ZOiS Spotlight 38/2018 by Alexander Chertenko (7 November 2018)
The large-scale migration of Ukrainians to Poland, which began after 1991, surged to record levels and acquired a qualitatively new dimension after 2014. As a result of the economic crisis which followed the outbreak of war in the Donbas in 2014, but due also to Ukraine’s endemic corruption, some two million Ukrainians were permanently resident in Poland in 2018. The influx was facilitated by Ukrainian migrants’ easy access to the Polish labour market and higher education. Poland is still the only country in the European Union (EU) to allow Ukrainians to take up employment without a work visa. The similarities between the two languages and cultures also play an important role.
Polish government policy towards the incomers oscillates between ideologically motivated exclusion and a pragmatic attitude towards their recruitment as a labour force. On the one hand, there is a tendency to label Ukrainians en masse, even new arrivals from Ukraine, as “Bandera followers” – nationalists, in other words. On the other hand, further changes are being introduced to make it easier to recruit Ukrainian workers and issue them with residence permits. In the official discourse, it is by no means uncommon for Ukrainian migrants to be referred to as “refugees” and, as such, used as leverage in the dispute over migrant quotas in the EU.
A silent minority
Given these leverage and exclusion practices, Ukrainian migrants’ own attitudes and self-perceptions are becoming increasingly significant. What were their reasons for migrating? To what extent do discriminatory strategies impact on Ukrainian migrants’ daily lives? Does politics play a role for them? How do they see their own situation? Obtaining answers is challenging, as the Ukrainian minority has few mechanisms for networking and seldom makes its voice heard. It has no newspaper of its own, no political representation and no nationwide trade union. The few Ukrainian cultural organisations that exist are mostly based in Warsaw.
In order to explore these questions, four students at Berlin’s Freie Universität interviewed 20 Ukrainians with diverse backgrounds and experiences of migration as part of the “Living Abroad – Ukrainian Migrants in Poland” project . Although these interviews make no claim to be sociologically representative, they reveal a complex reality behind the stereotypical image of migrants.
A diverse picture
This complexity is evident in the interviewees’ motives for migrating. Although the challenging economic situation in their home country is mentioned as a key motive, it generally has an effect only in combination with other non-economic factors, such as disillusionment with the outcomes of Euromaidan, the desire to live in a “country with rules”, or the wish, more generally, to feel a sense of “European-ness”. The war in Ukraine is a less significant factor. Only one interviewee, a woman from Donetsk, mentioned it as a reason to migrate.
Migrants’ perceptions of Poland are no less complex. For many, Poland is the ideal of what Ukraine should aspire to be, even though the Poles themselves are generally seen as “different”. For some interviewees, Poland’s perceived “stability” ties in with an ideal type of Soviet-style social security; in that sense, Poland is held up as a modern-day continuation of the Soviet Union, contrasting with Ukraine. Astonishingly, the Ukrainians’ perception of Poland rarely includes a political dimension. Very few migrants – other than those working in the arts and media – can name the Polish ruling party or prime minister or have any conception of the Polish government’s political agenda. Indeed, some see an emphatically apolitical stance as a sign of “progressiveness” and integration into Polish society.
Most interesting of all is the way in which Ukrainian migrants deal with their experiences of exclusion and discrimination. While many of the respondents talk about experiences that can be classed as economic and especially ethnic and national discrimination, there is very little recognition of them as such. In an effort to normalise their own position in the “other” society and emphasise the success of their integration, migrants are inclined to put the blame for discrimination on their compatriots or see it as “normal” behaviour that would have been appropriate in Ukraine as well. None of the interviewees has made any serious effort to counter the various forms of discrimination by building solidarity within the Ukrainian community. Instead, discrimination is often regarded by migrants as a reason to intensify their own efforts to conform. What’s more, most interviewees say that they mainly rely on Ukrainian media and admit that they are more familiar with what is happening in their home country than with the current situation in Poland.
Integration or ghettoisation?
Analysis of the interview data reveals several problematical but hitherto largely unnoticed dimensions of large-scale Ukrainian migration to Poland. Firstly, the influence of migrants’ Ukrainian background on their lives is much more far-reaching than the often mentioned economic and social situation in their home country could suggest. As the migrants’ specific socio-cultural identity is rarely considered at government level in Poland and the migrants themselves generally avoid any political engagement, they remain largely isolated from Polish domestic politics. Secondly, the gap between the degree of integration actually achieved by migrants and their idealised perceptions of it reveals the fundamental insecurity of their situation. This is largely ignored by Polish society and media, but it also acts as a breeding ground for negative stereotypes. And leading on from this, thirdly, is the acute risk that the increasingly populous Ukrainian minority in Poland could evolve into a parallel society whose members’ assigned role is to serve as a source of largely unskilled labour – as one female interviewee pointed out. Preventing this risk from becoming reality will require integration policies that treat Ukrainian migrants not as a (temporary) source of labour but as people who are here to stay.
 Photographs and interview excerpts depicting some of the project’s outcomes are currently on display at Café ostPost in Berlin.
Alexander Chertenko has a PhD in Literary Studies. His research interests include literature about the war in the Donbas, literary portrayals of human experiments, and historical discourses in German contemporary literature. He is currently studying East European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.