In and out of Europe: Migration between Poland, Ukraine and Belarus in the light of COVID-19

While diverse administrative, economic and political events throughout history have had an influence on the movement of people around the world, none of them had a bigger impact on the number of people crossing the European Union’s (EU) eastern border than the current COVID-19 pandemic. But how has this actually fared on tourism, the labour market and student flows?

A case study part of ESPON’s IRiE project has shown the effects that the pandemic has had on the interregional flow of people across the Polish eastern border by studying population flows between 1994-2020. This time period has not only seen Poland’s accession into the EU and the Schengen Area, but it was also here that several formal and legal conditions that had an impact on cross-border population flows were introduced. Examples of such conditions include the introduction of visas for citizens of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine (in order to enter Poland) in 2003 and the establishment of a visa-free regime between the Schengen Area member states and Ukraine in mid-2017, amongst others.

However, it should be highlighted that the volume of cross-border traffic is also influenced by developments and decisions in countries neighbouring Poland, such as the annexation of Crimea in 2013. Meanwhile, none of the previous events that had an influence on the volume of cross-border traffic across Poland’s eastern border has had a greater impact than the restrictions put into place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the study. Collected data shows that the Polish-Ukrainian border traffic has been recorded at only one-third of the pre-pandemic cross-border traffic numbers. A slightly lower, yet still significant, decrease has been seen on the Polish-Belarusian border where only one-fourth of the pre-pandemic border traffic numbers have been observed.

Border traffic on the Ukrainian section in 2010-2020 (in both directions). 

Border traffic on the Belarusian section in 2010-2020 (in both directions). 

Unsurprisingly, tourism was the sector most affected by the introduction of restrictions put into place to slow down the spread of COVID-19 – although Poland saw a steady increase in the number of incoming tourists in the years 2010-2019, the pandemic triggered a collapse of tourist flows in 2020 (from 7,5 million tourists in 2019 to 2,3 million in 2020 – a decrease by 69,7%). Similarly, when looking at the difference in the number of tourists coming to Poland from Ukraine, the study reports a decrease from 556,4 thousand in 2019 to 206,3 thousand in 2020. Looking instead at the Belarusian numbers, the number of tourists decreased from 171,9 thousand in 2019 to 39,2 thousand in 2020.

Number of tourists from Belarus and Ukraine, 2010-2020.

Perhaps an exciting finding, however, has been found in relation to the labour market. While many countries saw high unemployment rates not seen for several decades, this was not the case for foreigners employed in Poland (of which 73% and 7% of all foreigners registered with the ZUS in 2020 were Ukrainians and Belarusians, respectively, i.e., 532,5 thousand Ukrainians and 50,6 thousand Belarusians – although the actual numbers are higher). The study has revealed that the pandemic, and the consequential decline in border traffic on the Polish eastern border, has not translated into a proportional decrease in the number of foreigners working in Poland (although the total number of employees in Poland fell by 50 000 in the period between 2019-2020). This could be the effect of various solutions, such as the automatic extension of permits allowing for legal stay and work in Poland, put into place to encourage the retention of foreign workers. In the case of Belarusians, the political crisis that developed in Belarus following the presidential elections of summer 2020 was a factor that encouraged migration to Poland despite the pandemic-related difficulties that could arise upon crossing the border.

Furthermore, even though a decrease in the number of jobs associated with seasonal work like construction and manufacturing has occurred, other industries, for example, those associated with transport and storage, have demonstrated high resilience to external shocks – they saw increased demands for labour in spite of the difficulties of the pandemic and lockdown measures. A reason for the increased demands for labour in the transport and storage industry could perhaps be due to the exceptional growth that Poland’s e-commerce market experienced in pandemic times – e-commerce grew by 35% in Poland in the year 2020, compared to 16% in 2019 according to the International Trade Administration. However, the study also explains Poland’s need for foreign labour as a result of the relationship between population flows across the Polish eastern border and interregional flows inside the ESPON space*. The migratory inflow into Poland is to some extent compensatory to labour force losses to Western Europe, producing a supply gap in the Polish labour market, which is then filled mainly by Ukrainians and secondly, by Belarusians.

Size of foreign labour force in Poland in 2010-2020 (official employment, ZUS data).

When it comes to the number of foreign students, the year 2020 witnessed an increase in the number of students choosing to study at Polish universities, showcasing that education and studies can be relatively resistant to external stimuli like the pandemic-related restrictions. While the number of Ukrainian students decreased slightly, a trend that has been ongoing even before the outbreak of the pandemic, the number of Belarusian students has been steadily increasing since 2015 despite COVID-related restrictions. Additionally, students from Ukraine were exempted from quarantine upon arrival in Poland in the second half of 2020, meaning that their studies weren’t affected by quarantine regulations when travelling between Poland and Ukraine, an exception that could have an effect on the volume of student flows between the two countries. The study, however, makes sure to mention that the increase in the number of foreign students attending Polish universities does not necessarily have to reflect an increase in cross-border population flows; it could also point to the possibility of remote education, that in many cases replaced “offline” classes throughout the pandemic, influencing students’ decision to study abroad.

Number of foreign students in Poland, 2010-2020.

The outcome of the study thus suggests how the pandemic, with all of its hardships, has had an influence on the volume of cross-border travel across the Polish eastern border. While tourism has fared worse off than travel associated with the labour market and higher education, the population flows linked to the latter two have proven how the Polish labour market has not collapsed throughout the current pandemic. Although the pandemic drastically changed the volume of cross-border travel on the Polish-Ukrainian border, this has not led to a huge decrease in the number of foreign workers employed in Poland. Rather, what has been affected most by the pandemic are their cyclical trips back home (often over the weekend). This development may therefore have encouraged foreign workers to set roots in Poland in order to stabilise their life situation.

Studying the cross-border population flows between Poland and its neighbours helps us therefore to understand the gains and losses of the pandemic. On one hand, the study shows that COVID-19 did have an impact on the number of people crossing the Polish eastern border. On the other hand, it shows the Polish success of maintaining a resilient labour market and education sector by letting foreign workers and students continue to have access to them. Poland could hence be considered a role model when it comes to minimising the harmful effects of pandemic-related restrictions observed in many other countries worldwide. At a time where we are increasingly more mobile, making it easier for foreign workers and students to continue to work and study in Poland has proven to be beneficial in order to minimise the harmful effects of the COVID-pandemic, both contemporarily and in the future.

More Information

  • Article first published on 22-02-2022
  • Author: Lena Szydarowska, ESPON EGTC
  • Edited: Nikos Lampropoulos, ESPON EGTC, Tomasz Komornicki, Institute of Geography and Spatial Organization Polish Academy of Sciences
  • *The ESPON space comprises all 27 Member States of the European Union (EU), the four Member States of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and the United Kingdom.
  • All the graphs used in this article are from the “Cross-border migrations across the outer boundary of the EU (1994-2020)” by R. Wiśniewski, B. Szejgiec-Kolenda, T. Komornicki, J. Wójcik and P. Duma (Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland).
  • Interregional relations in Europe