JOANNA PLUCINSKA and MICHAEL KAHN
WHEN Ukrainians started streaming across the border after Russia invaded their country on February 24, residents in this Polish city — like many others across central Europe — sprang into action to help settle and house refugees fleeing war.
Three months later Rzeszow’s population of nearly 200,000 has swelled, at times as much as 50%, and Mayor Konrad Fijolek predicts the city will need new schools and housing to absorb refugees unable or unwilling to return home.
The pressures on his city illustrate the challenges facing central European nations as they shift to providing long-term assistance to refugees, who are mostly women and children.
This includes providing access to jobs, schooling, and mental health counselling. New arrivals increasingly come from hard-hit eastern Ukraine compared to the first wave of refugees who often had family connections and more means, officials and aid workers say.
“If we built a few thousand more flats here, they would definitely be occupied, even by those people who want to escape here and wait out the war but probably a large part of them will stay here more permanently,” the Rzeszow mayor told Reuters.
“There is not a single vacant place. We would really need and we will try to build more flats and there is a huge integration process ahead of us.”
His city, which lies on the River Wislok about 100 km (60 miles) from the Ukraine border, has a well preserved Old Town and is home to a number of universities, as well as being a growing regional tourist and investment hub.
Central European nations like Poland, which had large Ukrainian communities before the war, have been a natural destination for many refugees, putting pressure on some local services and residents in a region already hit by sharp cost of living increases.
“We understand that Poland is probably also having a hard time because of this,” said Svetlana Zvgorodniuk, who left the western city of Lviv on Feb. 27 with her daughter and granddaughter. “It is difficult for the state to provide for so many people. We are very grateful.”
More than six million Ukrainians have fled their country, escaping a Russian invasion that has flattened cities, killed thousands and created Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the end of World War Two.
‘I WON’T CHASE THEM AWAY’
Much of the burden of absorbing the refugees has fallen on Poland, where 1.1 million Ukrainians have registered for a national identification number, according to government data. That number includes 519,000 children and means Ukrainians now make up 7% of the children living in Poland.
At the Hotel Zacisze just outside Rzeszow, owner Krzystof Ciszewski said he has paid out of pocket to house refugees at the popular summer wedding venue and is still waiting for government compensation.
Now he worries about freeing up rooms to honour bookings from locals made well before the war started.
“We agreed immediately that…we would accept anyone who wanted to stay here for an unspecified period of time,” Ciszewski told Reuters at his hotel, where refugees lounged on picnic tables outside and could choose from a spread of sausage and cheeses.
“Somehow we have continued to provide for the refugees but for how long I am not sure. I won’t chase them away.”
The Polish minister in charge of the refugee crisis, Pawel Szefernaker, acknowledged there were problems that he said needed to be solved, and said he would follow up on the situation in Rzeszow.
He told Reuters the government has so far sent 1.3 billion zlotys ($297 million) to local communities to help defray the costs of housing refugees. The government has also formed a team to coordinate efforts to help refugees in areas including education, healthcare, jobs and social policy, he said.
Rzeszow’s mayor Fijolek said many families have told him they have not yet received compensation despite accommodating refugees for months.
“While numerically, there are more refugees in Warsaw or Wroclaw, the scale of population growth in Rzeszow is the highest.”
MOUNTAINS AND BIG CITIES FULL
From towns like Rzeszow to bigger cities in the region like Warsaw or the Czech capital Prague, Cyrillic writing at public offices and job-seeking ads on social media signal a growing Ukrainian presence in the region.
In the Czech Republic, a summer crunch looms because mountain and tourist areas that have taken in a large number of refugees need space for the vacation season starting in June, People in Need migration coordinator Jakub Anderle told Reuters. The Prague-based non-profit group is also operating in Ukraine.
“The difficulty is a lot of them are concentrated along the borders and areas outside of larger towns such as in mountain areas where there is not enough social infrastructure, there are not enough schools, there are not enough quality jobs and healthcare,” he told Reuters. “That is the biggest challenge.”
At the Resort Eden in the Krkonose mountains straddling the Polish border, manager Jiri Licek said the hotel has paid for lodging, food and a social worker, with some local donations.
And with nowhere to relocate the Ukrainians, many of who have lived at the hotel since the start of the war, Licek is looking at a lost summer season after a number of Czech school camps cancelled bookings due to uncertainty over space.
“I don’t believe anyone will give us compensation,” Licek told Reuters. “We finance everything from our own resources.”