Race, Class and Second-Class Status: Reactions to the Current Refugee Crisis

 In the last few weeks, over 2 million refugees have come to Poland from Ukraine. What we have witnessed has been a wave of solidarity, mutual aid and self-organization unlike anything seen in the country in many years. Thousands of people, the majority of which have never done anything like this before, have opened their homes to total strangers in need of shelter. Many more have donated a wide variety of goods and gone to train stations to welcome people with food and other necessities.

Much of the help that has gone on has come from self-organized initiatives. The NGOs that normally help migrants have of course been active. In Warsaw, the city authorities who make a lot of noise about how much they have helped in fact acted relatively late. All sorts of people were actively engaged and provided the majority of help at the beginning and, as far as we can see, continue to do so.

This sort of behaviour towards others is heart-warming and seems like the way the world should react to such situations. However, some, including myself, feel rather bitter at the horrendous double standards that this only serves to highlight.

The Other Side of the Wave of Open Hearts

This extraordinary show of kindness and decency stands in stark contrast to the everyday behaviour of many people and especially those in power towards other people who are in dire circumstances. I am referring to other groups of refugees but also to both poor Poles and many of the Ukrainian immigrants already working in Poland. The treatment of earlier refugees has been motivated in large part by racism and, in the case of poor Poles and Ukrainian immigrants, by contempt for large categories of working people.

It is worth comparing the treatment, which is already beginning to stir resentment amongst those affected.

A Question of Racism

Over many years, right-wing politicians and journalists with quite racist worldviews have been trying to create a narrative about refugees that sometimes borders on hysteria. Alt-news articles are spread about the horrors that the rest of Europe face having refugees and this has turned many people against them. Poland has famously refused to take in a share of refugees from other EU countries and when they have taken them in, has done an abyssmal job of helping.

In the past weeks, many have commented on Europe's response to the current refugee crisis compared to refugees from other war-torn countries. In Poland, this contrast is especially stark given the fact that some months earlier, there was a crisis on the Poland-Belarus border where refugees were literally brutalized, left to starve and freeze in the cold, even fired upon with water cannons in the freezing weather with no chance of shelter.

During this time, there were people who were scandalized and tried to help. This was despite the fact that the government closed off the area, including to media, to NGOs and by entering this area, one risked police brutality and arrest. On the other hand, there were also far-right groups that sent paramilitary groups to intimidate and brutalize those trying to cross.

We are talking about tens of thousand of people over the fall and winter of 2021, most from places like Syria and Yemen. There were people who spoke out, there were some modest protests and people who went to help. It seemed like the majority of people, whose hearts are now so open, either remained silent or wholeheartedly supported the brutal actions of the state.

These actions are still going on. Recently the New York Times published an article about two people trying to cross the border on the say day: a man from Sudan and a woman from Ukraine. (1) Unfortunately, one is shown tremendous hospitality and kindness; the other subjected to racist slurs and cruel behaviour by the Border Guards, hunted down with drones and helicopters.

Polish people don't like to be called racists and, indeed there are lots of people who do not hate this way, despite growing up in an environment where racism is tolerated. Certainly the people prefer the image being cultivated now, of a warm and open people willing to go to great lengths to help those in need. Only it is clear that this type of treatment is usually reserved just for those who they clearly indentify with – in other words, people who are white.

Even people who have fled from Ukraine who are not white have not encountered the same type of hospitality as their white counterparts and there have been some reports of racism.

(1) Two Refugees, Both on Poland’s Border. But Worlds Apart by Jeffrey Gettleman and  Monika Pronczuk


The Question of Class: Some examples of hypocrisy

If the first type of double-standard is quite obvious, there is another type that we could discuss. We can compare both the treatment of poor Polish people in certain situations of need and the treatment of many Ukrainian immigrants who lived in Poland before the war with the treatment given by the central and local governments to the recent war immigrants.

I will write mainly about housing and labor as these are two areas where I am active and know the situation very well.


