Polish parliament approves law on supporting Ukrainian refugees

In a near-unanimous decision, Polish MPs have approved legislation that will put in place greater support for the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have fled to Poland.

Since Russia’s invasion, around 1.4 million people have crossed from Ukraine to Poland, with large numbers continuing to arrive. While some have moved on to other countries, a large proportion remain in Poland, where the authorities and civil society have sought to provide them with housing, food and other forms of help.

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On Monday, the government proposed a law that would, among other things, allow Ukrainians who have arrived in Poland to legalise their stay for 18 months and receive a national identity (PESEL) number, as well as to work and have access to benefits, healthcare and education.

The legislation would also provide for payments of 40 zloty (€8.30) per day to people and entities in Poland that provide accommodation to Ukrainians, as well as a one-off 300 zloty payment to each Ukraine who had fled to Poland. A special fund to finance aid for Ukrainians will also be established.

While measures to help Ukrainian refugees have cross-party support in Poland, there was controversy this week over the government’s decision to include in the bill clauses that would give officials legal immunity for violating public finance laws when making decisions relating to emergency situations.

The government argued that this was a standard measure intended to protect officials who may need to make rapid decisions in difficult circumstances. But the opposition noted that the immunity covered not only decisions relating to the current crisis, but also the pandemic.

They argued the government was trying to sneak into the legislation a measure it has long sought to pass, which they say is designed to protect figures in the ranks of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party who broke the law during the pandemic. A similar proposal was abandoned in 2020 after opposition from within the ruling camp.

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Yesterday, the broad version of the immunity measures – including actions relating to the pandemic – was narrowly rejected by the Sejm. However, an alternative narrower version, which related only to actions relating to armed conflict, was equally narrowly accepted, reports Wprost.

Subsequently, the entire bill on support for Ukrainian refugees was approved by 439 MPs in the 460-seat Sejm. The only party that voted against the bill was the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja).

“The bill goes far beyond helping refugees and grants them many rights as citizens, meaning enormous costs for the entire nation in the face of an economic crisis, and ensures impunity for PiS politicians,” said Robert Winnicki, one of Confederation’s leaders, explaining their opposition.

The bill now passes to the Senate, where, unlike in the Sejm, the opposition has a majority. If approved there, it goes to President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, who can sign it into law or veto it. If the Senate rejects the bill, that decision can be overturned by a majority in the more powerful Sejm.

Before yesterday’s votes in the Sejm, Borys Budka, head of the parliamentary caucus of Poland’s largest opposition group, Civic Coalition (KO), said that they “guarantee the Senate will urgently adopt this law without amendments” but only if the clauses on legal immunity were removed, reports Wprost.

Main image credit: Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

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