Unlike Ukrainian Refugees, Afghans are Neglected In Poland

An insight into the lives of Afghani refugees in Poland

23 September 2022

The experience of Afghan families, who have sought asylum in Poland, having fled their country following the Taliban takeover in 2021. They testify to the deficiencies of the current system and its double standards towards refugees of different races, nationalities, or religions.

The Polish government lacks a sustainable and consistent policy approach toward refugees seeking to start their new lives in Poland. 

Projections for 2022, beyond the war in Ukraine and the economic crisis, now begin to take notice of an immense increase in new migrants crossing over to Europe — often illegally. 

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Hence, considering the record high number of Ukrainians in the country, the Polish migration and integration policies should take precedence for incorporating and drawing on voices from civil society specialists and refugees themselves. 

‘Double Standard’ Approach to Refugees

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland has seen an influx of refugees on an unprecedented scale – approximately 6.1 million refugees from Ukraine have crossed the border, of which at least 1.3 million remained in Poland. UNHCR estimates that by December 2022, the population of refugees from Ukraine remaining in Poland will reach 2.6 million.

The influx of Ukrainian refugees has since become one of the key topics of the public debate in Poland and, in an unprecedented way, mobilised the Polish government and civil society institutions. 

However, the mobilisation of the Polish government and civil society in support of the Ukrainian refugees has not produced a trickle-down effect on the situation of other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants seeking to call Poland their new home. 

In addition to not having offered appropriate support to refugees from other countries, 

the Polish government has built a fence on the Poland-Belarus border and since July 2021, has unlawfully pushed the migrants and asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Cuba back to Belarus, condemning them to life-threatening conditions. 

In July 2022, Felipe Gonzáles Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants of the UN Human Rights Council, praised Poland’s welcoming approach toward the Ukrainian refugees in a statement concluding his visit to Poland and Belarus. However, in the same statement, Morales called out the Polish government’s ‘double standard approach’ toward migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees from other countries of origin.

In particular, Morales criticised the Polish government’s lack of appropriate assistance for third-country nationals and refugees with irregular migratory status, expressed his concern over the situation of migrants stranded at the Polish and Belarusian border, and the detention of the migrants who came through Belarus in closed immigration facilities. 

Afghan Refugees in Poland 

One such group, often affected by the double standards that Morales brought up, is a group of Afghan refugees who have fled their country once their lives became endangered following the Taliban takeover and the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2021.

It is estimated that in August 2021, around 1300-1500 Afghans were evacuated to Poland by the Polish government. According to the statistics provided by Poland’s Office for Foreigners, in 2021, international protection was granted to 750 of them. After Belarusians (1150 applicants), they were the second largest group who sought asylum in Poland in 2021. 

Bashar, Rahmin, Javid and their families are among that group. Back in Afghanistan, all three of them had some connections to Poland, the Polish government, or the Polish military. 

To all three of them and their friends, the withdrawal of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover came as a shock, destroying the hope they had for their country and for whose development they had been working. 

Following the chaotic fall of Kabul and an exhausting multi-day journey to Poland, Bashar, Rahmin, and Javid, and their families spent around five to six months in the Center for Foreigners in Grupa near Grudziądz, waiting for the asylum procedure to be completed. They recall that there were around 180 Afghans or around 38 families who were placed at the Grupa centre together with them.

Currently, there are nine such centres around Poland, eight of which are located in small villages and away from cities, all housing refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Poland for multiple months.  

Out of these 1300-1500 Afghans who arrived in Poland in 2021, it is not clear how many of them stayed in Poland. Many families had left for other EU states, especially if they already had some family connections there. However, this has likely complicated their legal situation, since according to the Dublin Regulation, the individual’s asylum application should be processed by the first EU country they arrive in. Therefore, many of those who had left Poland last year might be forced to return, a situation which will further complicate and lengthen the legal and integration processes. 

In comparison, in the case of Ukrainian refugees who have come to Poland since February, all the procedures securing them equal access to the Polish labour market, healthcare, right to education and other social benefits had been shortened to two weeks. Additionally, individual citizens who support Ukrainians by hosting them in their homes received monthly financial support from the government. 

Difficulties With the New Reality

There has been a discrepancy between the welcoming approach toward the refugees from Ukraine and the challenges that Afghans trying to start a new life in Poland face. 

‘Unfortunately, Polish people are racists. And we had only around 1300 Afghan refugees, in comparison to the three million Ukrainians,’ Joanna Kasprzak Dżyberti, who was coordinating local community help in Suchy Bór, a 1000-people village near Opole in the southwest of Poland, where 80 refugees from Afghanistan were referred to in August 2021. 

