Poland Shouldn’t Shut Out Refugees

It was to become Poland’s most recognizable logo. Bold red letters, in shapes evoking human figures, formed the word “Solidarnosc.”

Today, 35 years after Solidarity was created and 26 after its victory over Communism, not much remains of that spirit in Poland. Nor should others expect any solidarity from Poles: When in June the European Commission, facing an unprecedented influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, called on Poland to accept 3,700 of them, the country announced that it “refuses to submit” to European Union quotas, which were intended to be compulsory. As other countries also balked, Brussels had to opt for lower, voluntary and unenforceable quotas.

Eventually Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz declared that the country, as an expression of “European solidarity,” would take in 2,000 people over the next two years, mainly from Syria and Eritrea. It will have to do more.

The public reaction, as shown in a June survey by CBOS, a pollster, was initially harsh: 53 percent of Poles were opposed to taking in refugees. A September Millard Brown poll shows that over 50 percent now say refugees should be helped. Still, if foreigners are to be admitted, a majority of Poles want them to be “like us.” Over half of respondents said they would welcome Americans, Czechs and Germans, but believed that the presence of Arabs and Turks on Polish soil would be “detrimental.” The Internet has erupted with hatred: The prosecutor general has ordered an investigation of anonymous posts recommending that Poland reopen Auschwitz and send refugees there.

Matt Chase
Matt Chase

In an election year, the government is taking objections to taking in refugees seriously, especially because the ruling Civic Platform Party is expected to lose. The first group of refugees, 60 families from Syria, has arrived. They are, however, not part of the 2,000 Ms. Kopacz has mentioned. These families were brought in by a private foundation, Estera, which pays for the rescue of Syrian Christians; the government only facilitated the paperwork and vetted candidates.

To date, there is no comprehensive refugee assistance policy — and any official initiatives are haphazard. It appears that Estera’s mission of only assisting Christians actually weighed in its favor. “Christians, subject to barbaric oppression in Syria, deserve today for a Christian country like Poland to react quickly and come to their aid,” Ms. Kopacz said.

The newly elected president, Andrzej Duda, from the opposition Law and Justice party, seemed to agree. “I am sure they will be well-received here,” he declared during an electoral debate. “They are culturally close to us.” He has since been silent on the issue. Mr. Duda’s party colleague Witold Waszczykowski, a possible future foreign minister, was less enthusiastic: “Since we have been forced to make such decisions,” he said, “they should be Christians, as there is some hope they’ll assimilate in Poland.”

Such language directly violates Article 3 of the United Nations 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, which bans racial and religious discrimination. There are, however, no sanctions for violating the convention, and the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia have all announced a Christians-only policy.

Estera’s chairwoman, Miriam Shadeed, a Christian of Polish-Syrian background, explained matter-of-factly that all Muslim refugees “are in fact ISIS soldiers infiltrating Europe.” This sort of talk does not raise any eyebrows in Poland. Jaroslaw Gowin, a former justice minister, concurred: According to him, Muslims spread terrorism.

Hostile attitudes and Islamophobia are hardly being challenged. Roza Thun, a member of the European Parliament, and Malgorzata Fuszara, Poland’s minister for equal treatment, were the only politicians to endorse a pro-refugee demonstration in Warsaw in August.

Meanwhile, Pawel Kukiz, a rock star who unexpectedly garnered 21 percent of the presidential vote, claims that a sinister plot is afoot. “I’ll give an African refugee much, but only if he’s in Africa, or Germany, France or England,” he said at an electoral rally. “But why here? Maybe there’s a plan for Poles to be scattered around the world, and diverse nationalities are to live here?” Mr. Kukiz is now running for Parliament as head of an extreme-right movement.

His suspicions about Poles “being scattered” reflect the fact that since the country’s accession to the European Union in 2003, over two million people have emigrated, looking for jobs and a better future. In the 1980s, during the period of Solidarity’s struggle against a Communist military dictatorship, over a million people escaped Poland, and were received and accepted in the West. And it wasn’t only the West that helped: During World War II, Iran took in over 100,000 Polish refugees fleeing the Soviet Union.

Seven decades later, this episode of generosity from a Muslim country is hardly reflected upon. In fact, public opinion has been so callous that the Polish Catholic Church has had to remind citizens that it is their “Christian duty to help refugees.” The church has called on each parish to prepare to take in refugees, regardless of religion.

Taking in refugees and migrants also happens to be in the country’s self-interest, and not for reasons of demography alone. To do so is to act, as Ms. Kopacz said, in European solidarity — and Poland desperately needs it.

After all, it was the transfer of European funds that fueled the country’s spectacular economic growth over the last decade. Europe also remains the cornerstone of Poland’s foreign policy, especially in the deepening confrontation with an aggressive Russia on our eastern border. Nor can Poland expect that its NATO allies will strengthen the alliance’s eastern flank if Poles remain indifferent to other countries’ concerns regarding the refugee crisis. Poland’s future depends on European solidarity. The country can’t be seen as grudgingly and selectively submitting to the demands of the European Union.

Poland could also soon find itself flooded with refugees the way Greece and Italy are today. The war in Ukraine could flare up again, and tens of thousands will then head west into Poland. Currently, the flow is a trickle: There have been only 6,000 applications for asylum this year (and only 262 were granted in 2014), compared with 800,000 applications expected in Germany.

Poland, thriving on European funds and sheltered by Europe’s geography from the brunt of the current refugee influx, can economically afford to do more. And politically it can’t afford not to.

Konstanty Gebert, a former underground journalist in the Solidarity movement, is a columnist at Gazeta Wyborcza.

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