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Over the past years, Ukrainians in record numbers have been shifting to Poland, lured by prospect of higher wages and a chance to escape Russia’s threat. A looming war could see a lot more stream across the border

For Ukrainians arriving in or leaving Warsaw, the West bus station is a critical way station, and much of the signage there is in Ukrainian.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

When Roman Tymoszko moved from western Ukraine to Poland four years ago, he thought he’d find a good-paying job and earn lots of money to send back to his wife and two teenaged daughters who live outside Lviv.

Instead, Mr. Tymoszko ended up on a farm picking apples for next to nothing and living in squalor. He moved to Warsaw a year later and he’s now sharing a two-bedroom flat with four other Ukrainians. He works six days a week at various construction sites and pockets about $1,400 a month, roughly half what his Polish co-workers earn.

“We Ukrainians do the hardest work and get the least pay,” he said with a laugh. “But I don’t have a choice.”

Roman Tymoszko is a Ukrainian living in Poland.

Ukrainians like Mr. Tymoszko have been pouring into Poland in record numbers in recent years, lured by the prospect of higher wages and a chance to escape the constant threat from Russia. And there could be a lot more coming. Polish officials have said that if Russia invades Ukraine, up to one million Ukrainians could stream across the border.

More than 300,000 Ukrainians already hold residency permits, according to Poland’s Office for Foreigners. That’s a threefold increase since 2017, when the European Union granted Ukrainians visa-free access to member states, which includes Poland.

But the actual number of Ukrainians in the country is far higher because many come as seasonal labourers or work illegally as taxi drivers, cleaners or nannies. Economists at the National Bank of Poland have estimated there are at least 1.1 million Ukrainians living in Poland, and others have put the figure even higher.

There’s little doubt Ukrainians have been underpinning Poland’s strong economy for years by filling menial jobs that few Poles want. The National Bank study said that Ukrainian labourers had contributed 13 per cent annually toward Poland’s economic growth from 2013 to 2018.

Rafal Mroz, an executive at EWL Group, one of Poland’s largest temporary-employment agencies, said the country’s low unemployment rate – around 5 per cent – has forced employers to hire an increasing number of Ukrainians.

EWL has filled 12,000 positions this month, up from 3,500 in the same period in 2019. Around 85 per cent of those posts went to Ukrainians.

“The number of Ukrainians will go up, for sure,” said Mr. Mroz. He added that more Ukrainians are also being hired for skilled jobs in health care and information technology.

Jaroslaw Ogonowskui, a Ukrainian bus driver who lives permanently in Ukraine, has a regular route from Warsaw to Ivano-Frankivsk several times a week. Ukrainians arriving at the station find signs on the steps advertising 'legal work in Poland.'

But despite their growing numbers and economic importance, many Ukrainians live on the margins of Polish society and are often vulnerable to exploitation.

Denys Kulish came to Poland six years ago from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine shortly after Russian-backed rebels began causing unrest.

He’s been working illegally as a labourer and serving as a financial lifeline for his parents and brother back home.

Mr. Kulish spent Monday night sleeping at the Warsaw West Bus station after arriving from Szczecin, in northwestern Poland, for what he thought was a new job. His new employer was supposed to pick him up at the station, but by Tuesday afternoon no one had appeared.

The West bus station is a key gathering place for travellers from Ukraine, and Ukrainian-language signs decorate most of the walls. But it’s also a haven for gangs who prey on new arrivals.

“It’s dangerous here,” said Mr. Kulish as he huddled next to a wall. All he could do, he said, was wait and hope the job was still available.

Denys Kulish sits at an employment office at the bus-station building.

Marta Kindler, an assistant professor at the University of Warsaw’s Centre of Migration Research, said Polish attitudes toward Ukrainians have changed markedly over the years.

In the 1990s, Dr. Kindler said most Poles had a negative perception of Ukrainians, stemming largely from hostilities during the Second World War and atrocities committed by both sides in Poland’s Volhynia region. Those attitudes softened as Ukrainians began arriving in larger numbers after Poland joined the European Union in 2004.

“Poles were becoming more open and because they had contact with Ukrainians they realized, okay, these are normal people,” she said.

Ukrainians also won greater acceptance because they filled jobs that had been abandoned by Poles who headed off to work in other European countries.

Roughly 1.2 million Poles emigrated between 2002 and 2013, representing 3 per cent of the population. Around the same time, in 2014, a massive wave of Ukrainians started arriving because of political turmoil in Kyiv and the rebellion in the east.

Dr. Kindler said the election of the populist Law and Justice government in 2015 changed public attitudes once again. The ruling party adopted a staunch anti-refugee policy and it has refused to participate in EU programs to resettle asylum-seekers from the Middle East.

At a Greek Orthodox church in Warsaw, a bulletin board advertises jobs and accommodation to Ukrainians. Father Piotr Kuszka, bottom, and his parish support newcomers financially and spiritually.

Even though the government has been generally welcoming of Ukrainians – because of their economic importance – the party’s anti-immigration rhetoric, pushed by state-controlled television, has left many Poles skeptical of all foreigners.

The centre’s research has shown that many Ukrainians now feel alienated in Poland. “They said to us that ‘before 2015, I was not afraid to speak Ukrainian or Russian in public spaces or in transport,’” she said. “And right now when I speak Russian or Ukrainian, people react in a negative way. They say ‘you’re in Poland speak Polish.’”

She and others say the government will face a huge challenge if a Russian invasion of Ukraine sparks a refugee crisis. Because of its hard anti-refugee position, the Polish government hasn’t developed a coherent immigration policy or an administrative framework to deal with even a small number of refugees.

In the event of a war, Poles will be desperate to help, said Olena Babakova, a Warsaw-based journalist who covers migration issues. “But if you have no clear procedures and if you have no general policy on refugees, it really will be hard.”

If there is a massive influx of Ukrainians, Father Piotr Kuszka stands ready. He’s a priest at the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Greek Orthodox Church in central Warsaw that’s become a second home for many Ukrainians. As well as prayer and spiritual guidance, the church helps newcomers find housing and offers legal advice, mental-health services and financial support. Father Kuszka is also quick to call the police if there’s trouble at the bus station and he’s worked hard to try to clear out the gangs.

Every Sunday, the church holds five masses for up to 900 people at a time, and lately one service has been dedicated to the trouble in Ukraine. “It’s a nervous time,” he said. “Everything is in God’s hands.”

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