From Kasprzak-Dżyberti’s observations, women from Ukraine who come to Poland are doing well because of the cultural and linguistic similarities. Conversely, for many Afghan women, the cultural and linguistic differences make it hard to navigate their new realities. On top of that, they have to deal with insensitive comments and xenophobia made by Polish people, who lack education in the vein of diversity and inclusion. Kasprzak-Dżyberti recalled instances of doctors making comments such as ‘What’s that rag on your head for’ to the Afghan women seeking medical care. 

Javid, who arrived in Poland with his wife, children, sister and mother, has encountered a lot of xenophobic attitudes, in both small towns and big cities. 

‘In Grudziądz we had plenty of challenges but generally speaking, we gradually recognised that there is a huge level of racism among Polish people. For example when I’m sitting on a train or a bus, and there is no empty space and people prefer to stand not to sit next to me. Why? When we are passing a group of guys, they are spitting in front of us. This is a racist environment, and it is very hurtful,’ Javid confessed. 

Sylwia Żulewska, the president of the EMIC foundation that focuses on supporting refugees in Toruń and Bydgoszcz, confirmed that the scale of society’s support of the Ukrainian refugees is incomparably greater. At the same time, she recognised that there were still a lot of people moved by the Afghans’ situation who wanted to help. 

Rahmin, after having spent a couple of months at the Grupa Centre, has moved to Gdynia together with his family and remains hopeful about their future in Poland. He is very grateful to his Polish friends and volunteers who have been helping him and his family set up their new life in Poland. ‘This environment is better and better for us. The most important thing for me is that my children can go to school,’ he said.

Civil Society’s Key Role in Helping the Refugees

According to Sylwia Żylewska from Emic Foundation, a lot has happened in the public awareness in Poland in the context of migrants over the course of the past year. First, the evacuated Afghans in August 2021, then the crisis on the border in Fall 2021, and the Ukrainian refugees in February 2022. 

Żulewska recalled that when the Ukraine war happened, the system was working very well, and clerks at municipal offices were working 24/7 to offer the best support to the Ukrainian refugees. Having recognised these efforts, however, she admitted that still the government does not treat all the migrants and refugees equally. The attitude of the government towards refugees and migrants still depends on their nationality, skin colour, and religion. 

Even though that increase of public awareness has led to some policy changes, these predominantly concerned Ukrainian nationals, excluding third-country nationals fleeing from the same war, or refugees from other parts of the world seeking asylum in Poland. Therefore, supporting refugees and migrants in Poland relies on the work of NGOs, private donors, individual volunteers, and the readiness of municipal government offices to support refugees. 

Aiming to fill the gap in the system, Żulewska’s Emic foundation, with the support of volunteers and private donors, has helped the Afghan refugees since they arrived at the refugee centre in Grupa near Grudziądz in August 2021. Emic’s activities include, among many, providing legal advice and life assistance, organizing activities for children, cooperating with the school at the refugee centre, employing an intercultural assistant at the refugee centre, leading language and cultural courses, or finding apartments and linking the refugees to potential employers. 

Challenges in the Job Market

Additionally, the moment when Afghan refugees were leaving the centres, after having been granted asylum, coincided with the sudden influx of Ukrainian refugees in February and March. These circumstances made it particularly difficult for the Afghan refugees to find apartments and jobs since both the housing and job markets were overburdened. 

Sylwia Żulewska admitted that for highly qualified refugees, such as former military officials, teachers, or people who used to work in banking or aviation in Kabul, it has been hard to find a job that does not require the knowledge of Polish. 

Javid, since he moved to Gdynia with his family, has been looking for a job. So far, with no result. 

Back in Afghanistan Javid used to work as a marketing and business manager. He has over a decade of experience across multiple industries in Kabul, ranging from media and telecom to banking and aviation, and a degree in business management. 

Bashar and his family moved to Nowa Iwiczna, a town 20 kilometres away from Warsaw. Since February, he has been working as an IT technician, travelling to different sites around the country. Back in Kabul, he was a manager in the banking industry, responsible for the deployment and management of ATMs, e-commerce, and online services of a big bank. 

Bashar works way below his qualifications and admits that there were not many possible choices when it came to his job search, especially since most jobs require fluency in Polish. He is trying to learn and attends Polish classes a couple of times per week, yet the language remains a challenge for him. Bashar is also worried about the rising utility and food prices, and the fact that it has been pretty hard to support his big family from just one salary.

Rahmin and his family moved to Gdynia from the Center in Grupa in February. There, he was able to find a flat and a job at Gdańsk’s shipyard. He admits that there were not many offers he could choose from due to the language barrier.

Crisis on the Poland-Belarus Border Still Unresolved

As long as Bashar, Javid, Rahmin, and their families often have to navigate the not-always-so-easy realities of Poland, their situation is still good compared to the situation of many refugees and migrants stranded on the Poland-Belarus border.

