Poland Bashes Immigrants, but Quietly Takes Christian Ones


The far-right Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, after running a campaign that inspired choruses of “Poland for Poles.” With national elections due in October, the governing party is once again promoting its vision of “Poland First.”

The party’s loud, anti-immigrant rhetoric has created special headaches for the European Union, which has largely failed to distribute quotas of migrants from North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East around the Continent because of resistance from Poland and other hard-line member states.

So it may come as a surprise that the Polish government has, very quietly, presided over the largest influx of migrant workers in the country’s modern history — though they are mostly Christians from neighboring Ukraine.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has not been shy about promoting the government’s agenda. “We want to reshape Europe and re-Christianize it,” he said in 2017 in an interview with a Catholic television station. The government recently ordered all new passports include the phrase, “God, Honor, Motherland.”

But immigration is Poland’s paradox. It has benefited greatly from the European Union’s open borders, earning billions of dollars in remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Polish workers who have migrated to other countries in the bloc, especially to Britain. Yet with Poland now facing labor shortages, the government is failing to lure back the diaspora — and is restricted by its political stance against migrants.

If government officials rarely speak about needing migrant workers, the infusion of Ukrainians is apparent in many Polish cities. According to Eurostat, more than 683,000 foreigners received their first residence permits in Poland in 2017, the highest number for any country in the European Union. There are now over two million Ukrainians working in Poland, most flocking to cities that are the engines driving the Polish economy.

The question is whether they will stay. Last year, the European Union began allowing visa-free travel for Ukrainians, and Germany is easing work requirements for skilled workers, targeting Ukrainians. A recent newspaper survey in Poland found that 59 percent of Ukrainians in the country said they would leave for Germany if the labor market opened up.

“There is no ownership of the issue by the government,” said Anna Wicha, a director at the Adecco Group, one of the largest employment agencies in Poland. “You ask how many Ukrainians are working here and they will say 500,000. But it is more than two million. And many may be going to Germany.”

For now, the government lacks a long-term strategy to expand the labor pool. Many experts and some opposition politicians in Poland say the situation will only be resolved if political leaders soften their resistance to migrants and embrace plurality. But at the national level, even talking about immigration can be politically lethal.

When Pawel Chorazy, the deputy minister of investments and development, said during a televised debate before the October local elections that “the inflow of immigrants to Poland needs to be increased to sustain economic growth,” he was met with scorn.

Joachim Brudzinski, the interior minister, said that Mr. Chorazy’s comments were “not a position of the government.” The prime minister, Mr. Morawiecki, said that Mr. Chorazy “got seriously ahead of himself.”

Then he fired him.

“Politicians are dancing on the line, well aware that you can wake up demons,” said Irena Kotowska, head of the center for demography at the Warsaw School of Economics. “It is easy to play into nationalist feeling with anti-immigrant rhetoric. But the reality of the need in the labor market is more and more clear every day.”

“This is a defining moment for the country,” she added. “Some decisions simply have to be made.”

Here in the central city of Lodz, the contradictions of Poland’s migration dilemma are evident. Unlike national leaders, however, the local mayor, Hanna Zdanowska, has embraced immigrants. When she ran last October, she called for an inclusive Poland that welcomed newcomers.

The governing party campaigned hard against her, but she won with 70 percent of the vote, which she credited in part to the city’s history of tolerance. It was once a manufacturing center of hundreds of red brick factories, with a diverse population of Dutch, English and German residents, and a strong Jewish contingent.

Henryk Panusz, 89, whose family were leaders in the knitwear industry and part of a boomtown that was an eclectic mix of ethnicities and cultures, said Lodz “was the promised land.”

“Until the Second World War, there were so many cultures and ethnicities and nationalities,” he added.

After the war, Lodz struggled under Communist rule before the Iron Curtain started disintegrating in Poland in 1989. After the country joined the European Union, providing a chance for people to leave more easily, Lodz saw its population decline to under 690,000, from more than 850,000. That was part of an exodus since 2004 of about 2.5 million people from a nation of around 38 million.

But Poland has also benefited from billions in European Union subsidies that have helped turn the country into one of the Continent’s fastest-growing economies. Lodz has attracted international companies, while reinventing many old factories as cultural spaces to attract a new creative class.

Even as the economy thrives, however, the Polish government has had little success in luring home many of those who went abroad in search of better pay and greater opportunity, despite spending millions on a publicity campaign.

Aleksandra Modrzejewska left Lodz in 2014 and found a job as a waitress when she first arrived in Britain. She now lives in Chelmsford, England, and works as an insurance broker. She says she believes the assurances of the government in London that no matter what happens when Britain leaves the European Union, a process known as Brexit, she will be able to stay.

“No one I know is thinking of leaving,” she said. “Brexit may have an impact on new people coming but, as far as I can tell, for people who have built their lives here, it is not going to change anything.”

“It was just a different quality of life,” she added, explaining her decision to leave Poland. “People are much more open and inviting of different cultures and nationalities.”

For officials in Lodz, and elsewhere in Poland, the labor shortage is a problem that could curb economic growth. More than half of the companies in Poland reported having trouble finding workers, according to a survey by Work Service, Poland’s largest employment agency.

Antonina Marushko, 30, came to Lodz from Ukraine three years ago with her husband and two children. She says the move has been difficult. But, she adds, she does not want to leave. She worked and saved and recently was able to open her own beauty salon.

“Our life is here now,” she said.

To reconcile the new arrivals with the government’s anti-immigrant, Christian identity, Poland’s leaders have gone to great lengths to create narrow policies that almost completely limit the influx to Christians. That goal was all but stated in proposed legislation that would make it easier for people from former Soviet satellite countries that are “culturally similar” to Poland to become permanent residents.

Polish immigration officials declined to be interviewed for this article. But the government has worked so hard for so long to build a narrative that bolsters suspicion of all outsiders that even an immigration policy built on proximity and cultural affinity is fraught.

The influx of Ukrainians has come at the same time as a straining in the relationship between the Polish and Ukrainian governments over the politicization of history and the difficult pasts of the two nations, which share a border that has shifted multiple times over the decades.

For Ukrainians migrating to Poland, those tensions can ripple into daily life. Ms. Marushko, the beauty parlor owner, said that her son was the only Ukrainian in his class and that some of the other children — presumably repeating talk they heard at home — had told him that Poland was for the Poles.

Ms. Marushko said that one of her older Polish clients routinely mocked Ukrainians, calling them radioactive because of Chernobyl, a bitter reference to the nuclear disaster in 1986.

“Things are better now,” Ms. Marushko said, referring to her experiences of prejudice.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Poland is that another generation, despite growing up in an era of economic growth, also seems eager to leave.

“There is still the perception here that you ‘make it’ outside of Poland,” said Ms. Wicha of the Adecco Group.

Ms. Modrzejewska, the insurance broker in Britain, agreed. “Even if you have the worst job, it is a better life,” she said.

She talks frequently with her family and her 14-year-old sister, Magda, who seems to have taken the message to heart.

“I want to be a doctor or a medical engineer,” Magda said. “We also have family in Florida. I am too young to know what I will do, but I think about it and going to Florida is my dream.”

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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