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Hundreds of thousands of refugees are passing through this Polish city, mayor says

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's drill down into a few numbers that describe the fastest exodus of refugees in Europe since World War II. About 5% of Ukraine's population has left. That's more than 2 million people. The place that's taken the most Ukrainians - Poland, with more than a million crossing the border here in just a couple weeks. And the spot in Poland where the most Ukrainians have entered, well, that's right here in the city of Przemysl. So how many have passed through this community of 60,000 people?

WOJCIECH BAKUN: About the 300,000 to 350,000 in 14 days, you know.

SHAPIRO: You can hear the exhaustion in this man's voice because he is the mayor of the city of Przemysl, Wojciech Bakun. We met him at the train station where all of these numbers become very real. Before Bakun took this job, he was a member of Parliament.

BAKUN: I have no experience with managing. It's not normal situation for managing a city.

SHAPIRO: I ask how the crisis of the last two weeks has changed his job. And at first, he gives a deadpan answer.

BAKUN: I would change. You know, normally, I work in blue suits. Now I have green one, I think, so...

SHAPIRO: Not just a green suit but a green military uniform.

BAKUN: Yeah, green suit.

SHAPIRO: The place we're sitting captures some of the surrealness of what everyone here is living through. We're talking to the mayor over a cafe table at a restaurant in an ornate arrivals hall. The decor is sumptuous - frescoes on the ceiling, lush curtains draping the windows, walls painted in shades of peach and cream with decorative flourishes. And everywhere you look, hallways, chairs, sidewalks, are full of people who look dazed, lost and desperate, carrying suitcases, children, dogs. The mayor says it's crucial that these Ukrainians keep moving west.

BAKUN: We are not for collect and stay refugees here in the city. Just transfer them very quick to other cities in Poland is very important, you know, clean the border all the time.

SHAPIRO: You say it's important that people keep moving through. Is that happening? Are you concerned that maybe people are not moving through as fast as you would like?

BAKUN: If you think about 1,200 to 1,500 refugees passing border every hour, so you see that situation. You know, we have to moving very quick, moving very quick.

SHAPIRO: We're going to step away from this train station for a minute because I want you to understand something about this politician and the Polish government generally. Everybody I've spoken to here, from humanitarian aid groups to government officials, everyone has had high praise for the way Poland has handled the flood of Ukrainian refugees.

KRISTINA KVIEN: Poland has done a very good job.

SHAPIRO: Here's how the acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Kristina Kvien, described it to me earlier this week when I spoke to her in the Polish city of Rzeszow.

KVIEN: The flow has been smooth. The refugees have been taken care of, and the Poles have done a very good job.

SHAPIRO: And some people who follow Polish politics are surprised by that because the country's leaders have been very opposed to migrants up until now. The mayor we've been talking to, Wojciech Bakun, belonged to a political movement that specifically expressed anti-Ukrainian views.

RAFAL PANKOWSKI: They actually advocated building a wall on the Polish-Ukrainian border that was obviously inspired by Trump's idea for a wall on the Mexican border.

SHAPIRO: Rafal Pankowski tracks far-right groups for the 'NEVER AGAIN' Association in Warsaw, and he's a professor of sociology. He says the rhetoric that conservative Polish politicians have used to describe Ukrainians sounds a lot like the way immigration opponents in the U.S. talk about people from Mexico and Central America - stealing jobs and changing the fabric of society.

PANKOWSKI: They actually warn against what they called the Ukrainianization of the Polish labor market.

SHAPIRO: Just this week, a member of Poland's Parliament claimed that emergency legislation to support Ukrainian refugees would make Polish people second-class citizens in their own country. Since the war began, there's been racism against non-white refugees at the border, and alarmist YouTube videos warn that a flood of Ukrainians will drain Poland's resources. But Professor Pankowski, who tracks far-right groups, says he's surprised by how quickly these anti-refugee attitudes have become unpopular in Poland.

PANKOWSKI: And I think this is one of those examples showing that, you know, in dramatic times, like the last two weeks, people change. And faced with a big challenge and faced with a big tragedy, you know, a change of heart is possible. And I think that actually applies to many people in Poland.

SHAPIRO: He believes Przemysl Mayor Wojciech Bakun is one of those people who's changed. He's impressed with the job Bakun has done in the last two weeks. And so at the train station, I ask the mayor about this, and he insists that he's exactly the same man he always was.

BAKUN: Refugee is a person which is on the border with a country affected by war. So that is the situation. We have refugee in Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying you have not changed your mind, that this is not an evolution or a shift.

BAKUN: No, no.

SHAPIRO: He says two weeks ago, Ukrainians were not refugees because there wasn't a war, and that is what has changed.

We're sitting in this railway station that is full of desperate people who are queuing up for food, for toilets, for basic necessities. This has only been going on for two weeks. Can it continue for another two months, two years? How sustainable is it?

BAKUN: Definitely not. You know, that's only volunteers, so they work, you know, if they had energy. Now we start talking with some professional humanity organization for manage that situation with us.

SHAPIRO: The mayor is proud of the job that he and his city have done for the last two weeks, but they aren't the experts in this area. And as the war goes on, he says, others are going to have to step in to make this emergency operation sustainable for the long term. The lives of millions of people who may cross this border in the future could depend on it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.