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Poland has closed the biggest refugee centre set up for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war, saying that the facility was no longer needed because most of its occupants had already found homes elsewhere.
The decision, which was confirmed on Friday and required the sudden relocation of hundreds of residents, comes after Poland won international plaudits last year for acting as the EU’s main gateway for Ukrainians. About 1.5mn Ukrainians registered for temporary protection in Poland in 2022, while millions more travelled via Poland to other countries.
Many of the Ukrainians were welcomed into private homes as part of a huge relief effort orchestrated by Polish civil society, but the authorities also opened several centres to house them.
The centre in Nadarzyn, set up on the grounds of an exhibition centre on the outskirts of Warsaw, housed as many as 9,000 Ukrainians in the spring of 2022. When it was closed on Thursday about 300 refugees still living in the facility were relocated to other refugee centres.
Nadarzyn was always meant to be a temporary shelter for refugees, said Dagmara Zalewska, spokesperson for the Mazovia province where the centre is located. Its closure was now also justified because “the number of refugees from Ukraine arriving in Mazovia is negligible”, she said.
But local aid workers said the abrupt closure caught those in Nadarzyn by surprise.
“It made me cry, when a [Ukrainian] woman called me yesterday saying that at 5pm the door to the centre was closed and they weren’t allowed inside,” said Alina Oniszczuk, an aid worker at another centre for refugees in Warsaw, which sent three buses to pick up people from Nadarzyn late Thursday. “Some people didn’t even have a chance to pack all their stuff. They gave them some food in bags and that was it.”
The closure was part of a “reorganisation of the entire refugee assistance system” across Poland, said Zalewska. Many Ukrainians had become “independent” and found their own lodgings, either in Poland or in other countries or back in Ukraine in areas sufficiently safe for them to return to.
The number of Ukrainians fleeing the country has dwindled recently as the battle lines in the war have become more entrenched. But humanitarian organisations insist more support was also needed for Ukrainians still fleeing the conflict.
“While fewer people are crossing into Poland in search of safety these days, refugees arriving right now have been exposed to the war for much longer and are visibly more traumatised,” said Joanna Nahorska, a spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee. The closure of a shelter like Nadarzyn “increases feelings of uncertainty”, she said.
Migration has been moved to top of the political agenda before an October 15 national election in which the rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS) is seeking a third term in office. The PiS-led government is staging a referendum on the day of the vote, which includes two questions related to migration.