Refugees in Poland sleeping rough

Wednesday 8, February 2012 WARSAW, February 8 (UNHCR) – Homeless refugees in Poland sleep in shelters, squatted buildings, train stations or even night buses. One third of those granted asylum may be homeless. Zeynab* and her twenty-something son Akhmad spend many nights in buses, a local mosque, cheap hotels or […]

Wednesday 8, February 2012

WARSAW, February 8 (UNHCR) – Homeless refugees in Poland sleep in shelters, squatted buildings, train stations or even night buses. One third of those granted asylum may be homeless.

Zeynab* and her twenty-something son Akhmad spend many nights in buses, a local mosque, cheap hotels or other people houses. They have been homeless for most of the last three years.

For now, they are staying in the flat of a friend who is out of town. They do not know where they will go when their host is back.

The pair came to Poland in 2004 and were granted asylum (subsidiary protection) two years later. Their closest family was killed during the war in Chechnya, with only a very few relatives behind. 

“We have only each other,” Zeynab sobbed when a social worker suggested the pair separate to increase their chances of finding a home. The widowed mother would never agree on such a scenario.

There are hundreds of refugees in Poland in a situation similar to that of Zeynab and Akhmad. According to a pilot study Refugee Homelessness in Poland conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs and funded by UNHCR, one third of refugees in the country could be homeless.

Zeynab and her son lived in a refugee centre, while their asylum applications were processed and during the year-long integration programme, which followed. The hardest point came when the programme with its housing and living benefits was over and they were supposed to stand on their own two feet. They have been homeless ever since.

“The greatest risk of homelessness appears when the integration programme ends,” explained Kinga Wysieńska, co-author of the pilot study which concluded that the integration programme does not fulfil its function.

“In the space of one-year, refugees are not able to learn Polish or acquire professional and socio-cultural competencies necessary to undertake work and function independently in the society,” added Wysieńska.

Zeynab and Akhmad survive thanks to him doing random and very low paid jobs. The money is enough to buy food, but not to rent a flat. “Look!” Zeynab pointed to their feet. “The last salary let us get winter shoes!” she said, smiling for a while.

Normally she is extremely fatigued, appears often absent and her speech can be impeded. She had gone through significant trauma in the war back in Chechnya and most probably suffers from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but receives no professional help in Poland.

“Zeynab is extremely vulnerable,” said Izabela Majewska, a social worker at Polish Humanitarian Action who has been in touch with her since her arrival to Poland.

According to the Refugee Homelessness study, it is single mothers with small children who are at the highest risk of homelessness. Dagman, who came to Poland from Chechnya with her husband and three kids in the same year as Zeynab did, has only recently received a council flat.

Dagman’s homelessness started when she left her husband who had beaten and abused her for years. “Everyone knew about it, when we stayed in a refugee centre,” she remembers. “But no one took any action.”

 It was only when he had beaten their teenage daughter so severely that she lost consciousness that pushed Dagman to make her escape. It was an extremely risky move, as she knew he would keep chasing them.

“He kept calling, asking where we were and threatening that he would burn me alive. I don’t know how I survived it, but I did,” Dagman said. She wept talking about her children having been beaten, though memories of own suffering did not bring tears.

She had spent years moving around with her children from one crisis intervention centre to another, due to the six-month stay limit.

The miracle happened when they were granted a council flat from only five flats allotted yearly by the Warsaw City Council to refugee families. They now enjoy 50-square-meters of safety. “I still can’t believe it. I keep thinking that something horrible will happen to us soon. It has been too good for too long,” Dagman said.

All her children attend school and Dagman does part time cleaning which supplements what she receives in alimony from the government. They can pay the rent and survive, but not much more. She still lives in fear of the day when her ex-husband, convicted for not paying the alimony, will leave the prison.

 While there are no official nationwide statistics on refugee homelessness in Poland, the pilot study concluded all refugees in Poland are at risk of housing exclusion (lacking enough income to pay rent and deposits, and facing discrimination from landlords), and many experience it.

The study also found that refugee homelessness is a long-term problem, often lasting many years. Dagman and her children are among very few lucky ones. Zeynab and Akhmad are still waiting for their own roof.

Magda Qandil, Warsaw

*All names are changed for protection reasons.