Updated: March 24, 2022 9:07:21 am
As Ukrainians fleeing the war continue to head to the border with Poland, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski has said that the city has reached its capacity to accept refugees, and if there is another wave, Europe and the US will have to step in and share the burden.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Trzaskowski said the Russian invasion has proven Poland’s stand right, and Europe needs to be more assertive against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine, he said, is also fighting for Poland’s freedom.
“We are at capacity, we cannot accept 100,000 more refugees,” he said.
Trzaskowski, who has also worked as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for a year, called Putin a “war criminal” and said India must stand united with Western democracies against Russia.
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“We would expect India to be with us, and to support a strongly narrow stance against dictatorship and against people who are war criminals.”
He said over 2 million Ukrainian refugees have crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border since the invasion on February 24, and 300,000 are now in Warsaw.
“To illustrate the magnitude of the problem, when there was a refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, 200,000 refugees were crossing to Europe in a month. And we have 300,000 in one city alone.”
He said Warsaw faces three main challenges to manage this influx. “First of all, we need to help them and accommodate them. Most of the people who were coming at the beginning were taken care of by their family and friends. Now they need accommodation and basic help.”
The second challenge, he said, is that the Central government has shifted all the administrative duties to the city administration “which means we have to register them, and also we will also be responsible for distributing money and financial aid offered by the government”.
And then there are “problems of a long-term nature, because Ukrainians were granted citizenship status very similar to our citizens. So they have access to free education, free healthcare and so on. We need to provide it. We are responsible for schools.”
He said Warsaw alone has 100,000 students now from Ukraine.
Last week, the Polish government passed a law granting Ukrainians in the country access to social benefits for 18 months. But after 18 months, Trzaskowski said, “We will see how the situation will develop. We hope that the war will end soon. But if it doesn’t, I presume that these privileges will be extended… I hope that we will have stability in Ukraine by then.”
“If there is a second wave, we need a system offered by the European Union and the United Nations. We cannot do it alone. Most of what has been done has been based on civil society, on non-government organisations, on thousands of volunteers, on the city services.”
He said there needs to be “a relocation system in Europe and the world, and we need to share the burden. All of us.” There needs to be a “system in place, where the United Nations and the European Union will start helping us out in a way which is much more synchronised and prepared. Because for now, a lot is based on improvisation.”
Asked about Poland’s changed stand against refugees, as it has in the past refused to accept refugees from Syria and Libya, Trzaskowski said the reasons are both political and cultural. “There are many different reasons,” he said.
As minister of European Affairs in the previous liberal government, he said, “We were ready to accept Mediterranean refugees on a voluntary basis to show solidarity in Europe.” But when the government changed in 2015, with Law and Justice Party’s Andrzej Duda’s becoming the President, the policy changed.
“The new government, the conservative government, decided to renege on that decision and they weren’t able to accept anyone, and even started an anti-refugee campaign for elections,” Trzaskowska said. He was Duda’s main challenger in the 2020 Presidential elections, but lost narrowly to him.
“But now the situation is completely different because everyone understands in Poland that Ukraine is fighting for our freedom as well. And for the security of the trans-Atlantic alliance. So we are doing our bit. And we are helping as much as we can.”
He admitted, though, that for “some people” the question of “cultural and linguistic affinity is important”. He said the “support for the Ukrainian cause and the welcoming instinct of the Polish society has been overwhelming this time”.
Speaking on the larger impact of the war on Europe, Trzaskowska said “unfortunately it is a bitter thing to say, but we were right all along.” He said that as a member of the European Parliament (2009-2013) “we were saying that Europe needs to be more assertive towards Putin. That we need to be energetically independent. That we shouldn’t do business with Russia, because it will soon end in calamity.”
Many people, he said, had at that time said that “we were obsessed about Russia, but history proved us right.”
Poland has supported Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership in the past, and has been one of its strongest advocates. Asked if Ukraine can become a member of NATO now, which was one of the key reasons for Russia’s aggression, Trzaskowska said that even Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “said that this is very unlikely”. But, he said, “we want Ukraine to be a member of the European Union as quickly as possible”.
On US President Joe Biden’s scheduled visit to Poland on March 25, Trzaskowska said that the “words of the American President are very important, especially about defending every inch of NATO territory.”
He said it “gives us assurance, and we can feel safe and simply do our job when it comes to supporting Ukraine.” He expressed hope that “we will hear more words of support” from Biden, and also that the US is “ready to help us” with refugees. “That’s the message we want to hear.”
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