Polish response to the refugee crisis: where the wild things are?

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When, on 11 September 2015, the Polish prime minister signed a declaration of the Visegrad Group on the migration crisis in Europe, it seemed that the division between old and new Europe stood beyond repair. In the declaration, the countries opposed any form of obligatory refugee distribution in European Union. This act, together with repeated concerns voiced by Polish politicians, pointed to another problem, which was not entirely understood by the Western public. Eastern European Member States have been caricatured, over the migration flap, as being “not-quite” European, non-democratic, selfish and ungrateful. But the domestic context was missing from the debate. It still is.

For scholars of migration policy and politics in Europe, what happened in Poland was more significant than what happened in other parts of Europe. First this was because for the first time since the 1500s immigration had become a topic of public discourse and political debate. Second, it was because a country with a less than 1% of foreign-born population, of whom perhaps 0.2% are Muslims, put on a remarkable show of xenophobia and Islamophobia. Third, it is the first time that political scientists will have the opportunity to analyze an election, where immigration is a key issue, and yet where there are almost no immigrants nor visible others.

Polish flag on wall

Now, with the relocation mechanism agreed, at least by the Polish government, it is time to dig into the domestic realities that shaped the debate in Poland. It is necessary to take stock of the situation, any harm done, and consider options for the future. This is important since, without proper understanding, implementation of the program in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe will not succeed and thousands of asylum seekers might find themselves at risk.

Polish people see the idea of a refugee as fuzzy

The Polish government signed the Geneva Convention in 1991, in a year filled with chaotic inflows from the collapsing Soviet Union. The move, as many others in that period, was never discussed publicly; policymakers were busy with basic needs rather that national debates. In any case, anything that bore the stamp of European integration during that period was accepted. In fact, many people did not know (and in some cases still do not know) that Poland is party to the Convention.

Poland has never been a generous refugee host. This position stems from a rather inconvenient truth; each Polish family knows at least one Polish political refugee who emigrated during the 1980s to the West, be it as a refugee, immigrant or an Aussiedler. These were generally not political activists but people fleeing the communist regime and a lack of economic perspectives. “Na azyl” (as an asylum seeker) was the most secure emigration strategy from communist Poland after the martial law was imposed. On 13 December 1981, well over 100,000 Polish people, who were outside Poland, were given the option to stay by generous Western governments. At the same time, only 4,500 thousand political prisoners were expelled from the country. The vast majority of Polish people passing through the camps in Austria, Greece and Italy to reach Canada, USA or Australia in the 1980s were thus migrants looking for a better life in a more democratic environment, and not strictly political refugees persecuted for their activities. In fact, the most prominent activists never emigrated. So, yes, Poles benefited from the generosity of the hosting states. Yet, the way in which they benefited has left its mark; they see the asylum system as naïve and prone to error.

This skepticism is fuelled by two recurrent images: people smuggled to the Greek and Italian coasts, who are able to pay thousands of euros for the trip, and Syrian families living in destitute conditions in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and of course in Syria. In the Polish national imagination, a refugee is a war refugee, a person without any funds, fleeing an imminent threat without a time to gather their belongings; in other terms the second group. So far European leaders and the media have failed to relate the first group (people blocked along EU borders) to the idea of penniless war refugees.

The people pouring into Europe are seen, then, as non-deserving. In the best case scenario they are “bogus”, in the worst, terrorists. Polish public opinion is much more interested in helping people blocked in Syria or in the Middle East than people, who paid twice the average Polish salary to get to the EU. It is clear that the idea of what constitutes a real refugee is quite different in the Polish and Western imagination; one is built on first-hand experience, the second is built on ideology. This dualism can explain at least part of the miscommunication between the East and the West.

Multiculturalism – a forgotten history

Poland was a multicultural country until the Second World War when over 30% of the population belonged to ethnic minorities. Well into the 1700s (until its partition), Polish society had a tradition of tolerance for religious and cultural diversity, including tolerance towards Muslims. These were the Tatars, who had served in the Polish army since the 1600s and who had supported it in the wars against Turkey. However, by the 1930s, Polish society had failed to become democratic or egalitarian, reflecting the anti-Semitism and xenophobia present in many European countries at that time. One example is the apartheid system for Jews in 1930s Poland. Communist rule cleared Poland of ethnic minorities within post-1945 borders, creating massive often chaotic and dramatic population exchange. Polish people were sent to Poland from the lands assigned to the Soviet Union and from Germany, while non-Polish Poles moved in the other direction. This continued well into the 1960s when Jewish Poles and Polish Germans, especially, were expelled. Foreigners were not welcome in great numbers, quite the opposite. In this situation, post-communist Poland did not have a multicultural society or even think too much about integrating minorities. Good work has been done in meeting the needs of historic minorities under the Council of Europe Framework Convention on National Minorities. However, their number being very small, fewer than 2%, they have been off the radar and have not interfered with the idea of a homogenous Polish catholic nation.

