Poland’s refugee problem is not what you think it is

“Stop Islamization.” A far right protest.
“Stop Islamization.” A far right protest.
Image: Reuters/Marcin Stepien/Agencja Gazeta/Files
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Refugees and migrants who are arriving in Europe en masse are not exactly pounding at Poland’s door. They are not even knocking: In fact, there is little to suggest they even want to settle in Central Europe’s largest country. No one in Poland is struggling with an influx of people from the Middle East and Africa—but the country has a refugee problem. And the problem is a horrifying display of xenophobia and historical amnesia, demonstrated in the country’s parliament, at dinner parties, on the streets, and, overwhelmingly, on the internet.

The migration “crisis” has been a hot-button issue in the campaign for this weekend’s parliamentary election. The fear-mongering rhetoric from the likely winners is reminiscent of Nazi propaganda during World War II, when Hitler’s cronies justified their anti-Semitic policies with claims that typhus was a disease of the Jews.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski in parliament.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski in parliament.
Image: REUTERS/Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta

“There are already signs of emergence of diseases that are highly dangerous and have not been seen in Europe for a long time: cholera on the Greek islands, dysentery in Vienna. There is also talk about other, even more severe diseases,” Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice, the opposition party that is most likely to win the upcoming election said just last week. “Also there are some differences related to geography, various parasites, protozoa that are common and are not dangerous in the bodies of these people, (but) may be dangerous here. Which doesn’t mean there is a need to discriminate anyone, but you need to check.”

This idea was repeated by the newly-elected Polish president, who hails from the same political party, and covered by international media.

It seemed that the center-right government had taken a more moderate approach. They were decried by the opposition for “betraying” the so-called Visegrád Group, or the political alliance between Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary when Poland, as the only one of the four countries voted for the quota system that aims to distribute 120,000 refugees among EU members.

But on Oct. 15, the government re-aligned itself with the group and rushed to support Hungary, whose approach to the migration crisis has been widely criticized as harsh and inhumane, by sending police personnel (50-60 officers) and vehicles to help monitor the country’s border with Serbia, where the refugee flow is the heaviest.

As Konstanty Gebert points out in a New York Times op-ed, prime minister Ewa Kopacz also showed her sympathy toward a view popular among Poland’s political elites: That the country should focus on inviting Christian refugees, as they are more relatable in the majority Catholic country. As one politician from the Law and Justice Party said: “Poland is not responsible for what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa. But since we have been forced to make such decisions, it would be worth it to have control over these refugees. They should be Christians, who could hopefully assimilate in Poland.”

The political atmosphere reflects voter attitudes. The latest polls show that 55% of Poles are against the country hosting refugees (link in Polish). It’s no surprise that the worst vitriol surfaces online, unleashed by the freedom of anonymity. But the extent of the hatred has been shocking. Polish authorities opened an investigation (link in Polish) of posts calling for Poland to reopen Auschwitz, and its gas hook-up, and to send the “immigrants” there. A major news site had to close down its comments section due to hateful posts that violated Polish anti-discrimination laws.

Although perhaps appalling in their intensity, the sentiment is not entirely surprising. A sad quip is repeated among my Polish friends and family, about how Poland is anti-Semitic without any Jews, racist without any people of color, and now, anti-refugee without any refugees (or anti-Muslim without any Muslims). What is surprising, however, is how easily the hostility spreads, how easily the seed of hatred is sowed.

Some of my friends and I were shocked at Facebook posts from people we knew, young (and older), educated, “worldly” people,  spreading falsehoods and misinformation, panic about all the ISIL-infiltrated masses coming Poland’s way.

Let’s be clear: the masses, most likely sans ISIL, are far away. The exodus from the Middle East and Africa is bypassing Poland, at least for now. The migrants and refugees want to be in Germany, or in Sweden, where their families, their communities are. Not in Poland, where 95% percent of the population identifies as ethnically Polish (link in Polish), and the largest ethnic minorities are Germans and Ukrainians.

But what if they did want to come to the country and apply for asylum? Or that the European Union would impose a larger quota than the 4,500 it has ordered so far? Why should Poland take in refugees? Setting aside reasons such as “simple humanity,” or “European solidarity,” (but really, why shouldn’t Poland, a huge recipient of EU funds, share the burden of hosting refugees?) the country’s history provides some hints.

I could go back a couple of centuries, to the time when Poland was erased from the map of Europe and many Poles fled foreign rule and persecution, emigrating to the United States, for instance, but let’s just look at the mass displacements of Polish citizens in the last several decades.

Poland, which before World War II had a much more diverse ethnic composition, was virtually obliterated in the first weeks of fighting. Many Poles were forced out of their country by enemy attacks from neighbors on both sides. A group of 120,000 Poles, a third of them civilians, were taken in by a majority Muslim country: Iran, a fact seldom remembered today.

After the war, the country’s borders changed, resulting in the displacement, often forced, of millions of people, Poles, Germans, Ukrainians and others. In 1968, the country’s communist government forced out thousands of Jews who remained in the country after World War Two.

“Solidarity with Refugees” written in the iconic “Solidarity” font.
“Solidarity with Refugees” written in the iconic “Solidarity” font.
Image: REUTERS/Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta

All throughout Communist rule, Poles ran from political oppression (and towards better economic opportunity) receiving asylum, immigration status and citizenship in many Western countries. Just 26 years ago, Poland became a democracy, following a peaceful transition won by Solidarity, a revolutionary mass labor movement. As Gebert says: “Today, 35 years after Solidarity was created and 26 after its victory over Communism, not much remains of that spirit in Poland.”

Thankfully, there are some Poles who disagree with the country’s politicians, and go against the current of haters. The vocal ones are few. Some of them are my friends, twenty-somethings born around the time of Poland’s democratic transition.

Emulating their German neighbors, they started a “Refugees Welcome” platform where they aim to match those refugees who do end up in Poland with willing hosts. They ask potential hosts: “You don’t accept hostile attitudes toward something that is different? You don’t agree with the way refugees are treated in Poland?”

Last month, four of them organized a massive drive collecting warm clothing and sleeping bags for refugees, quickly packed their bags and drove off to the Balkans, to help informal groups of volunteers manage the influx of people, to provide them with information, a warm cup of tea and a few kind words. On Facebook they shared stories of Syrians they met on the road, pictures of children, babies, emphasizing that “this what most Syrian refugees look like.”

I suddenly noticed that these posts, shared and liked by hundreds of people, overtook the hateful ones. But it will take far, far more to change attitudes of the entire country.