International law or national identity? How the German and Polish governments framed whether to accept Syrian and Ukrainian refugees

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Over the last decade, the EU has been a destination of two of the largest refugee movements worldwide. Following the eruption of the Syrian civil war and other conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the EU received approximately 2.4 million asylum applications between 2015 and 2016. Then, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU hosts around 3.8 million Ukrainians registering for temporary protection as of early 2023.

While Germany currently hosts the largest number of both Syrian and Ukrainian refugees in the EU, Poland hosts the second largest number of Ukrainian refugees but refused to take in Syrian refugees. Their different responses make Germany and Poland excellent cases to study how countries differentiate between refugee groups of different origins. In our study, we found that this has to do with the way national governments frame the national identity of their own country as well as the characteristics of the refugees.

Who are we? Who are they? Analysing political actors’ stances toward refugees

To answer our question, we analyzed government statements and debates in the German and Polish parliaments. We focused on debates on the admission of Syrian refugees in 2015-2016 and of Ukrainian refugees in 2022. To analyze these debates, we used a novel schema of interpretation developed as part of a cross-national comparative analysis of political debates on the admission of refugees in six countries.

Admitting refugees implies opening the borders of the state to people who have previously not belonged to a society and claim to need protection. Consequently, we argue that two dimensions are key to understand political actors’ stance on the admission of refugees:

  1. Who are we? their definition of the identity and characteristics of the host nation, and
  2. Who are they?  their definition of the identity and characteristics of the refugees.

We identified six frames that are typically used to define the ‘we’ and the refugees: they can be framed in economic, cultural, moral or legal terms, in terms of security risks or from the perspective of international relations.

The framing of the German government

The German governments utilized mostly cosmopolitan frames – emphasizing universalist principles, international law and liberal democracy – with regard to both Syrian and Ukrainian refugees, resulting in relatively little discrimination between them.

Syrian refugees

Towards Syrian refugees, the centrist government coalition under the leadership of Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats initially pursued a welcoming approach (though it enacted some restrictions later on). This policy was based on emphasizing Germany’s moral duty to admit refugees fleeing war and persecution, as well as Germany’s legal obligations following from universal human rights and the German Basic Law. The government also de-emphasized the cultural background of Syrian refugees, and instead highlighted their human capital as a potential contribution to the Germany economy.

Ukrainian refugees

Consistent with the position taken during the Syrian refugee crisis, the German government – now formed by a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals – also expressed support for admitting Ukrainian refugees. Again, it highlighted Germany’s moral duty to admit people in need. This time, however, it framed the issue mostly as a question of international relations. The government interpreted the Russian invasion of Ukraine not only as a violation of international law but also as an attack on the values of liberal democracy, and thus on the values of Germany as a liberal democracy too. This entails a duty of solidarity with Ukrainian refugees.

The framing of the Polish government

The right-wing Polish Law and Justice government employed mostly communitarian frames – emphasizing national sovereignty and cultural homogeneity – resulting in a preference for Ukrainian over Syrian refugees.

Syrian refugees

With regard to Syrian refugees, the government refused to take part in the EU relocation mechanism and to admit any of them. It emphasized the need to protect national sovereignty as a lesson of Polish history, having suffered from foreign intervention by its larger neighbors (like Germany). Additionally, the government defined Poland as a Christian nation that cannot assimilate Muslim refugees and has no particular moral obligation to help them. Finally, the government doubted whether Syrians are refugees, or rather economic migrants looking for better opportunities and pointed out possible security risks associated with them.

Ukrainian refugees

In contrast to its approach to Syrian refugees, the Polish Law and Justice government expressed great solidarity with regard to Ukrainian refugees. Much like the German government, it addressed the issue mostly from the perspective of international relations. It interpreted Russia as the aggressor, causing the displacement of innocent Ukrainians. In contrast to the German governments’ interpretation, however, the Polish government’s core concern was not Russia’s attack on liberal democratic values, but its attack on national sovereignty and the fear that Poland could be next. This derives from the reading Polish history as a victim of big powers. Additionally, the Polish government emphasized the personal connections and cultural closeness as creating a bond of solidarity between Poles and Ukrainians.


Many commentators criticized the EU’s unequal response to Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. While member states quickly agreed on activating temporary protection for Ukrainians in March 2022, the reception and distribution of refugees from Syria and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2015 and 2016 caused major conflicts between member states. Our study helps to understand what motivated governments to differentiate between different refugee groups.

Our study may also help to illuminate how the citizens have developed their attitudes. In their study of Europeans’ attitudes on admitting Syrian and Ukrainian refugees, Lenka Drazanova and Andrew Geddes find that, overall, Europeans are more supportive of the admission of Ukrainian than Syrian refugees, with important differences between countries. For example, the gap is higher in Poland and other Central European countries than in Germany. Our study contributes to explaining these differences, both because governments tend to pick frames that ‘resonate’ with the worldviews of the population and because framing shapes public opinion.


This study builds on a monograph that will be published in 2024 (“Framing refugees: How the admission of refugees is debated in six countries across the world”, forthcoming with Oxford University Press). The study was funded by the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)” in Berlin.

About the authors:

Daniel Drewski is a Junior Professor for the Sociology of Europe and Globalization at the University of Bamberg and a former visiting fellow at EUI’s Migration Policy Center. Previously, he worked as a researcher at the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script” (SCRIPTS) in Berlin. His research interests include the sociology of European integration, migration, borders and symbolic boundaries.

Jürgen Gerhards is a Professor of Sociology at Freie Universität Berlin. He is a member of the „Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften“ and the „Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften“. His main research interests include comparative cultural sociology, and sociology of European integration.

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