Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Covid-19 Leaves Georgians Far From Home

Thousands working in Poland suddenly find themselves without jobs and homeless.
By Magdalena Chodownik
  • Georgian migrants stand outside the building where they are living as they await their chance to return home. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
    Georgian migrants stand outside the building where they are living as they await their chance to return home. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
  • The bedroom that migrants have been assigned is packed with 6 people each. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
    The bedroom that migrants have been assigned is packed with 6 people each. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
  • The kitchen shared by the Georgian migrants who were living on the ground floor of the Polish National Railways office.  (Photo: M. Chodownik)
    The kitchen shared by the Georgian migrants who were living on the ground floor of the Polish National Railways office. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
  • Inside of the building where residents have been given temporary shelter. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
    Inside of the building where residents have been given temporary shelter. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
  • Residents of the temporary shelter show the dirty mattresses. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
    Residents of the temporary shelter show the dirty mattresses. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
  • A migrant showing how much money he has left from his last paycheque, €3.70. (Photo: M. Chodownik)
    A migrant showing how much money he has left from his last paycheque, €3.70. (Photo: M. Chodownik)

Georgian labour migrants in Poland have found themselves stranded in often dire financial circumstances as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

According to the Social Insurance Institution, there are around 9,500 Georgians legally working in Poland. Many have suddenly found themselves out of work due to the mass closure of businesses.

The Polish government has made efforts in recent years to fill massive gaps in its own labour market, often as a result of Poles working abroad themselves.

In addition, legislation introduced over the last few years for Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldovans means that they no longer need a visa if they come for less than three months.

“I worked in a restaurant as a cook but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant was closed and I became unemployed,” said Lasha Gongadze, a Georgian now living in Warsaw.

Many of his fellow Georgian workers were left without a place to live, as often their employers provided them with accommodation. Few, if any, had any savings as most send the greater part of their wages home to support their families.

"We sent back all we earned in February, and the money we received at the beginning of March to our families back in Georgia,” said Gocha Razmadze, who used to work in construction in the city of Krakow. “A bit later, we got fired. We, of course, received the money for those two working weeks of March but it was very little. Today, we have only pennies left. We cannot even buy food."

Gurami Sirginawa is originally from Georgia but has been living in Poland for several decades and has become an unofficial community organiser for other expats. 

“Georgians do not have easy lives anyway,” he explained. “They don't make fortunes here, but try to save as much as possible so they can send this support to their families – parents, kids - back in Georgia. Now, all they want is to go back and support them there. There is no sense for them in staying here, with no money, practically on the streets.”

Many countries have closed their borders and banned all non-essential international traffic, with flights from Poland to Georgia also suspended.

Since the Polish government introduced strict lockdown measures on March 14, there have been five special flights which took 600 Georgian citizens home.

The next flight from Warsaw to Tbilisi - arranged by the Georgian government and the national carrier - will be on April 27. Tickets will go on sale two days prior to the flight, with no details announced yet as to cost.

Meanwhile, on April 12, the Georgian government organised the return of 71 citizens from Poland, taking them by bus to Belarus and by plane to Yerevan from where they travelled onwards to Georgia. 

Ilia Darchiashvili, Georgia’s ambassador to Poland, said that the two governments had tried to cooperate returning citizens of both countries to their respective homes.

“Thanks to the joint efforts and close cooperation of the Georgian and Polish governments, we had an exceptional opportunity to take advantage of the Polish ‘lotdodomu’ (flight back home) programme provided by the Polish government and Polish national airlines LOT to bring Polish citizens back to their home country during the pandemic, which also was extended to our citizens, in similar conditions that were applied to Polish citizens.”

However, Sirginawa explained that in practice the transfer was less than smooth and far too expensive for most of those stranded in Poland.

“Georgian migrants tried to buy tickets on March 30, as they were told, but after just a couple of minutes, the online service was blocked,” he said. “They waited and when the sales reopened, the tickets' prices had doubled, from around 200 euro to nearly 400 euro.”

Darchiashvili said that the Georgian government was working hard to provide assistance to their citizens while they secure their return home.

"While the process of gradual and organised return of those citizens is underway, our diplomatic mission is working around-the-clock to provide maximum possible assistance to our compatriots in need, right here, in Poland, before their departure," Darchiashvili said.

He said that more than 300 Georgian citizens had applied, and were being provided with, help with accommodation.

"The Georgian government provided all of them with shelter in different hostels in more than ten locations,” he continued. “The conditions and environment in those hostels may vary, but it should be acknowledged that the process of providing shelters to our compatriots is conducted under the circumstances that all hotels and hostels in the country are closed.”

There have been complaints over the squalid and unhygienic that some migrant workers are now being forced to endure.

Razmadze, the former construction worker, used to live in an apartment provided by his employer. Now he is living in the Warsaw office of the Polish National Railways, which has been turned into temporary accommodation. Up to six people are housed in tiny rooms with bunk beds with dirty mattresses, a half-destroyed kitchen and almost no hygiene or cleaning products available for them to use.

Dorota Parzymies is president of the MiltiOcalenie foundation, which implements integration and assistance programmes for foreigners in Poland.

"Today, what’s most important is not to allow people to sleep on the streets or be hungry, to meet their basic needs,” she said. “The foundation helps pay rent and prepare food parcels. We also have the opportunity to pay for a doctor's appointment or to buy medicine. Many of them might find themselves on the street - a new month has just started and people have no money to pay the rent for their apartments or rooms.”

Razmadze said that he and his family were desperate for the situation to be resolved.

"We need someone who will give a helping hand, who will organize flights back home for us,” he continued. “My mother had a heart attack when she heard I cannot go back home. She is in the hospital now, and I fear I will not see her alive.”

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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