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COVID-19 pandemic and the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Poland: overview of challenges based on the case of Warsaw and Warsaw metropolitan area

In the case of refugees - as in the case of other socially vulnerable groups – the coronavirus pandemic highlighted lack of actions and processes neglected by central and local institutions in Poland. The text sums up main difficulties and challenges that asylum seekers and refugees experienced due to pandemic and introduction of anti-pandemic measurements in Poland, especially in the capital city Warsaw.

The description is based on data and information gathered from local Warsaw NGOs and institutions during the time of the most restrictive anti-coronavirus measures – March – May 2020. Some issues presented more universal experiences of refugees in Poland in that time. Though, what we need to underline here is that Warsaw and its metropolitan area are very specific – with the highest numbers of recognized beneficiaries of international protection, relatively good (in comparison to other localities in the country) range of NGOs and institutions that can provide services for them. 

The first challenge, probably not visible for asylum seekers and refugees by themselves, but the one that at the end of the day influence on central and local policies targeted to them is lack of established mechanism of gathering information about their situation. Any type of systematic and comprehensive monitoring of situation of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection is not conducted by any of central nor local institution. Even the numbers of inhabitants with refugee background can be only estimated. As in any other crisis, in time of coronavirus pandemic such a gap means only that there cannot be a good, relevant diagnosis and there is no established mechanism of assessing the most important needs, when it is urgent. 

As a solution Warsaw Public Dialogue Committee for Foreigners introduced and cooperated with the municipality on ad-hoc data gathering through questionnaires, group and individual interviews about situation of migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees and their needs during the pandemic. The Committee is one of the advisory and opinion body for the municipality. It consists of around 30 local NGOs and non-formal initiatives representing and working on behalf of migrants as well as representatives of the municipality from departments in charge of migrant issues. The diagnosis was supposed to serve to plan the most urgent activities that the municipality could introduce in order to response to the current needs. Possible solutions were suggested and discussed by the members of the Committee. Some of them were introduced, or started to be developed in the result of the diagnosis and discussions. Though in the text we focus on indicating diagnosed challenges. 

What is worth to mention at the beginning is that some of the problems and difficulties that could have been observed were shared with the experiences of less privileged groups regardless of their origin - for example in the area of employment or education. Obviously, they also have their specificity in the case of persons and families with refugee background. 

Access to asylum and administrative procedures
Health crisis highlighted gaps and insufficiencies if previously practised, bureaucratically  complicated administrative procedures. As soon as all administrative offices suspended face-to-face assistance  due to anti-covid restrictions, migrants, beneficiaries of international protection and asylum seekers faced challenges in obtaining information about their pending procedures. Also the right to apply for international protection was limited, including suspension of asylum application at the border crossing points (according to the human rights organizations since the middle of march the Board Guard refused to accept asylum application and during the period from 16 March till 20 May only 15 first time asylum applications have been registered). People, who at the time of the nationwide quarantine has already stayed in Poland, were able to submit application for international protection due to involvement and help of social organizations and social worked at reception and residence centres. 

Access to integration programmes and social aid entitlements
There was a moment, when it was unclear, how to resolve the problem of proceeding for the Individual Integration Programme (IIP, 12-month public assistance programme for recognized refugees), as soon as requirements, such as  individual interviews or submission of original documents as ID card, were unable to comply. According to national law, as soon as the person obtain refugee status, she or he is entitled for short-term financial support but cannot reside in migrant centre longer than one month.  Social and migrant organizations highlighted that inability to meet requirements could menace homelessness and inability to meet basic needs for people, who received refugee status during the pandemic. Although the formal procedure for IIP was not changed, the problem was avoided due to governmental regulation the Anti-crisis Shield Act 3.0, which extended all assistance programmes refuges have been entitle during the asylum procedures until the 30th day following the date of revocation of the epidemic or an epidemiological risk. 
Besides situation of persons entitled to IIP, due to decrease in socio-economic position of beneficiaries of international protection after IIP (see part below related to employment), there has been an significant increase in needs of food aid and material assistance. Part of that was delivered mainly by NGOs through crowdfunding and food collection.

