The deep socio-economic crisis and military activities in Ukraine have caused there to be an increase in the number of people trying to escape the country at any cost. Among them are potential migrant workers as well as refugees from regions around the Donbass front. One of the main destinations for Ukrainian emigrants is Poland. However, they are not blocked by official forces alone. Self-organised groups with the goal of curbing the flow of people from the neighbouring country have been appearing in the border areas since fall 2014.
“Zarobitchany” and refugees
Ukrainians choose Poland for two main reasons, the chief of which is its geographical and cultural proximity. The countries are neighbours. The Ukrainian language is very similar to Polish. And the compatibility of the mentalities of Poles and Ukrainians has been proven historically.
In addition, the level of economic development and, correspondingly, living standards in Poland are significantly higher than in Ukraine. It is also one of the largest economies in unified Europe and despite the crisis is still experiencing the need for a work force, especially in the agricultural sector. As far back as July 2007, the Polish authorities considerably simplified the rules for labourers seeking work in order to make up for the deficit in labour resources which arose in connection with the mass emigration of Polish citizens to other EU states. Even back then the absolute majority of work permits were provided to Ukrainians.
Since 2013, when Ukraine entered into a state of constant political and economic instability, the flow of Ukrainian labour migrants – zarobitchany – has increased. In particular, in 2014 a record was broken: nearly 285,000 work permits were registered for Ukrainian citizens during the first three quarters. In the opinion of a spokesman for the Polish Labour Ministry Marcin Wiatrow, “If not for the events in Ukraine and the sudden deterioration of the situation in this country, then the influx of workers would not have been so great.” (quote from Censor.net.ua)
According to the most recent survey, conducted by TNS On-line Track, 15% of Ukrainians living in cities want to leave the country for good, and 10% temporarily. Finally, 36% would like to leave but do not have the possibility of doing so. In other words, over half of the country’s citizenry wants to get out one way or another.
According to the civil activist and expert on migration politics in Poland and Ukraine Alexander Greene, the main obstacle to legal emigration for Ukrainians is the lack of material resources, a legal basis or even the documents necessary for working abroad. “Many Ukrainians do not even have a passport which would allow them to leave to work in the European Union. They can only use their internal passport for travel in Russia and Belarus. That and legal migration incurs a serious financial cost. In particular, a Ukrainian citizen needs a minimum of 3-4 thousand złoty to move to Poland for work. It is that threshold which keeps someone from finding legal work and processing all their documents for some time,” the expert commented to Europe Insight.
All of this leads to a large inflow of illegal migrant workers. The percentage of Ukrainians that now work abroad had already increased 40% in February-March 2015, announced the International Organisation for Migration. Additionally, according to its representative in Ukraine Manfred Profazi, today about 21% of the potential labour migrants from Ukraine would agree to cross the border illegally or work “in chains”, handing their passports over to their employer, in order to work in a foreign country. (quote from Zn.ua). There is no precise data related to the number of Ukrainian illegals located in Poland. But there are statistics regarding detainees. Particularly, according to information from the Polish Border Guard, 4,300 illegals were detained in 2014. This is 800 more than in the prior year. Ukrainians made up the majority of them – 2,000 – a 100% increase in comparison with 2013.
According to Boguslaw Maretsky, Coordinator of the Illegal Immigration Research Group, the number of Ukrainians attempting to reach Polish territory illegally will increase exponentially for as long as the unstable political and socio-economic situation in Ukraine continues. “Our estimated calculations indicate that each year about 6,700 Ukrainians attempt to illegally cross the Polish border each year. In 2016, if the forecast remains the same, this number will double,” Maretsky told Europe Insight.
The expert also gave indication of the social profile of an illegal Ukrainian migrant labourer: unemployed (83%), married (58%), male (66%), 25-35 years of age (41%), completed secondary education (88%), resides primarily in Western Ukraine (34%), holds right-wing views (44%), and has a satisfactory command of Polish (27%).
However, such characteristics are not found among those refugees who have become an entirely new category of illegals crossing from Ukraine into Poland. According to William Spindler, an official spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 924,000 people have left the country and 353,000 have requested asylum in a new place. Based on UN estimates, Poland is in third place: 3,700 Ukrainians have applied for asylum and 60,000 came in regular ways. Meanwhile, groups of refugees together with other immigrants from Ukraine are continuing to arrive, legally or illegally. However, the reaction of the Polish authorities to this process has not exceeded “expressions of concern” or “stating facts”. In particular, the country’s new president Andrzej Duda stated in an interview with the German magazine Bild that “We already see signs that several hundred thousand Ukrainians want to come to Poland.”
Poles have their own problems
In contrast to their president, ordinary Poles, especially those living near the border with Ukraine, are seriously concerned about the influx of illegal aliens, who they see not only and not so much as competitors in the labour market but more as a source of ethnic criminality. To counteract the Ukrainians trying to get into Poland illegally, anti-immigration civilian patrols have started appearing. Their epicentre is Rzeszów Province, where at least two activist groups have formed independently of each other – Falanga and Pluton CzG – and are patrolling the Poland-Ukraine border in search of illegal immigrants. Discussion about these associations’ activities has already gone on for a month without stopping in the leading Polish, Russian and Ukrainian mass media outlets. Pavel P., the leader of Pluton CzG (“Black Mountain Platoon”), which patrols the Black Mountains in the Beskids, gave an exclusive interview to Europe Insight.
— What is your organization all about? What are its goals?
