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Poland: Local help for refugees from Ukraine – the case of Lublin.

More than 2 million refugees have arrived in Poland since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine [1]. Responsibility for helping Ukrainians fleeing the war fell on the bottom-up initiatives coordinated by private entities, NGOs and local governments.

One of the examples of efficient crisis management turned out to be the city of Lublin, where the Lubelski Społeczny Komitet Pomocy Ukrainie (Lublin Social Committee to Aid Ukraine) was established on February 24. The organization includes such NGOs as the Homo Faber Association, the Borderland Spiritual Culture Foundation, the Rule of Law Institute Foundation, as well as the employees of the Lublin City Hall.

From the very beginning, the focus of the Committee was put on aid actions in 17 different areas (including legal, psychological and medical aid, translations, finding accommodation, food aid, providing complex information to refugees, collecting data on needs and aid sent to Ukraine, etc.) carried out with the help of more than 100 volunteers. Information on the actions taken was presented at the meeting dedicated to discussing the activities of the Committee, which was held online on March 31. Based on Lublin's experience, good practices and challenges can be identified, although it should be remembered that difficulties encountered by particular cities are determined by cities’ size, the number of refugees and many other factors.

Starting with the issue of resources - the Committee coordinates assistance from private entities and NGOs, trying to respond to the basic needs of people coming to Poland. Lublin is also the first city in Poland where the Polish Centre for International Aid launched a financial aid program, thanks to which refugees received payment cards and could use funds according to their needs [2]. The financing turns out to be a problem, as the help is being done voluntarily and it also involves people from Ukraine who - as in the case of Ukrainian students - have been cut off from their sources of living recently. They are offered shopping vouchers, although, as the coordinators point out, this form of assistance is not a proper equivalent of volunteers' work and has an ad hoc dimension. When it comes to Polish volunteers, the missionary nature of the aid, which is based on a moral obligation, is being emphasized. This form, however, will not be effective in the long run, as the diminishing resources and new challenges require constant funding. Fundraising activities are organized as temporary measures, e.g. on Facebook, but the situation requires the implementation of more structural solutions as soon as possible.

In Lublin, Ukrainians are being accommodated thanks to the creation of an open database, although refugees are not being deployed based on telephone calls, as it works in other cities. In order to obtain assistance, refugees should personally report to the coordinating point with a document (in case of a family, one representing person is enough), which allows for better verification (and increased safety of both sides) and a better understanding of the needs and more effective adaptation to them. When receiving the accommodation address, refugees also receive a complete set of information brochures about other assistance available to them and - which is worth emphasizing - information about the possibility of relocation to other Western countries.

When it comes to the relocation issue, the municipal partnership between cities turns out to be an important element. Thanks to this partnership, local governments have communication channels that facilitate transport and finding accommodation in a host location outside Poland. During the meetings on relocation, refugees have an opportunity to talk to representatives of the host countries who answer their questions and concerns. On this occasion, the local government of Lublin developed networks of contacts that were transferred to other organizations and could be used in the future. On the Polish side, there was also an assurance that adequate assistance would be provided for refugees in the places of their final destination. International partnership at the level of local governments has also turned out to be important in the case of on-the-spot assistance - at the request of the president of Lublin, the authorities of friendly cities send trucks with aid to Ukraine.

Doubts and the lack of decisiveness on the part of refugees (which is understandable since they have to decide their further place of stay in a short time and uncertain situation), were indicated as one of the main challenges. The situation in this respect is very dynamic, which makes transports more difficult to coordinate. In this context, it is very important to ensure (logistical and financial) assistance when returning to Ukraine, as many people hope for a quick end of the war. They also fear that if they go to more distant Western countries, the return will be more complicated. What is more, fake news, which easily spread among refugees, cause panic waves and undermine confidence in the information received from Polish aid centres. 

The main good practice coming from the Committee’s experience is a long-term approach, focused on the Ukrainian community as well as on Poles hosting them in their homes, and looking for solutions that are focused not only on ad hoc help but also on thinking how the situation may evolve and what new challenges it may bring. 

[1] Data as of 30.03.2022: 2,362,044 refugees, source: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine

Dominika Kulig