than two years since the Russian aggression against Ukraine, one can observe that Poles got used to the war. Positive emotions have waned over time and Ukrainian refugees aren’t considered as guests anymore – they have become neighbors to Poles. However, these positive emotions, solidarity and friendship aren’t a reliable reference point for the overall long-term picture.

The future challenges: integration vs. assimilation

Despite generally very good mutual coexistence, the future raises many questions. One of them concerns the fact that many refugees will remain in Poland permanently. “Compared to economic migrants, many refugees cannot declare their willingness to stay in Poland, undertake further migrations, or return to Ukraine. We estimate that if the war were to end this year, 30 percent of refugees would permanently remain in Poland,” Potocki said. “With each passing year, this number will increase. According to our calculations, it could even reach 50 to 60 percent. We are preparing our system to be able to integrate such a number of refugees into Polish society.”

Integration policy, of course, can take various forms. One can distinguish Polonization through the assimilation process or aiming to become an active participant in social life.

What does Polish policy look like in this regard? “We believe that integration means the ability to preserve one’s history, culture and heritage. We support Ukrainian diaspora organizations. We cannot speak of a proper integration process if refugees are unable to keep and maintain their identity,” Potocki added.

However, the mission of Ukrainian NGOs goes beyond simply protecting their heritage. “Euromaidan Warsaw, as an organization representing Ukrainian community, is very active. We do a lot of work to integrate our societies. We organize workshops, language courses and try to connect both cultures, but it’s just a drop in the ocean of needs. There should be hundreds of such initiatives,” Pogrebniak said.

Besides integration activities, Euromaidan Warsaw works to support Ukraine on a humanitarian level as well as it supports its EU aspirations. Despite mentioned challenges, the integration processes will continue and we can already see their effects on the streets of Polish cities today. Ukrainians have become full-fledged members of society. Undoubtedly, they will become increasingly active in the public sphere and over the years, many of them will become Polish citizens and voters.

New reality

Ukrainians have always been present in Poland and their societies have intersected with each other. But the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a new reality, a new normal.

Despite the challenges related to changing environments, integration and understanding the rules and laws in Poland, social coexistence of Poles and Ukrainians appears very promising. Certainly, mutual adaptation and the settling of Ukrainian refugees have been facilitated by cultural proximity, the immense empathy shown by Poles at the outbreak of the invasion as well as the actions taken by the state. The scale of conflicts should not be a cause for concern either – they are a completely natural aspect of social coexistence. The future will depend on Ukrainians and Poles themselves, including both societies and politicians.

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