— We formed in early September 2014 from members of youth right-wing organisations and other individuals. Our only goal is to stop Ukrainians from illegally entering Polish territory and make it as uncomfortable as possible for those who are here against the law.
— Why, in your opinion, do illegal Ukrainian migrants pose a threat to Poland?
— I am not saying that it is just Ukrainians who are a threat to Polish society. It’s all the same to me – Ukrainian, Vietnamese – if you crossed the border illegally, then you are a criminal. My duty as a Pole and a citizen of the Republic of Poland is to oppose this. As for Ukrainians, their main problem is that they are massively involved in organised crime. Their groupings in Warsaw, Rzeszów, Przemyśl and Krakow are engaged in human trafficking, theft, prostitution, and drug trafficking. They are consolidated, based in the diaspora and operating through relatives. On getting to Poland, a Ukrainian immediately starts to import all his multitudinous relatives. They call this “go by godfather”. The police have no legal ways to combat this. We haven’t got such limitations.
— Therefore, your organisation is of a semi-legal character?
— Yes, we get around the law but have not broken it.
— What does Pluton CzG do exactly?
— Mostly we patrol the border in the Beskids National Park. The border patrol is attentive to it, but the terrain makes it impossible to cover every walking pass, find every hide-out, and track down every person coordinating illegal border crossings from the Polish side. Formations like ours are the “second net in a filter”. We do not interfere with the border patrol officers. My organisation has its own realm of responsibility – it’s not in our interests to meet with the representatives of authority. Acting independently and as we see fit, we intercept those not stopped by the border guards. We force them to go back to Ukraine themselves. We try to be polite but clear: Poland is not the place for Ukrainians. It’s not for everyone.
— How many Ukrainians have you been able to send back home?
— In May-June – 13 people. Mostly young men and women from Central Ukraine.
— How do the Ukrainian illegals explain their desire to be in Poland? Do they want a better life?
— I don’t ask. I’m not interested in their intentions or motivations. There are such ones as this, but less now. Many men are running from war. In February we captured a draft dodger from Sambir (a city in the Lviv Oblast – note). His story was that his work visa ran out a day before being called to join the troops. After the meeting, he preferred to go serve.
— Do the local or state authorities notice your activities?
— Those who call themselves the “Polish authorities” have no political will to fight with illegals like the interests of the Polish nation demand. And in their field of vision are those who have such a will. What we are doing sometimes provokes the indignation of local politicians. How is it that in European Poland there is a place for such “radicals”! Why are they persecuting the poor and hungry Ukrainians?… But we are not persecuting Ukrainians. We are resisting invaders. They’ve tried to put pressure on me a few times, but without any results. So let them protect from us those who want to parade around waving Bandera flags in Warsaw then. (Note: In October 2014 a scandal broke out when several Ukrainian students staged a photo shoot with OUN-UPA flags.)
— Why, in your opinion, is the Polish leadership not making the necessary effort to stop illegal immigration from Ukraine?
— The authorities in Poland are no longer Polish. They defend the interests of the EU. It is in EU interests to help Ukraine and Ukrainians. And Ukrainians know no bounds. It’s not enough for them that Poland provides undeserved preferential treatment, benefits and assistance, jobs, education quotas, etc. They always want more. If the consulate does not give them a working visa, they come on a tourist visa and stay. If they come here to study, they plan to stay forever. If he’s a soldier, he gets treatment in Poland; healed, he never leaves.
— In your estimation, will the flow of illegal immigrants from Ukraine into Poland increase or, on the contrary, decrease in connection with the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement?
— In Poland there are now a total of almost a million illegal immigrants and their number is growing. It is not clear how many of them are Ukrainians. There is no information from state or private organisations. But based on what I am seeing, the number of Ukrainians trying to get to our country is growing. This is because of the crisis and the war with Russia. Their number is rising with each new mobilisation. As each day passes, it is becoming more and more difficult for the Polish authorities to deal with this flow. Poles must unite in order to defend their interests.
Unlike their colleagues, the Falanga group is armed. It is namely this which explains the
media’s fervent interest in it. The Falangists also draw attention with their announcements about hunts for Right Sector fighters supposedly penetrating Polish territory alongside other illegals. As told by the members of Falanga, the events at Mukachevo where Right Sector fighters participated in an exchange of fire and later ran into the forest were the reason for starting their activities.
The reaction of representatives of the Polish state to the actions of Falanga and Pluton CzG are unequivocal: illegals from Ukraine present no sort of threat; border control is handling its responsibilities just fine; and no help is needed from citizen patrols – moreover such help is out of line. Specifically, Beskids Branch Border Control Press Secretary Elżbieta Pikor emphasised in comments to Gazeta Wyborcza that guarding the border is exclusively the affair of her department and not that of any civil patrol. “The Polish border is well guarded. And each violator is held criminally accountable. It is not true that border control requires some kind of help from civilian patrols. Moreover, it is illegal,” she announced.
In the opinion of a consultant in the sphere of border cooperation and business, Cezary Markevich, illegal migration makes Poles uncomfortable, especially the business community which has to face ethnicity driven crime from time to time. “But there should be legal mechanisms for dealing with this problem. The fight against illegals is, of course, not a task to be entrusted to marginal nationalist-radicals,” Markevich told Europe Insight. The expert is certain, however, that the appearance of groups like Falanga and Pluton CzG is an important sign that the Polish authorities are not handling the job. “I expect that they are now more concerned with issues related to hosting Middle Eastern refugees. Most Poles’ attention is now focused on the same issue. Border area residents have their own problems. Ukrainians is one of them,” the expert summarised.