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How to integrate two million refugees? New technologies have the potential to accomplish this task

More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have already arrived in Poland, and, unusually for the refugees we have encountered so far, most of them declare a desire to stay in our country. Typical destinations for refugees, such as Germany, Great Britain or Scandinavian countries, have been reached by fewer Ukrainians than the number assigned a PESEL number in our country: 238 thousand Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Germany since the beginning of the war, 25 thousand in Great Britain, 24 and 26 thousand in Denmark and Sweden respectively. In turn, the number of Ukrainians with a Polish ID number has exceeded 700 thousand in recent days.

The number of 2.5 million refugees shows the scale of the challenge, as does the fact that we have just taken first place in the world in terms of the number of refugees residing in our country, “overtaking” Turkey in this ranking. The scale of the challenge is also underscored by the fact that Poland has not faced a comparable scale of migration since World War II and resettlement in the Recovered Territories; unlike Western European countries, which in 2015 received hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn Syria, we have virtually no experience with mass registration and mass introduction to the legal, healthcare or education systems. But we have no choice – thousands of Ukrainians in need of help are coming to our country, and in order to efficiently provide them with assistance and avoid total chaos, we need to introduce them into public administration systems.

A 40-minute service for one refugee. How about over the internet?

How big is the challenge? Are we able to meet it based on the IT solutions that the Polish state has at its disposal at the moment? Igor Ryciak, spokesman for the Central Informatization Centre, asked what is the reason for the very long, 40-minute processing time for a single refugee applying for a PESEL number, which in turn is one of the reasons for the gigantic queues in front of government offices: – The time taken to process an application for a PESEL number depends primarily on the organisation of work in a given office. For example, in a special registration point for refugees organized at the PGE Narodowy stadium it takes about 20 minutes. The situation is similar in the Resident Services Department of the City Hall in Białystok and in the City Hall in Ełk.

What is the biggest challenge in the process of introducing refugees from Ukraine into the system? According to the Ministry of Digitization, it is increasing the number of equipment in municipal offices. A spokesman for the COI confirms that such efforts are carried out: – In order to improve the work of city and commune offices assigning PESEL numbers to refugees, the team of the Central Informatics Centre, acting on behalf of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of the Interior, undertook the urgent task of distributing 3.5 thousand computer sets that will be used to serve citizens.

Is this an effective action, or could not this problem be better solved, for example by moving part of the duties related to registration to the Internet, leaving only those necessary during a physical visit to the office, thus reducing service time, and thus the huge queues waiting for registration? COI spokesman denies: – No, you can’t. This is due to the fact that assigning a PESEL number to Ukrainian citizens must be preceded by collecting a scan of fingerprints, specimen of a handwritten signature and verification of a biometric photograph. As is the case when issuing an ID card or passport, it is not possible to provide this service online.

Looking at this situation with optimism, one can assume that theoretically once introduced to the system Ukrainians will already be able to arrange many issues remotely, without the need to visit the office, which will free up public administration staff for Polish applicants and reduce the employment of translators.

Understand in Polish, fill in in Polish

The question remains, however, to what extent will it be possible to transfer the handling of official issues by Ukrainian citizens to the Internet, when the overwhelming majority of them do not use the Latin alphabet, but only the Cyrillic alphabet and do not know the Polish language. This task would certainly be helped by websites translated into Ukrainian, but also by translation programs, which automatically translate online documents filled out in Ukrainian into Polish.

Diagnosis in Google Translate

A Ukrainian citizen brought into the system is definitely not the end of the challenges. Let’s think about two million additional patients in clinics and hospitals who suffer from heart diseases or cancer, need to call an ambulance just as often, and at the same time usually can’t do it in Polish. Therefore, Ukrainian doctors and nurses arriving in Poland need to be taught the Polish language as quickly as possible, so that they can relieve the Polish medical staff, whose resources were already disproportionate to their needs before the war.

However, it is certainly not enough – there are not enough Ukrainian doctors and nurses in our country to distribute them among the clinics and hospitals of each Polish city, and yet that is exactly what is needed – at this moment refugees find shelter not only in the largest cities, but also in smaller centers, scattered throughout the country. This is where translation software developers, including startups, come in. Solutions of Polish companies such as DeepL or TurboTranslations can be a strong support for Ukrainians who need medical assistance.

At the same time, knowing with increasing certainty that Ukrainian families will not want to return (the atrocities committed in Bucha and Irpin will fuel the fear of return, even if Ukraine wins the war) there will be nothing to return to, even after the war in their country is over (after their homes and workplaces are left only ashes), one can see that the market need for programs to learn Polish or more perfect and faster translation solutions will persist in the long term, hence it is probably worth taking interest in and developing such products.

Education – will startup solutions help?

Kindergartens and schools are the first line of introducing Ukrainian refugees into the system, besides health care. At the moment there are about 100 thousand Ukrainian children in Polish schools and over 20 thousand are enrolled in kindergartens. Only 20 percent of them are in preparatory classes, most of them have been sent from their first bell in Poland to ordinary classes, to teachers who are not linguistically prepared for them.

– There is no preparatory class in our country, we have no teachers from Ukraine. A child sits on a bench in front of books written in Latin alphabet and understands nothing. We are left alone with this problem – a teacher from an elementary school in Myslovice told me in a private conversation.

Hearing such voices, it’s easy to see that the education system, as well as the health system, would greatly benefit from the implementation of startup solutions for translation or language learning – the number of Ukrainian-speaking teachers needed is again, as in the case of doctors, too small due to the size of the needs and the dispersion of refugees to hundreds of Polish cities. One can only guess how the unsuccessful integration of hundreds of thousands of children might end, looking at the ghettoization of Western Europe. That is why it is so important to implement as soon as possible solutions that will allow Ukrainian children to function in schools.


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