Over the past two months, approximately 5 million Ukrainians have departed their homeland due to the escalating military conflict with Russia. Poland has received the majority of these individuals—taking in more than 2.8 million people according to the latest estimate from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
To support the country’s humanitarian response, the Polish government adopted a series of amendments to the country’s immigration laws, including changes directly related to the influx of Ukrainians. The changes are expected to provide increased flexibility for Ukrainian nationals in terms of residence permits, work authorization and access to public benefits. In addition, the Polish government set up a dedicated website for Ukrainian citizens that provides detailed help on a range of issues—from how to obtain a national identification number (known as a PESEL), access support services such as legal aid and medical care, and obtain a three-year temporary residence permit to how to navigate traffic rules, participate in cultural activities, and change the language of the keyboard on a smartphone.
The Polish legislature (known as the Sejm) adopted a law to create special pathways to legal status and work authorization for Ukrainian nationals. In particular, the law provides 18 months of legal residency to Ukrainian nationals who left Ukraine as a result of the Russian conflict, came to Poland, and declared their intention to stay. The law initially applied only to Ukrainian nationals who entered Poland directly from Ukraine but was soon modified to include Ukrainian nationals who entered Poland after transiting through third countries (e.g., Slovakia).
Under the law, Ukrainian nationals are authorized to apply for a PESEL identification number, which is key to accessing numerous benefits, including family care support, nursery school subsidies, and other forms of social assistance. The law also grants these individuals full access to the Polish labor market (without first obtaining a work permit) and the Polish healthcare system. Further, Ukrainian students are permitted to attend Polish schools and universities. The law also provides for a small, one-time subsistence payment to Ukrainian nationals who have fled to Poland.
These measures have been implemented in addition to the European Union’s adoption of a Temporary Protection Directive, which enables individuals who have left Ukraine to apply for a temporary residence permit valid for one year in any EU member state, with the potential to renew for an additional two years.
Changes to the visa process. Under the amendments, certain foreign nationals will be able to obtain new Polish visas without having to leave Poland and apply for a visa at the Polish consulate in their home country. Instead, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will process visa applications through third-party visa centers in Poland. Forthcoming regulations will specify which foreign nationals may take advantage of the new system, but Ukrainian nationals are expected to be among them.
Changes to the residence permit process. Upon implementation, the new amendments will prohibit individuals from filing acceleration requests in connection with residence permit applications filed with the immigration authorities through the end of 2022. Immigration authorities will also not have to inform applicants about potential delays in the processing of residence permit applications. While no official reason was stated for these provisions, it is believed that the move is intended to enable the immigration office to focus on processing an expected influx of residence permit applications from individuals who have fled Ukraine. Under a separate set of regulations, Ukrainian nationals may submit residence permit applications nine months after their arrival in Poland.
In addition, the amendments temporarily simplify the criteria for Ukrainian entrepreneurs to obtain a residence permit. Specifically, through December 2022, Ukrainian nationals who run a business will not be required to provide proof of sufficient income or intent to hire employees in order to receive a residence permit. Of note, this provision is targeted toward Ukrainian nationals who were already in Poland at the time the crisis began, rather than those who have arrived in Poland since late February.
Finally, the amendments also make it possible for humanitarian visa holders to obtain a three-year residence permit on simplified terms. Separate regulations will be issued to determine precisely which foreign nationals will be eligible for this benefit, but, in practice, humanitarian visa holders in Poland are mostly citizens of Belarus. The new residence permits will allow individuals the right to work and will be issued free of charge. The permit application will not require certain documents confirming employment in Poland, health insurance, and funds for support.
Changes to the PESEL process. Under the newly adopted amendments, the deadline for registering for a PESEL identification number will be extended from 60 days after arrival in Poland to 90 days after arrival. Registration is not mandatory for Ukrainian nationals who can document their entry through the Polish border but is recommended if individuals wish to take advantage of the special provisions applying to Ukrainian nationals.
The new changes also confirm that a Ukrainian national who previously received a PESEL can still register as a Ukrainian refugee. The changes provide alternative pathways for individuals with health problems to complete a PESEL registration. In addition, the law clarifies that children over age 12 must be present during PESEL registration, but children under age 12 are exempt if their parents can provide the children’s identity documents (including their birth certificates).
Confirmation of work authorization. The amendments confirm that Ukrainian nationals who have fled to Poland are authorized to work even without a Polish work permit. The amendments also remove any fines that might otherwise be imposed on Ukrainian nationals for failure to notify the local labor office after commencement of employment.
Revocation of EU Temporary Protection Statements. Some individuals who fled Ukraine for Poland were not initially covered by Poland’s refugee protection provisions, but were separately covered by the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive. As Poland has now amended its framework to provide protection to Ukrainians who arrived in the country indirectly (e.g., through Slovakia), EU Temporary Protection statements will be revoked in favor of the corresponding Polish provisions. Ukrainian nationals will be notified of the revocation and obliged to return the EU Temporary Protection statements within 15 days.
Some countries, including Poland, have suspended the processing of Schengen visas for Russian nationals except in humanitarian cases. Poland has called on Schengen Area countries to halt issuance of visas to Russians for short-term stays (90 days or less) as part of the sanctions imposed due to the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Russia citizens accounted for the highest number of Schengen visas filed worldwide—filing approximately a quarter of the total number of applications in 2019.
Many governments have suspended their consular services within Russia and have designated their embassies and consulates in other locations, such as Poland, to process visas for nationals and residents of Russia. Thus, the temporary suspension of Schengen visa processing for Russian nationals presents a significant challenge for those Russians seeking to temporarily travel to Warsaw for a third-country visa. For instance, the United States designated the US Embassy in Warsaw as the immigrant visa processing post for nationals and residents of Russia; however, cases may be transferred to other locations upon acceptance by the alternate post.
The new legal provisions are expected to bring important changes to Poland’s immigration framework and, in particular, support the temporary resettlement of millions of Ukrainian nationals by helping them in securing work authorization, residence permits, and other benefits in the months ahead. Poland’s framework provides an option for clients relocating their Ukrainian staff who wish to leave the region.
Mayer Brown is closely following the Ukraine-Russia crisis for clients, their employees, and their families. We will continue to monitor and advise on these and other issues related to the conflict. Please follow updates on our dedicated Ukraine Crisis Spotlight page and blog The Mobile Workforce.