Two actions of the Warsaw City Council that we find very disturbing regard the housing situation and can only be understood with some background. Over the past 20 years, there has been a large move towards making dramatic cuts in the availability of public housing – something once recommended to the government by the IMF and pursued with rigor by the strongly neoliberal policy makers of the city. In addition to the large drop in available units resulting from privatization and from decades of negligence, leaving some buildings uninhabitable, there is also the fact that many public housing units are simply vacant. There are several reasons for this but the main two reasons is that the City was hoping that these units could be privatized and that they haven't invested enough money in repairing them and bringing them up to standard.

Since there are literally thousands of people either waiting for a flat or denied qualification due to some absurd technicalities, it is no wonder that this situation has angered many residents. In my neighbourhood, almost every municipal tenant can tell us about vacant flats in their blocks. Despite the dire need for housing, they often remain vacant for many years. At a tenants action yesterday, one woman told me that the flat she used to live in has remained empty since she moved out to another one. That was 17 years ago.

Given this situation, sometimes people just squat these places. In the past couple of years, we have seen the amount of people going into these flats increase dramatically and we offer them, as a tenant's organization, various kinds of support. One of the most common kinds of support is preventing their eviction as the local authorities try to threaten them and lock them out and, if that fails, evict them through a court order.

It is worth noting that people are fed up with this situation. For years, not only our organization but other organizations that deal with housing and homelessness have been trying to get something done. Many, many tenants have offered to repair these flats at their own cost. All to no avail. The only thing that has worked as been squatting. It should be noted that the great majority of people who have squatted in municipal housing have tried to legalize their stay and even pay rent. Taking over vacant flats was a common practice in the 70s and 80s and while those who did this at that time were offered amnesty and often had their residence legalized, a few years ago the government adopted more punitive laws in relation to occupying municipal housing.

In our neighbourhood, where we have contact with many – if not most- of these squatters, we see that they are mostly single mothers, some having been victims of domestic abuse and mostly people who are in a very precarious situation on the labor market.

As some readers no doubt have already guessed, the reason for writing about this topic is the fact that, despite years of claiming that there is „no money” for repairing these flats or trying to convince people they were doing all they could, magically there is money for this. These flats are to be repaired to house refugees. Already, some people who have been waiting for a while for flats have been told that these flats won't come any time soon, because the city has to deal with the refugees.

Although many of the people affected actually did something to help the refugees, we can now hear resentment. The refugees will be allowed to live rent-free, despite the fact that they can work legally and some have already found employment. Local residents on the other hand sometimes face the reality that working a full-time job might disqualify them from public housing and throw them onto a private market with very high rents that few working poor can afford.

What's more is that the city has encouraged these people – some of which live in very cramped housing (with a standard of 5 meters per person) to take in refugees. Especially for this, the city will not charge extra for additional people living in the flats. While this is fine (if somebody can do it), this treatment has to be compared to what happens if a municipal tenant lets a friend crash at his or her place or houses them temporarily – for example, after an eviction or trying to escape domestic violence. Such a situation is considered a breach of the lease and these tenants have their leases terminated and face eviction.

This is of course scandalous. For showing a bit of solidarity to friends who are in need, people risk homelessness themselves. Friends are not to be helped. Refugees from Ukraine – a different story.

What is the reason for such a double standard? In my opinion, it comes down to an individualistic, neo-liberal mentality which is fueled by a deep-seeded class hatred. We can see the disdain that those in power have for those who need help with housing. With the exception of some old ladies or people with disabilities, they are largely regarded as people who are somehow at fault. The bureaucrats and policy-makers, with their comfortable salaries, simply don't want to admit that housing is not affordable for people who work hard. Their class bias tells them that if somebody doesn't earn enough, they must not be trying.

Right now the cheapest available flats outside of public housing cost about 2/3 of a minimum wage salary – before taxes. Those earning minimum wage or less, or working precariously still number in the hundreds of thousands, even in Poland's richest city.

We hear a lot of complaining about this different treatment and we are hoping that this doesn't turn into resentment against the refugees. Unfortunately, that has been the history of a lot of class conflict – that instead of targetting those who are responsible for the misery more directly, people like immigrants become the object of hatred.