Situation with (un)employment
The restrictions introduced as a result of the pandemic have created enormous uncertainty for migrants including refugees in their employment. Especially among people who took up jobs in services that were most affected by restrictions against the coronavirus - restaurants, tourist facilities, beauty services, shopping malls, house services, etc. People employed under civil law contracts (frequent practice in the above-mentioned ) did not have sufficient protection of workers' rights. Clearly, signs of this type apply to casual workers with refugee experience, but not only. Many migrants and women have lost their livelihoods or their income has been significantly reduced. The situation became really difficult almost overnight. Not only because of the lack of livelihood. The difficult economic situation also affected other spheres of life.

Psychological situation and access to psychological help
The situation of uncertainty, the loss of the sense of security, and the fear of the deteriorating economic and living situation of their families, had a huge impact on the mental condition of refugees. Organizations providing various types of support services have noticed that the nature of these services has changed – there was a big need for being listened and getting psychological and emotional relief. Unfortunately, access to psychological support in languages understandable for refugees and other migrant groups is absolutely insufficient (especially as free, publicly funded services) and is mostly provided by NGOs (except scare access to psychologist provided by the Office for Foreigners in centres for asylum seekers). 

Coronavirus in Warsaw centre for asylum seekers and access to health services 
Other example of wide-range commitment and engagement of non-governmental organizations, the Office for Foreigners, social workers and privet donors appeared in relation to COVID outbreak in the center for migrant women and children in Warsaw. It was the only migrant center were COVID-19 has been so far identified. At the beginning of quarantine, due to the facility’s conditions, health residents were quarantined together with positively tested, what evoked protests among women. Although informational, medical and psychological assistance were assured by the Office for Foreigners and some social organizations, compulsory quarantine was a harsh time for the residents, especially form women who previously experienced detention. 

Domestic violence
The diagnoses also included fears and signals that forced isolation at home, as in the whole society, also in refugee households, brings about an increase in domestic violence, especially against women and children. As the response the municipality prepared multilingual materials in English and Russian to inform about support provided for persons experienced violence. 

Digital and language exclusion
Health crisis also highlighted the problem of digital exclusion as soon as majority of services, also public administration, medical or psychological assistance, were available only online and people were deprived from ability to obtain any information or help. Social organizations shouldered main role in providing assistance to go through the digital procedures and forms. 
The pandemic also showed lack of multilingual information policies of institutions at different levels. This caused informative chaos among different groups of migrants, especially regarding administrative procedures, but also made it harder to provide understood messages about anti-pandemic measures influencing on people’s health. In case of Warsaw municipality only after few weeks of pandemic, a city websites created (well-hidden) content about coronavirus in Russian and Ukrainian (before only English version was possible). They also speeded up the work on multilingual version of official city website. 
Access to education 
One of far reaching examples of digital exclusion was a challenge that minor refugees and asylum seekers faced continuing compulsory schooling online. Lack or scare access to computer equipment (especially in larger refugee families), weak or no stable Internet connection just partly describe the scope of the problem. Thanks to the collections of equipment and funds for the purchase of equipment organized by some NGOs, it was possible to some extent to ensure access to classes for at least some children. But apart material dimension, access to education for children and youth with migrant background was deprived mostly by insufficient adjustment of schools to the needs of children and families with migrant background, including lack of resources to adjust materials that can be understood, challenges in communicating with migrant parents etc.. The pandemic has shown the key role of intercultural assistants in providing access to education for children with a migrant background in this regard. 

Some of the described difficulties are inevitable in case of unexpected crises as coronavirus pandemic has been. Though some of them could have been avoided or minimalized, if there was a systematic approach on local and/or central level at least in a given field. But as well as there is no strategic document(s) for migration and integration policies at the central level, there is no any comprehensive policy at local level in capital city in Warsaw. The issues raised are tackled rather ad-hoc, if only there is enough resources to deal with that. From discursive perspective this only shows how migrant and refugees issues are treated by public institutions in Poland. 

Anna Górska, 
Researcher on education in the NIEM project / NIEM National Coalition Officer
Institute of Public Affairs

Kseniya Homel 
NIEM’s National Advocacy Officer
The European and Migration Policy Programme
Institute of Public Affairs