The central statistics office for Poland (Główny Urząd Statystyczny) released data late last week on foreign work visas issued in 2017. They show a continuing upward trend and Ukrainian nationals represent the lion's share of these new workers.
Overall the number of work permits for foreigners in Poland grew in 2017, with more than 235,600 issued. This is a near doubling (84%) from 2016, and a 258% increase from 2015. This steep increase was driven largely by Ukrainians fleeing political upheaval: according to a survey by the National Bank of Poland, between 2010 and 2014 the rate of new workers registered in Poland hovered around 40,000, with the Ukrainian share of that being 50% (a share broadly consistent since the collapse of the Soviet Union) but between 2014 and 2017 that number sharply increased, with the Ukrainian share jumping up to around 80%. This year, Ukrainians received 81.7% of all work visas issued in Poland, Forbes reported.
This increase is uncontroversially associated with various upheavals in Ukraine: the Euromaidan demonstrations in 2013 and subsequent violent government response, the 2014 revolution, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. All of this with an economic crisis that saw GDP plummet and a bailout implemented by the IMF to avoid default. But though the cause of this migration may be no mystery what is less known is how the character of the last few years' migration, as well as changes in Polish policy, affects the position of Ukrainian migrants in Poland.
"Now we can observe a higher rate of not only work permits granted to Ukrainian migrants but also other paths to staying in Poland legally," says Anita Brzozowska, a researcher at Warsaw University's Centre of Migration Research (CMR). "We can see they not only circulate (through Poland for work) but they also want to stay longer in Poland."
Traditionally a lot of Ukrainian labor migration around Europe is seasonal, with workers coming on short-term visas or under the table. As political and economic instability in Ukraine continues, however, and it becomes more difficult for people to go back, many Ukrainians are now considering their options in staying.
"It's harder because of the economic conditions," says Brzozowska, "and because of all these push factors in Ukraine: the conflict in Donbass and a really bad economic situation. It's similar to the situation in the 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union; a decline in the standard of living in Ukraine."
The longer stay is causing Ukrainians to seek stronger legal and social roots in Poland. This is related to a process known as "anchoring", described by Brzozowska and colleague Aleksandra Grzymała-Kazłowska as the process of "searching for footholds and points of reference" that allow migrants to feel safe and secure in their host country. These footholds include the legal protections offered by work visas, as well as higher social interaction and intermarriage between Poles and Ukrainians, both of which Brzozowska and CMR have observed. But aside from the practical aspects of anchoring, a crucial source of stability is in comparing their current situation to what they left behind. Brzozowska found, when interviewing Ukrainians about their experiences in Poland, that this comparison between the relative economic and political stability of Poland and the economic crisis and corruption of Ukraine was a key aspect in how they perceive their lives in Poland.
"When (they) compare to the uncertain situation in Ukraine, it is really crucial for their sense of security. Even if they are working in the secondary labor markets - the dirty and dangerous jobs - it really makes a difference to them. Also, their perception of the Polish legal system, the lack of corruption, is a really important aspect."
But Ukrainian migrants are not the only ones shifting perceptions about their situation. As many of them get settled into their lives in Poland, all of them are being used as a bargaining chip by the governing party.
Brzozowska says Ukrainian migrants are of great value to Poland as a source of labor. They fill the gap left by both an aging population and high Polish emigration. In this sense, the upsurge of Ukrainian migration has been a boon for Poland. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin even went so far as to say at the end of last year that Ukrainian migrants had saved the Polish economy.
But that's not an opinion often heard coming from the ruling Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) party. For the party, led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the need for Ukrainian labor is a topic mostly to be avoided.
"These migration flows are really important for future generations," says Brzozowska. "But still, we do not observe this in the public discourse made by PiS. Maybe in conferences prepared by employers organizations this topic (is discussed), but it's still not a dominant topic or a key message in the public discourse (of the government)."
Rather, the Ukrainians in Poland serve a more useful function as leverage against EU refugee quotas. Though the number of Ukrainians who have received asylum in Poland is vanishingly small compared to the number of work permits issued (according to the Ukrainian embassy in Poland, only 56 Ukrainian citizens were granted asylum in 2017, compared to the 235,600 work permits issued) the government have often referred to the burden of helping Ukrainian refugees as an excuse to be exempted from having to accept refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Prime Minister Morawiecki claims the number of Ukrainian refugees in Poland (as opposed to labor migrants) to be in the tens of thousands. (This is actually a climbdown from previous prime minister Beata Szydło's claim of over a million refugees). This is a deliberate obscuring of the difference between refugees and economic migrants and is not borne out by the country's own asylum figures.
When questioned on the refugee/migrant question, Morawiecki doubled down, claiming many of the migrant workers are in fact refugees without the status. He has recently, however, acknowledged that Poland needs migrant labor, though he continues to emphasize the burden of Ukrainian "refugees" as a reason for not taking any from elsewhere. Poland is doing enough, essentially. "That's the key message in the discourse made by PiS," says Brzozowska. "And this, of course, is very misleading and lacks any insight into the problems of the Polish labor market."