If that happens, it would not be the first time that the neo-liberals have adopted policies that have helped those with more nationalistic rhetoric fan the flames of discontent to their benefit.

The Housing and Working Situation of Pre-War Ukrainians

I can refer to the Ukrainian immigrants who were here before as pre-war. Simply put, their housing situation is often tragic.

As immigrants, they are often subjected to illegal housing contracts and conditions. Our organization has had to make quite a few interventions; even in the last two weeks prior to the war, we helped two Ukrainian women. One was illegally evicted and another is in a bureaucratic nightmare. People who become homeless because of illegal eviction cannot count on any help other than perhaps a terrible shelter. The municipality does not want to deal with public housing for immigrants, with only a few exceptions. 

Some Ukrainians, having lived here for decades, are able to get into public housing. Others are treated as ineligible by the bureaucrats, even though their is nothing in the law that would prevent this. There is also a large number of Ukrainians who are here and sometimes have been here most of their lives but have trouble legalizing their residency.

It is not uncommon to find large groups of Ukrainians living in sub-standard housing. We have met young people living 8 people in two small rooms. We have intervened as a labor union concerning the living conditions of workers – packed into unheated containers or on the floors of barns in the countryside.

Of course there are also many Ukrainians who do better for themselves and there are even lots of professionals who have come here to work. A lot depends on the status of their work permits and their professions.

Unfortunately, Ukrainians are the main cheap labor supply in Poland. Prior to the war, there were about 2 million Ukrainians with either long-term or short-term work permits living in Poland. In addition to that, there are a considerable number of people without any permit who are working in the grey economy. Students, although able to work legally, are often exploited and given illegal working conditions.

In some areas, employers do not want the expense of paying taxes or legalizing employment. This is particularly true for a few jobs such as nannies and maids, hairstylists and cosmeticians, farm workers and workers in the hospitality industry.

These workers often do not have any benefits and also are usually not entitled to health care. They often have no contracts, can earn less than minimum wage, are subjected to illegal working conditions and are often cheated or fired without notice.

Many of those without legalization have found themselves in such a situation due to the negligence of the employer in filing paperwork or because of other bureaucratic problems. Sometimes, despite efforts to work legally, their permits are denied.

Ukrainians who do work legally are of course taxpayers like any other worker who has money deducted from their salary.

Despite the huge problems with wage theft and violation of their rights that Ukrainians in Poland face, there has not been any real steps taken by the government to protect their rights. (Although they don't protect Polish workers any better.)

Imagine the surprise for Ukrainians struggling with getting a work permit to learn that all war refugees can get the right to work legally in Poland and free medical care just for having entered after the war started, not before.

What's Likely to Happen with the Refugees on the Labor and Housing Market

Human solidarity is more than likely to revert back to business as usual. With millions of new people on the labor market, employers will start to look for the best deal. Already some Ukrainian people have „found work” on illegal conditions and the internet is flooded with offers for nannies, cooks, cleaners and so forth. In other words, the poorly-paid, often informal work that less fortunate Ukrainian women workers have been doing for quite a while here.

In terms of housing, it is very expensive, at least in Warsaw and there is definitely a deficit of affordable options. Even the city offering vacant flats will not provide nearly enough housing for all. The Ukrainian refugees will be divided into a few thousand lucky ones with free municipal housing and those trying to find anything on the free market – where, in response to the crisis, landlords have already raised rents. In such a situation, expect overcrowding. Abuse of tenant's rights, already very common, may rise due to an increase demand and taking advantage of the situation.

The government has already adopted a new law concerning the refugees and one of the provisions is that if they are evicted, they will not be entitled shelter in municipal housing. Not that most Polish people are able to get this either, but they are entitled to apply and sometimes get some type of shelter, even if temporary. Ukrainian refugees will not be entitled to even apply.

It seems that Ukrainian refugees may face the typical exploitation and housing problems that other Ukrainian immigrants and many working poor face know so well as soon as the era of hospitality is over.