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Poland’s army of volunteers flags as Ukraine ‘refugee fatigue’ sets in

When millions of refugees flooded across its border in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland was hailed as a role model. Almost overnight its citizens formed a grassroots volunteer army to help the displaced, donated money and welcome Ukrainians into their homes.

There has been a slowdown in arrivals since the February 24 invasion but the need remains acute — and the flow of assistance is drying up, with aid activists saying “refugee fatigue” has taken hold.

“It’s becoming very hard to reach new people with the message that they should come to help Ukrainians,” said Jakub Tasiemski, lead co-ordinator at the Heart for Animals Foundation based in the Polish capital Warsaw, which provides food and equipment for refugees’ pets. “We now have a shortage of volunteers.”

In the city of Lublin, a lack of new funding has forced another Polish foundation, Skakanka, to close a warehouse where it stored food and clothes for the refugees. 

Ukrainians are still calling and asking for help, but we’re helpless because we don’t have any money to replenish supplies,” said foundation president Tamara Rutkowska.

Jakub Tasiemski says the regional government has stopped funding his charity, which provides food and equipment for refugees’ pets © Maciek Jazwiecki/FT

In the immediate weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 51 per cent of Polish adults purchased items for refugees, according to a survey published in July by the Polish Economic Institute, a state-funded think-tank. But within two months the proportion doing so dropped to 39 per cent, while those making cash donations fell to 33 per cent from 46 per cent before.

Nonetheless, Poles donated almost 10bn zlotys ($2bn) to help Ukrainians between the end of February and the end of June, surpassing their charitable contributions for the whole of 2021, the survey found. It attributed the more recent decline to factors ranging from “moral exhaustion” to the feeling that, as refugees settled in, they needed less help.

The decline in support comes as Polish households are themselves running into economic headwinds. The country has one of Europe’s highest inflation rates — 15.6 per cent in July — caused in part by the Ukraine war.

Activists also say interest is dwindling because many Ukrainians have recently returned to the safer western half of their country, altering the way in which Poles perceive the situation across the border.

Ukrainian volunteer Irina Mishyna says new arrivals from her country are often more in need of help than those who came before © Maciek Jazwiecki/FT

“Everybody knows there are now fewer refugees, but people should also know that those arriving are often more in need of help than before, because they come from eastern cities that have been destroyed and occupied by the Russians,” said Irina Mishyna, a Ukrainian volunteer who escaped to Warsaw with her 5-year-old child.

The Polish authorities have also ended some subsidies for refugees. Ukrainians can no longer travel for free on public transport in Warsaw, while last month the government removed a subsidy for Poles hosting Ukrainians that was worth 40 zlotys a day for each person helped. Government officials have stressed the housing subsidy scheme was never meant to extend beyond an emergency response.

Still, Tasiemski said the regional government had also stopped financing Heart for Animals. “If you ask me again in a week if we have enough cat and dog food, probably we will have run out,” he said.

Meanwhile, as in other nations hosting large numbers of displaced people, the relationship between refugees and their hosts has become more ambivalent.

American volunteer Hannah Ballew says locals in Warsaw are evenly split between those committed to helping refugees and those who want them to leave © Maciek Jazwiecki/FT

Hannah Ballew, an American who travelled to Warsaw in April to work serving food to refugees, said: “If I look at the people around me, it’s a 50-50 situation, between those who are still very committed to helping Ukrainians and those who would just like them to get out.” 

The mass influx of Ukrainians into Warsaw since February has also sent rents soaring. Online property search engine Otodom reported that in June average rental prices for flats in the capital were around 24-32 per cent higher than in the same month last year. But some Polish landlords have recently started to veto Ukrainian tenants, worried about them leaving without notice, according to local real estate agents. In some cases, “the apartments are dilapidated and tenants are nowhere to be found”, said Milena Piotrowska, a Warsaw-based real estate agent.

Others resent what they see as the preferential treatment given to Ukrainians. Queueing at a soup kitchen in central Warsaw that serves the homeless, Kamil Wasilowski, 38, said: “The Ukrainians can come here whenever they want while we cannot go to their special dining areas, they get apartments while we sleep on the streets, so of course this is unfair.”

Konstantin Kisieliov, a 46-year-old Ukrainian, has found part-time work as a courier in Warsaw and lives with his wife and three children in a flat provided for free by Poles. But he senses a change in attitude among his hosts as the situation drags on. “They haven’t told us yet to move out, but we’re afraid that might be the case,” he said.

However, the government has emphasised the benefits to the country of hosting Ukrainians, many of whom are highly skilled. “The work of Ukrainians living in Poland can be a great added value to our economy,” prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in an interview in May with newspaper Gazeta Polska.

Analysts also note that Poland’s far-right politicians, led by the Konfederacja party, have so far failed to stir up hostility or gain support over claims that refugees are being prioritised over locals. And Piotr Arak, director of the Polish Economic Institute, said Poles remained grateful to the Ukrainians. “In comparison to other western Europeans, Poles still know that the Ukrainians are really fighting our war,” he said.

Refugee fatigue was “absolutely normal because people are getting very tired after helping for many months”, said Maciej Duszczyk, a migration expert and professor at the University of Warsaw.

Despite the drop-off in support, Duszczyk stressed that Poland’s embrace of the refugees had been unprecedented. He estimates that in the two weeks after Russia’s invasion, 600,000 Polish households hosted Ukrainians even before government subsidies were offered.

“I have looked at dozens of refugee crises around the world, and I honestly think the Polish response should go down in the history books,” he said.

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