Outside Warsaw’s red-and-white national stadium, the queue for a new life begins two hours before sunrise, at 4am.
That is when the latest batch of new arrivals from Ukraine show up: not for food but for a PESEL personal identification number, allowing them access social services, work legally and earn money to buy their own food.
A month after Russia’s invasion, forcing 2.2 million Ukrainians to flee to neighbouring Poland,word has spread fast that a PESEL number is a passport to a new life. For some the queue brings an emotional realisation: they may not be going home for some time – if ever.
Yulia got here at 8am and, despite the crowd ahead of her, she is still hopeful she will make it through the gate today. The 22-year-old university graduate fled Kyiv when war broke out and spent days in a nearby village, with little food, in an aquaintance’s basement.
“It messes up your head, the sounds of a rocket or someone shooting,” she said. “You don’t think about your career and how your dreams have been ruined.”
After a month in a Warsaw hotel she has finally found an apartment – a PESEL number is key to unlock access not just to social services but also public healthcare.
She is one of the lucky ones here. While others hope to find work in retail or cleaning, the introduction of remote working in the pandemic means Yulia still has her job at a Ukrainian bank. Like dozens of former colleagues, scattered around Europe because of the war, she clocks in every morning as before.
“Work is a form of escapism, I focus on the job,” she said. It takes her mind off those left behind: her parents and a boyfriend who suffers from mitral valve prolapse, a progressive heart condition that will eventually kill him – but does not disqualify him from military service.
“We know his heart could go anytime,” says Yulia, “we were saving up for his operation but now we don’t know.”
After hours of waiting the crowd begins to shift impatiently when a volunteer, over a megaphone, announces the next 100 people will be processed. They hurry through the gate and up the steps to another waiting area inside the stadium where they fill in forms, assisted by Ukrainian-speaking volunteers, and have biometric photos taken.
There’s a play area where children are jumping around and playing rock-scissors-paper. After the applicants clear another waiting area, they enter a long, airy room with 250 work stations, where their PESEL application is finally processed. After the chaos for many arrivals into Poland, everything here is professional, orderly and calm.
In quiet conversations, Ukrainian-speaking staff explain their options and entitlements: to work, go to school, get medical care and welfare benefits for up to 18 months.
The reward after waiting for a PESEL number: a 300zl (€64) one-off welcome payment. Before they leave, applicants can also apply for a bank account and get a free local Sim card for their phone.
“They get free calls to Ukraine, 6GB of data and lots more,” says Michal, an enthusiastic promoter, saying a previous peak of 3,000 cards distributed per day day around Warsaw two weeks ago has dwindled to about 600. “Personally, I wish they weren’t going to be long-term customers, but I fear many will.”
On Monday, new arrivals were down to 21,000 in 24 hours. That was the lowest level since the start of the war and down 30 per cent in a week but labour offices in the big cities are still struggling to process the backlog of those seeking work.
Poland’s response to war on its doorstep was quick, unbureacratic and generous. It helped that, in February, Poland registered a historic low adjusted jobless rate of just 2.8 per cent.
Helping, too, are close geographical and historical ties between the neighbouring countries. Before the war, nearly 630,000 Ukrainians already worked in Poland and the March refugee Bill extends their work permits automatically.
Many Polish employers report positive experiences of Ukrainian workers and a 2021 survey showed that 90 per cent of Poles accept Ukrainians as neighbours and work colleagues.
Justina Ruscka, who owns a bottle-making factory in central Poland, says her brother prefers to hire Ukrainian workers in his floor tiling company.
“They are better than Polish workers, he says, they are really good,” she said. “Before the war, they had to return to Ukraine . . . and he was really disappointed when they left.”
The departure of thousands of Ukrainian men to fight at home has already made its mark in Poland: of the 140,000 vacancies in the labour market here, half are in male-dominated professions such as construction and transport.
“We have a mismatch in the labour market,” said Andrzej Kubisiak, deputy director of the Polish Economic Institute. “Half of the 2.2 million who arrived are children who will need education first. Women may find work in healthcare, or agriculture and tourism in the summer.”
Though many Ukrainians insist they want to return when conflict ends, an extended war and a ruined Ukrainian economy could see many stay after all – or even more arrive. The last decade of tensions with Russia had already triggered a steady wave of emigration from Ukraine.
“It has been largely complementary,” said Kubisiak, “they fill gaps and do jobs Poles don’t want to do and we know our economy would collapse without them.”
As Russia’s war enters its second month in Ukraine, a new feeling is palpable in Warsaw and other Polish cities: while this crisis is open-ended, crucial resources – of generosity, budgets and housing – are finite.
Warsaw and Krakow are feeling the strain most: about 250,000 Ukrainians have settled in the Polish capital, equivalent to 10 per cent of the total population; Krakow has 100,000 people, more than 13 per cent. To date most of the financial burden – of processing, feeding and housing arrivals – has fallen on local government. Krakow has warned that its crisis budget for 2022 is almost exhausted, just three months into the year.
“We are facing the biggest migration crisis in the history of Europe since World War Two,” said Rafal Trzaskowski, Warsaw mayor. “Poles and NGOs and city councils have risen to the situation, but the biggest challenges are still ahead.”
Back at Warsaw’s national stadium, after five hours standing in line, Yulia is nearing her goal of a PESEL number. Like many Ukrainians here and across Europe, the 22-year-old says she is grateful for charity but will be happier when she doesn’t need it.
“It’s like when you’re in debt: at first you feel grateful when someone does something for you, but soon the burden of help grows heavy,” she said. “Then you’ll do everything to get that feeling off your shoulders.”