Islam and Polish society

Apart from c. 10,000 Polish Tatars, Muslims in Poland are, almost by definition, foreign. There are fewer than 100,000 of them, most of them refugees. The biggest group are Chechens. Yet, until now, this inflow barely registered among the general public. People did not really know that Poland takes in refugees from Chechnya or ignored it in the name of the well-developed idea of the common enemy: Russia. Chechens were not seen as a threat because they fled Russia. The same happened with people fleeing the war zone in Bosnia. Their religion was not an issue, their status as war refugees was more important. Polish people, like other Eastern Europeans, formed their ideas of what Islam is from sensational and biased Western media coverage of honour crimes in Germany, burning cars in Sweden, genital mutilation in Norway, teenagers from the UK fleeing to ISIS, and terrorist attacks across Europe; they did not get to know Muslims personally. There was no counter-discourse available against this steady diet of fear. Emigration to the UK acerbated the fear discourse, as Polish emigrants, on the margins of the UK labour market, took over condescending British discourses on Muslims and visibly different foreigners (e.g. a word “pako” for Pakistani Muslim did not exist in Polish language before 2004). The sudden change in media discourse from “terrorists” to “refugees” is not understood.

The active engagement of the Polish military in Iraq and Afghanistan did not help the case of Muslims in Poland. Poland was used for secret CIA prisons (with torture) and thus the idea that a Muslim was a radical Islamist settled in.

Polish migration and integration policy

Polish policy towards foreigners was shaped by the restrictive approaches promoted by the EU in the 1990s. As a country with no prior experience nor expectations, Poland could have developed a different open borders policy (which it was prone to promote until 1995), but was stopped by the EU accession requirements. This stance had clear consequences: when studying Polish political debates at that time we can see an opposition to closure across political ranks, while the final restrictive outcome was a question of meeting EU convergence demands.
Importantly, Poland focused on asylum and borders as the two policy areas where the EU had clear requirements. Legal migration and integration were left practically unattended. Until the summer of 2007, when the Polish government (run then by a right-wing populist party) rushed through the first of a series of bills opening the Polish labour market to temporary workers from the Eastern Neighbourhood. There was no opposition to the bill and there was no real public debate about this issue. Integration was seen as rather unimportant because of the small numbers of foreign nationals in the country and those there tended to integrate on a “DIY” model. The belief that Poland attracts only Ukrainians, who can easily melt into Polish society, slowed down any initiatives that might have prepared the society for an increased number of visibly different minorities. This happened as the top second group coming to Poland were first the Vietnamese and then, the Chinese.

The worst possible moment

The present refugee crisis happened at the worst possible moment for the government. As the pro-European Polish governing party braced for elections in October, any false move would cost them re-election. The main opposition party has taken the political line of Fidesz in Hungary and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who openly admires Viktor Orban. This situation required a move to the right by the leading centre party. Still, it seems, they will lose the election.

The problem, however, is bigger; as Polish sociologists explain, the pendulum in education that leaned more to the right after 1989, created a generation of people brought up with admiration for a nationalist vision of society and despising any expression of left-wing beliefs labelling them “communist”. It must be remembered that in Eastern Europe this is worse than “fascist”. Also, the brutal economic transformation strengthened selfish survivalism. There is no tradition of left-wing parties in Poland. In this context, the government had to build its negotiating position on the public back home. At the same time, the years of non-information and “immigration-not-our-problem” discourses backfired. Even when the relocation mechanism is finally agreed in detail, it is hard to predict how it will be implemented by the right-wing government that will take power next month.

The move by Russia to engage in Syria may yet bring Poland to the common EU table on migration issues and assure its cooperation. For the right-wing nationalists Russia is still a greater danger than Muslim terrorists.

Challenges to the implementation of the program

There are three main challenges to the implementation of the relocation program in Poland:

1. Implementation might prove difficult in a society that now has a majority openly hostile towards Arabs (by definition Muslim, the nuanced discourse is absent) and only a minority interested in a more pragmatic approach. It is clear that an information campaign is long overdue.

2. It is unclear how the mechanism wants to keep people in a place they do not want to be. For all their political talk, one point stands: refugees do not want to stay in Poland. They see low wages, an inexistent welfare state and a bumpy economy. But also they are not part of a bigger ethnic community, so they are deprived of a much needed community safety net, not to mention a greater probability of being singled out. Labour market integration measures must be elaborated and introduced, as it is only through the labour market that new refugees will stand a chance of integrating and of being accepted. EU-wide support is needed.

3. Refugees in Poland receive slightly over 300 euros: this is not a sum anybody can live on in a big Polish city. Poverty is the greatest enemy of visible minorities in a largely xenophobic country. Thus the mechanism means more funds from the richer countries to complement this salary allowing for successful integration and preventing secondary movements.

4. The distrust of non-war refugees are rooted in Polish national experience and thus will be very difficult to change. It would be worth debating the underlying assumptions of the European asylum system and how to implement it when many Europeans (not only Eastern Europeans) do not believe in its principles. More debates, more awareness is needed, not least in this field.

5. Since 2001, Western European countries have allowed mindless Islamophobia to grow unchecked. Only the mass murder performed in their name by Breivik turned the attention of the European leaders to this problem. But it was already too late, and horror stories found fertile ground where they cannot be checked against day-to-day reality: Eastern Europe. There is an urgent need to address this issue now, across the EU, with large scale actions. Otherwise one form of extremism will lead to another.

Without more EU support Poland and other newcomers to the refugee-takers table, Muslim immigrants will become frustrated and insecure. Their radicalisation might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We must act now.

The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.