ZOiS Spotlight 18/2022

War in Ukraine: What Do Young Poles Think?

Polish volunteers at a soup kitchen for Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw. imago / ZUMA Wire

After the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, over 2 million Ukrainian refugees arrived in Poland. Historically a melting pot of different cultures, Poland became one of the most mono-ethnic states in Europe after World War II. Now, due to the Ukrainian presence, non-Poles once again constitute a considerable percentage of the population in major cities and across the country.

Polish society and politicians have largely welcomed those fleeing Ukraine. Alongside public support – free public transport, Polish ID numbers, and help for families that host Ukrainians – there has been massive support from society in the form of everyday activism. This response is nothing like the reaction to the ongoing crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border: there, while some Polish NGOs have been trying to help the refugees, who are mostly from the Middle East, the Polish government has endorsed pushbacks and framed its approach as ‘defending the whole of Europe’.

Over the last decade, young Poles have been exposed to an increasingly polarised political and social climate. Some young Poles endorse the Law and Justice (PiS) government’s conservative identity discourse, while others vehemently reject it. In the context of a ZOiS project investigating how young Poles understand their national identity, we asked about the war in Ukraine and movements of refugees. The survey was carried out online in February 2022 among Poles aged 16–34 living across the country. Quotas were set for gender, age, and city size to reflect the underlying population structure.

Welcoming Ukrainians with open arms – but not for long

There is overall support among young Poles for accepting Ukrainians. The arrival of Ukrainians in Poland connects with personal encounters that accelerated after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which led to the immigration of between 1 and 2 million people into Poland. At that time, city councils, banks, mobile phone providers, and other companies established websites in Ukrainian, and in many cities the language became part of the public landscape. Now, with around 1.5–2 million refugees fleeing the war, it is estimated that one in every ten people in Poland is Ukrainian.

Our data show that half of young Poles think that Poland should accept as many refugees from Ukraine as necessary (figure 1). Overall, age and gender make no difference to this welcoming attitude, which also cuts across political cleavages. The willingness to accept people from Ukraine is greater among those with a higher disposable income and those living in cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants. Poles who regularly participate in religious services, however, are less likely to accept Ukrainian refugees.

Figure 1: What do you think Poland should do with people from Ukraine seeking refuge in our country?

While the consensus on welcoming Ukrainian refugees cuts across several divides, there are pronounced differences in opinions on what should happen to those who have recently arrived. Integrating refugees requires significant financial resources. Government aid in the form of free public transport, access to the Polish healthcare system, child benefits, and small start-up grants, will, according to estimates, create direct fiscal costs of about 3 per cent of Poland’s GDP.

Overall, young Poles assume that the refugees will be provided with temporary care: 42 per cent expect that they will return to Ukraine quickly, while 31 per cent think that they should be passed on to other EU countries. Only a quarter of respondents believed that the refugees should be provided with a chance to integrate into Polish society and remain in the country. Interestingly, men are 50 per cent more likely to favour further integration, whereas women would, in general, like Ukrainian refugees to either return or continue on to other EU states. Here, as well, the financially better off are more likely to accept further integration, with no difference according to age.

Solidarity but no soldiers

The Polish government has been an outspoken supporter of Ukraine. Poland has become a hub for transporting military equipment to Ukraine, and Warsaw is a central actor in the coordination of NATO’s response to the war. As a result, and despite continuing problems with the rule of law, Poland’s international standing has much improved in recent weeks. 

When we asked young people what position Poland should take in the current military confrontation, more than 80 per cent agreed with support for Ukraine, while some 16 per cent said that Poland should stay neutral. Asked how the country should support Ukraine, most young people opted for humanitarian aid (figure 2).

Figure 2: How should Poland support Ukraine?

Approval of humanitarian aid is particularly low among people who regularly take part in religious services. Yet, support for this policy cuts across other cleavages, such as financial resources, place of residence, gender, age, and even political orientation. Support for military aid, meanwhile, is lower among younger Poles and, again, for the more religious. The sending of soldiers, an option chosen by 15 per cent of young Poles, was more popular among slightly older respondents.

When asked what they would be willing to do personally to support Ukraine, half of young Poles indicate a readiness to donate. However, there is very limited support for joining an anti-war protest (chosen by 5 per cent) or to go to Ukraine personally to deliver humanitarian aid or join the armed resistance (chosen by less than 2 per cent).

An impressive mobilisation – but what next?

Attitudes towards the situation in Ukraine are very dynamic, as are the factors that shape them. Since we conducted the first part of our research, Russia has cut gas supplies to Poland, and the first challenges of high numbers of refugees – for instance, how to integrate Ukrainian pupils into the Polish education system – have started emerging. How these frictions will play out has a bearing on young Poles’ future support for Ukrainians who flee violence.

For the time being, there has been an amazing mobilisation of individuals and resources in a country long believed to lack a well-functioning civil society. This mobilisation demonstrates how fuzzy the distinctions are between activism and human help, acts of citizenship and acts of kindness. It is now for young Poles to show whether their spontaneous readiness to help can be a first step towards successful integration.

Dr. Felix Krawatzek is a senior researcher and head of the research cluster ‘Youth in Eastern Europe’ at ZOiS. Dr. Piotr Goldstein is a researcher in the MOBILISE project at ZOiS. Together, they launched the project ‘Defining the Nation: Young Poles and their Sense of Identity’.