While the emergency law adopted mid March has some flaws, Poland's quick enactment of the EU decree gives a legal basis to protect refugees in the short and medium term.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a refugee influx into Poland and Central Europe in numbers not seen in Europe since World War II. As of the day this article went to press 2.3 million refugees had crossed the border from Ukraine into Poland and the influx continues with some expecting up to 10 million refugees. To give scale, on February 23, 2022, Poland's population was app. 37 million. This influx caught Polish legislation mostly unprepared, and the EU and Polish Parliament set to work at a record pace to craft a set of laws and regulations: a) allowing refugees to stay in Poland, b) for the course of the war, and c) to give a legal basis on which refugees could have basic protection of citizens (medical care, social benefits, right to work, education for children, etc.).

The EU first published the EU Council Decision on temporary protection for refugees from Ukraine (the "Decree") on March 4, 2022. As a decree, the Decree can have the force of law directly on the Polish (and other EU) systems, while each member state has been working on its own laws implementing the rules applying to refugees, which must comply with the Decree and may improve the situation of the refugees.

In compliance with the Decree, and as an attempt to address the refugee crisis, Polish Parliament adopted the Act on Assistance to Citizens of Ukraine in Connection with the Armed Conflict on the territory of Ukraine, and the President signed it on March 12, 2022 (the "Act").

As of today subject to some exceptions, the Act applies to all Ukrainian citizens, their spouses and members of their family who do not have Ukrainian citizenship who came directly to Poland in connection with the hostilities conducted in Ukraine since February 24, 2022. There are two key words here: one is directly meaning that all those who got to Poland by first crossing the Slovakian border, for instance, are excluded from the benefits granted. This rule will change in forthcoming days by the Polish Parliament since in practice it unreasonably divided the refugees into two groups. The first group (meaning those coming to Poland directly) which may benefit from the Act and the other (those that for whatever reason chose another – often less crowded – place to cross the border) that is deprived of the basic privileges stemming from the Act.

The second key word is "Ukrainian" meaning that the Act disregards non-Ukrainian citizens living in Ukraine once the war started who got to Poland, which clearly stands in opposition to the EU Decree, which covers all Ukrainian nationals residing in Ukraine before 24 February 2022, all stateless persons, and nationals of third countries other than Ukraine. Pursuant to the provisions of the Act they are not vested with the rights provided in the Act and their stay in Poland is subject to old, less favorable, provisions. This was perceived as materially unjustified due to the fact that almost all these people were running from war and there was no other reason for them to came to Poland. For example, Byelorussians who were in exile in Ukraine were not covered by the Act. This should change in the near future.

What are the most important benefits granted?

First of all, it is the 18-month legal stay in Poland counting from February 24, 2022, no matter when the refugees crossed the border.

The second most important issue is the possibility of obtaining a personal identification number (PESEL) authorizing to use free of charge medical services, be legally employed, open own business activity and use the social benefits provided by the Act.

On top of it, the people fleeing to Poland from Ukraine are authorized to assistance in obtaining accommodation; free public transport (including trains, buses and local public transport), the possibility to continue education in Poland or to practice as a doctor, nurse or midwife and many more. Provisions of the Act seem to constitute a quite reasonable step in providing assistance to all refugees and regaining the knowledge and control over so extraordinary (and increasing daily) number of refugees.

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