In the UNHCR statement, Felipe Gonzáles Morales called to end the unlawful pushbacks and violence of both Polish and Belarusian forces toward refugees stranded on the Polish-Belarus border. Morales emphasised, in particular, the situation of third-country nationals, who, fleeing the same war, are not protected under the same legal framework as Ukrainian nationals. 

Marta Górczyńska, a human rights lawyer who has been monitoring the border situation since its beginnings in the early summer of 2021, and the co-author of a recent Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights report on the Polish-Belarus border refugee crisis admitted that the topic of the refugee and migrant crisis has not been attracting as much attention as a year ago, since the society’s focus has gone to Ukraine.

‘There is no public awareness anymore about this situation taking place, yet the situation at the border is still very dramatic. Once the fence had been built, the government announced that the crisis was over. We [human rights activists] see that it is not over. Every week we are getting even 100-150 requests for help from people who are stuck in the forest,’ said Górczyńska.  

These requests for help, Górczynska said, concern the most basic assistance, such as food or medical help. Górczyńska emphasised that without volunteers, such as doctors or local people who walk around the forests on the border, offering their support to the people there, the number of deaths would have been significantly higher. 

The fact that in the last year, the government has not been able to provide aid to the migrants stranded at the border, and there has been no cooperation with non-governmental or human rights organisations who have been trying to provide aid, leaves human rights activists with not much hope for the situation to get better anytime soon.

‘Because some people are helping, the picture of the whole situation is perhaps less tragic, because it is there, but at what cost? Currently, there is less and less support from society, on which we had been relying on. There is exhaustion, burnout [of the activists] and the increasing criminalisation, meaning the rising number of criminal proceedings against those who try to help,’ said Górczyńska. 

Policy Needs Change

The focus on the refugees coming to Poland from Ukraine has likely directed the attention of both the public and the government officials away from other refugees and migration-related issues. However, the consequences of such negligence could be fatal. Especially, as ongoing environmental, technological, and geopolitical transformations will likely contribute to increased migration and displacement of people in the next few years. Already the past year’s events have significantly changed Poland in terms of migrants’ and refugees’ numbers. 

‘There should be a policy document, a strategy, and we still do not have this kind of document regarding people who come to Poland. For many years nothing has changed in the system, even the funds for food in refugee centres have been the same for years, despite rising food prices,’ Kasprzak-Dżyberti said when asked about what changes should be made at the policy level, to make refugees’ transition to the Polish reality easier. The existing conditions lead to situations, such as ones in the Podkowa Leśna and Dębak centres, where Afghan refugees, trying to alleviate their hunger, ate poisonous wild mushrooms, leading to the death of two Afghan children. 

Migration and asylum policy should be a field that the Polish government actively works on. First, strategic policy on integration and inclusion needs to be drafted and shaped in partnership and consultations with civil society organizations, human rights lawyers, and refugees and migrants themselves.

This is particularly urgent as the rising utility and food prices will likely put a lot of migrants and refugees in a more vulnerable spot in the coming months. Additionally, the 1-year integration programme that provides the Afghan refugees with basic social benefits, will end in the coming winter. 

Bashar, for example, recommended the integration programme be extended to two years. He believes that the situation will become very hard for many Afghan families he knows, especially since not all of them have been able to enter the job market. 

Second, consultations with Afghan refugees should be organised, aiming to put their professional skills to the best use. As Bashar explained: ‘We want to work. We want to work for the development of Poland. We don’t like to take social benefits and stay at home, we are professional people with a lot of experience and we want to get new experience in the Polish market.’ 

Third, the Polish government should address its failure to provide humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers and migrants stranded in the woods on the Poland-Belarus border, as has been repeatedly pointed out by human rights activists, international organisations, and the EU institutions

Fourth, Poland is in dire need of system-wide changes and mechanisms to ensure equal treatment of refugees in migrants in a variety of social contexts. Society needs intercultural education and campaigns promoting equality and inclusion need to be launched, recognizing that Afghan refugees should be valued in Poland. 

As Javid said, ‘Diversity is playing a key role in all nations’ development.’


This media content has been prepared in cooperation with NGO Mondo in the framework of the project ‘I Am European: Migration Stories & Facts for the 21st Century’ funded by the European Union, Estonian Ministry of Culture, National Foundation of Civil Society and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia from the funds of development cooperation and humanitarian aid. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the funders.

Picture: Creative Commons: Urząd do Spraw Cudzoziemców / uznanie autorstwa – użycie niekomercyjne – bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Polska (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL)

Marysia Ciupka

Visegrad Insight Junior Fellow


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