WARSAW—Local governments can’t buy beds fast enough. Poles who offer to host refugees get more than 100 emails from newcomers looking for a place to sleep, often full of details of their ordeal. The flood of people has raised Poland’s population for the first time since 1987.
Europe is facing its biggest refugee crisis since World War II. In the nearly two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, 2.4 million people have fled to the European Union, with no end in sight. The overwhelming majority are descending on countries in the EU’s east. Officials are scrambling to expand housing, schools and social services for an influx of people expected to grow by millions more.
“They’re calling day and night, asking if we have beds,” said Marta Molińska, who turned the skydiving camp she runs in western Poland into a shelter for what was originally supposed to be 15 people. It now houses 50.
Two Ukrainians enter Poland every three seconds. The 1.4 million people who have arrived in Poland would create the country’s second-largest city. By next week, they will likely surpass Warsaw, the country’s biggest city, Polish officials expect.
Since 1987, Poland’s population has been steady around 38 million, held down by emigration and few births. In the 13 days since Feb. 24, it has hit 39 million, and within weeks it will likely top 40 million.
The abrupt arrival of millions of people entering the EU is already straining the transatlantic alliance, with Poland pushing the U.S. to shoulder a bigger burden. On Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris, during a visit to Warsaw, announced $50 million in assistance, through the World Food Program, for refugees in Europe.
during an hourlong talk with Ms. Harris earlier in the day, pressed for her government to do more: for example, to expedite visas for Ukrainians in Poland hoping to join relatives in the U.S. Without more help, Mr. Duda told reporters, “given the further influx of refugees into Poland, this will end up in a refugee disaster.”
The wave is crashing into Warsaw, where 200,000 Ukrainians have arrived in just over a week. If those newcomers stay, as the government expects most to do, one out of every nine residents of the capital would be a newly arrived Ukrainian.
That Polish government estimate is conservative. The tens of thousands of Ukrainians showing up at the city’s stations for food and medical help are just a fraction of those in the city, said Warsaw’s mayor,
The number should keep rising. Ukraine’s prewar population stood at 44 million.
From his desk at city hall, Mr. Trzaskowski has been working the phone, managing to find accommodations in neighboring countries: On Tuesday, he secured a stadium in Berlin willing to house 300 people, while a building in Vienna was available for 800. Just after he sealed those deals, the government called to say five trains, each packed with Ukrainians, were on their way to Warsaw.
“We get more and more people who have no friends and no family and are completely disoriented,” he said. “We really need, now, a system…. This is like our biggest humanitarian crisis after the Second World War. What can we do? We are one city.”
For the EU, which saw 1.3 million asylum seekers arrive in 2015—mostly from Africa and the Middle East—the current refugee crisis is bigger, and targeted at an entirely different set of countries. Then, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic all resisted a proposal to redistribute refugees who mainly headed for Germany, Italy or other wealthier European states.
This time, refugees are overwhelmingly headed into the EU’s eastern countries, the same ones that tried to restrict the arrivals of refugees escaping wars in Syria or Libya. For Ukrainians, both Polish and Slovak are similar languages, and their countries have centuries of shared culture and history.
Tight labor markets, affordable cities and a pre-existing diaspora have made those countries more appealing alternatives for Ukrainians, who find options slimmer in Europe’s west. So far, the U.K. has accepted about 700 Ukrainian refugees.
The government, which has vowed to accommodate as many Ukrainians as it can, has floated a 8 billion zloty, equivalent to $1.7 billion, budget package to manage the influx. Its proposals include a one-time welfare payment to refugees, along with a stipend for the Poles who house them.
Poles, overwhelmingly sympathetic with their eastern neighbor’s plight, have opened their homes and businesses to house Ukrainians. In Krakow, a nonprofit turned an old theater into a shelter that housed 12 people on the first day of the war, 100 people on the next day, and has been packed ever since—thronged with scores of people flopped down on mattresses on the floor and just three showers. Some 3,500 people offered their apartments in the city, all of them now full, said Karol Wilczynski, who runs Salam Lab, a migration and human rights group.
Online, more than 10,000 Poles joined a website pledging to host refugees in their homes, for free. Each offer can get more than 100 responses from families asking to stay. Volunteers have complained to the website’s founder, Rafał Rybacki, that their phones won’t stop ringing.
Some refugees are branching out to alternative parts of Europe. On Wednesday, trains leaving Warsaw’s western railway station for Berlin were sold out, leaving Oksana Poplavska, a 36-year-old mother of two kids with nowhere to spend the night, after nine days of nonstop travel from their home Kyiv. As her children nibbled on pastries and drank hot cider from paper cups, she cried, asking bystanders if there was any place that would house her.
Other European countries are bracing for an influx of Ukrainian refugees. Italy, with one of the largest Ukrainian populations in Europe, says 800,000 refugees could arrive in the coming weeks. Europe learned from the 2015 refugee crisis and is moving quickly to address the crisis. In just one day, European Union countries approved temporary measures that give Ukrainians access to housing, medical coverage, schools and social-welfare assistance.
At Warsaw’s central railway station, a mother and her two children navigated a thin footpath through the crowd of refugees sitting on the floor, steps, their suitcases or bags. A driver took her money and left without her, she said, leaving them to spend the night among the dozens of families camped out on blankets in front of a packed
“We’ve got a problem with these people who don’t know what to do. They are from some countryside in Ukraine, they speak only Ukrainian, and they have no idea where to go or how long they want to stay,” said a nearby volunteer, filtering through the crowd.
Before he could finish his next sentence, an elderly woman traveling alone from rural Ukraine interrupted, saying she wasn’t sure where to go.
“I have no place to stay and I don’t speak the language,” she said.
—Yana Tashkevych contributed to this article.
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