ZOiS Spotlight 16/2023

Flexible Solidarity: Polish and Hungarian Responses to Forced Migration

After the 2022 Russia’s invasion, forced migrants from Ukraine received surprisingly welcoming responses in Poland and Hungary. While both governments had reacted in a similarly hostile manner to the 2015 forced migration, some significant differences have shaped their 2022 crisis response.

Emergency shelter for refugees in the Hungarian border town of Záhony in March 2022. IMAGO / agefotostock

Much has been written about the lack of solidarity shown by Poland and Hungary during the 2015 refugee protection crisis. Despite being differently affected by the refugee influx, the countries’ right-wing governments responded in a similarly hostile manner to the arrival of forced migrants. At the time, the governments argued in favour of what was framed as flexible solidarity. Seven years on, it was a very different situation: what had seemed impossible in 2015 materialised in 2022. Faced with the largest forced migration in Europe since World War II, the Polish and Hungarian governments warmly welcomed people fleeing the war in Ukraine. They put Temporary Protection (TP) arrangements in place and opened their borders and welfare systems to the Ukrainians. Yet, despite these similarities, local-level responses in Poland and Hungary differ in many ways.

The aftermath of 2015

The 2015 crisis, for the first time in post-1989 history, put forced migration at the top of the public and political agendas in Poland and Hungary and was utilised to mobilise electorates. The government’s actions reflected the public and political discourse. Both countries refused to participate in refugee relocations, accelerated illegal push-backs at the borders, defunded their asylum systems and built walls at their external borders. Both governments introduced various illiberal reforms and increased centralisation of their governance systems.

Yet the Polish government’s official anti-refugee discourse was accompanied by a breakthrough liberalisation of labour migration policies that resulted in rapid growth of the immigrant population in the country. While in 2011, the migrant population in Poland numbered around 100,000, by 2019, it exceeded two million. Ukrainians predominated in the growing migrant population. Among them were those who had fled the war in Donbas but chose the simplified and secured legal entry procedure rather than the lengthy and uncertain asylum process.  In the absence of government-designed immigrant integration infrastructure, Polish cities stepped in. Mayors of the largest metropolises have been developing immigrant integration strategies  and strengthening horizontal collaboration to support immigration.

Meanwhile, in 2015, Hungary struggled with the largest refugee influx in its history, at the time the largest per capita in the EU. More than 177,000 people claimed asylum in Hungary, equating to around 1,800 refugees per 100,000 citizens. President Viktor Orbán responded with increased securitisation of borders and policy centralisation. A handful of opposition-run Hungarian cities were left with limited administrative and budgetary capabilities. The Hungarian 'Stop Soros' campaign increasingly discouraged citizens from mobilising.

In Poland, even though the government has restricted NGO access to EU funding, grassroots movements supporting refugees have been growing. The growth accelerated during the crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border. Again, the central government's hostile push-back policies triggered local authority measures and civil society activism to support refugees. These civil society networks and city administrators soon became essential in shaping the 2022 crisis response.

Deserving migrants, deserving organisations

The forced migration of people fleeing the 2022 war in Ukraine occurred in the Polish and Hungarian contexts of anti-refugee government policies, divided local administrations, and polarised societies. In Hungary, the 'zero immigration' policy had reached its apogee. Yet the forced migrants from Ukraine met with surprisingly welcoming responses. During the most rapid influx of forced migrants to Poland, the population increased by nearly 5 per cent in just a few months. The government’s TP framework created a quick and easy path to legalise forced migrants' stay and their access to the welfare system. On the ground, NGOs and local governments remained at the forefront of the response. They adopted various ad hoc measures to address the migrants’ immediate humanitarian needs, including assistance with relocation from the Polish-Ukrainian border, putting in place information points, offering temporary housing, and mainstreaming welfare services to migrants needs. 

Just days after the start of the crisis, Hungarian migration and humanitarian NGOs were arranging aid alongside the grassroots movement organised via social media. In addition, the Fidesz government introduced The Bridge for Transcarpathia campaign, which aimed to assist the nearly 200,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine. That fell into a broader framework of diaspora policy granting Transcarpathians of Hungarian ancestry dual citizenship. The government also selected a group of supposedly deserving faith-based organisations to develop ad hoc programmes to address the forced migrants’ needs.  Some of these organisations openly supported the 2015 government’s hostile narrative and practices towards refugees.

The Polish and Hungarian shift from hostility to refugee welcome has mainly been attributed to the symbolic threat posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a conscious collective, and Ukrainian ethnicity. Race, however, is what differentiates most of the clearly ethnic Ukrainians fleeing the war in 2022 from Black and Brown asylum seekers at the Polish-Belarusian border, African students or Ukrainian Roma struggling to access comparable help or even fundamental human rights. Consequently, the political and media discourse in Poland and Hungary shifted their narratives on deserving refugees, who in Poland were labelled ‘war refugees’ and in Hungary ‘genuine’ and ‘familiar’ refugees. 

‘Do-it-yourself’, privatised and decentralised help

Despite the welcoming TP framework, local administrators and NGOs in Poland needed more systematic and comprehensive government support. Not only was there a lack of guidance from the central government about how to make public services available to Ukrainians, but most of all, government funding was inadequate. Some administrators felt abandoned by the government and described it as a ‘do-it-yourself’ culture that created expectations to take matters into their own hands. The international non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations quickly filled the funding gap. A year after the war escalated, 83 partners, including six UN agencies, 24 INGOs, 48 national NGOs, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Red Cross, and four faith-based organisations were operating through the UNHCR response plan for Poland. Through this network, multiple specialised and new local refugee/humanitarian aid organisations received much-needed funding to set up ad hoc programmes to address the needs of forced migrants. However, the multitude of actors created coordination challenges. In addition, the sustainability of such programming after the withdrawal of INGO funding remained problematic. Finally, the focus on social organisations increased and accelerated the privatisation of public services. In Hungary, too, financial gaps were filled by international aid. UNHCR's response plan for Hungary, similar to Poland, included multiple stakeholders (37), yet unlike in Poland, the privatisation processes were less prominent due to Hungary’s stronger centralisation of refugee governance.

Similar process, different scales

Although the Polish and Hungarian governments were similarly unprepared for the 2022 crisis due to years of illiberal reforms and a lack of governmental migrant integration infrastructure, there were significant differences between the two countries. While Polish local authorities and civil society maintained some administrative and financial independence, the autonomy of Hungarian municipalities and civil society has been systematically shrinking.

The 2022 crisis created an opportunity to extend the rights of forced migrants. The largest Polish municipalities were able to successfully utilize it through accelerating the process of developing local migrant strategies and mainstreaming their public services to non-Polish speakers.. In Hungary, despite extensive civil society mobilisation, the limited autonomy of municipalities prevented similar processes to happen.

Karolina Łukasiewicz is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow in the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw.

Kamil Matuszczyk is a social science researcher in the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw.