Damian Irzyk took office as Consul General of Poland in Mumbai on May 14, 2018. Irzyk served as Cohesion Fund Expert at his country’s Ministry of Regional Development, Economic Counselor at the Polish Embassy in Jakarta and Political Counselor at the Polish Embassy in Beijing. In an exclusive conversation with The Free Press Journal, Irzyk talks about Poland offering refuge to Ukrainians because of the war, government policies put in place to help refugees, and more… Excerpts from the interview:
How many Ukrainians do you host and how does your country deal with this?
Poland was the first country to respond to Russia’s major escalation in Ukraine. At the start of the war, we were receiving about one and a half million refugees a day. The Poles responded to this with an open heart and it was because of the spirit of help rooted in the roots of Polish society. Everyone felt the need to help our Ukrainian neighbors. Today, Poland hosts about two million Ukrainians, mostly women and children. We offer them security numbers that allow them to access health care, education, the job market. The Polish government also launched a program of cash transfers to families who housed Ukrainians under their roofs. Several programs have been introduced to enable the integration of Ukrainian skills into the Polish economy. It also helped that we had low unemployment. This allowed us to absorb excess labor immediately.
The EU has also granted state permits – for a maximum of one year with a possible three-year extension – to people crossing the Ukrainian border. They didn’t just come to Poland. Those who had family in Italy, the Netherlands or Germany went there. As it was a pan-European solution, they also benefited from the same advantages such as access to healthcare, school and the labor market.
What motivated the decision to open the doors to Ukrainian refugees?
Before the escalation of the war, we had a million Ukrainian workers in Poland. Ukrainians are culturally close to us. The language is similar and today, after about six months, Ukrainians can speak Polish. We issued the most state permits for non-EU countries and that was mainly for Ukrainians, who helped our economy grow.
The war was a shock for the West, but not so much for Poland. We have known Russians for generations and almost every Polish family has grandparents or great-grandparents who were affected by World War II (when Russia and Germany invaded Poland). The Poles felt that they (the Ukrainians) are in the same situation as their great-grandparents. Friends and families rushed to the borders to offer transportation to Ukrainians inland because that was the primary goal — to not leave people behind at the border.
Also, what was touching was the patriotism displayed by the Ukrainians. Ukrainians lived in Poland before the war. They succeeded and had a family, a job and a normal life. Suddenly they wanted to quit and go back to defend their country. This is something that has strengthened our determination to support the Ukrainians.
There was a large Indian population in Ukraine, mostly students. Were there Indians among those who came to Poland to flee?
Yes. Ukraine had about 75,000 students, 20,000 came from India and the rest came from different countries. About 6,000 Indian students crossed the Polish border. Poland has granted visa-free access not only to Indians, but also to other nations. They just stamped the passports and they had 15 days to leave the EU. The Indian government has launched the evacuation plan called Operation Ganga. The students were in Poland for two or three days. Some of them returned to Ukraine, but many started their studies in Poland.
What makes Poland tick with Indian students?
There are many aspects. (Like many EU countries) We have an affordable cost of living and tuition. It is attractive, especially for university students in medicine or technology.
Do you see any mental health issues as a result of the war crisis?
The closures have been far more devastating than that and have created a lot of problems, especially for children and teenagers. But there was a huge level of anxiety among the Poles when the war started. I was there when it escalated, so I didn’t feel it. But when talking to my family and friends, they expressed how scared they were. They felt that the Russians would not stop in Ukraine and go no further. Anxiety intensified when rockets fell 15 kilometers from the Polish border. Many of my friends wondered if they should leave at the start of the war. But then we realized that the Russians were weak and disorganized. They were failing on every point on their agenda, which was encouraging. Mentally it was a burden because of the closeness and history we had with Russia. But now I don’t think it’s a major challenge.
Has it affected the tourism sector?
It’s also something I struggle with here in India. Many Indians come to me and ask me if it is safe to travel to Poland. However, overseas tourism is not a major contributor to our economy. Even before the pandemic and the lockdowns, our economy was not affected much by the lack of foreign tourists. The tourism sector has managed itself with our national tourists. But the war somehow affected the perception. Therefore, Polish Airlines started direct flights to Mumbai. Being a new kid on the block, they offered competitive pricing. Now tourism has picked up and we have more tourists arriving compared to pre-Covid times.
Do you have an Indian diaspora in Poland?
Yes, but very little, and this is a recent development. There are two factors at play here. First, Poland, being a member of the European Union, offers good higher education and allows staying after graduation from Polish university. Second, being a country that has grown steadily over the past 30 years, we are currently a high-income economy. Therefore, it is interesting for Indians to settle in Poland for work. As our unemployment rate is technically non-existent, there is a constant search for new talent that can be absorbed.