Mood shifts in Polish border town as alt-right supporters go after dark-skinned refugees from Ukraine

Sigh….:

The Przemyśl train station is a spot that’s come to be known in the last six days for its heartwarming scenes of volunteers welcoming tired and hungry refugees with a cup of hot tea and a smile. On a grey Wednesday morning, however, under a brooding, overcast sky, tension is building on the ground.

Yellow-vested volunteers, who days before held their positions alone outside, are now crowded out by a heavy police presence. Officers in green and blue uniforms pace through the parking lot of the square, and tall guards frame the entryway to the platforms, scanning everyone who makes their way in and out of the building.

“It’s really scary now,” says Soufiane, an Algerian volunteer who’s been offering translation services in Arabic, French, English and Polish. The change, he explains, was the immediate result of the actions carried out the night before by a group of alt-right supporters targeting refugees who fled the Russian invasion.

Tuesday evening, a Polish outlet shared video footage of a dozen black-hooded men descending on the train station. Their targets, explained the reporter who was quick enough to pull out her phone when she saw the men rushing the station, were the arriving refugees. But, she adds, only the ones who “looked like they weren’t Ukrainian.”

“They began shouting at the group of three Indian men, ‘go back to the railway station, go back to your country,’ ” says Anna Mikulska, a reporter with oko.agency.

Among hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine arriving in Poland are Africans, Indians and others lacking Ukrainian passports. Some reported racist treatment by officials on the Ukrainian side.

Around the same time that night and a bit further down the road, a similar scene, albeit more contained, began playing out in the parking lot of the relief centre in the town of Medyka. There, we saw a similar group of balaclava-clad men prowling the aisles where volunteers were offering free food and clothing while a determined line of police followed closely behind.

While there were no reports of anything serious happening at Medyka, the same cannot be said for Przemyśl.

“We were just going to our car … when we were stopped by some people,” starts one of the three German men in the video captured by OKO. “They slapped us and tried to hit us.”

The group of Germans came to Poland with the NGO Humanity First to assist with volunteer efforts. The attacking football hooligans — as they’re called locally here — appeared to mark them because of their skin colour.

“We’re just trying to find another way to get to our car,” says the German man, timidly.

Football hooligans, Przemysław Witkowski tells me the morning after the incident, are called that because they’re all fans of specific teams. “But they all share similar affiliations of nationalist and anti-refugee sentiment,” says the academic, who specializes in studying the far right in Poland.

“These people represent a small minority of the Polish people,” he underscored. “But they’re still out there.”

Groups like these organize primarily on platforms like Facebook groups to communicate. In recent days, they have begun using the social media tool to co-ordinate street patrols.

“Two beige on beige walking down the street,” reads one of the posts uncovered by a freelance Polish journalist who specializes in tracking the movements of these groups.

This kind of sentiment isn’t new, Witkowski explains. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted masses of people to arrive on Poland’s doorstep, these groups were rife with anti-refugee sentiment.

The recent violence can be traced back to a series of social media posts that began making the rounds in the last few days. The tweets and Facebook posts falsely allege that women and children are being targeted by those who had recently arrived from the Przemyśl train station.

“They then see it as a call to arms, to protect their Polish women,” says Mikulska, the reporter. The pressure from these posts eventually prompted the local police to issue a tweet to dispel the rumours.

The tweet says there is “false information in social media that there have been serious criminal offenses in Przemyśl and border counties: burglaries, assaults and rape. It’s not true. The police did not record an increased number of crimes in connection with the situation at the border.”

Some are attributing this flurry of fake news accounts to a Russia-fuelled disinformation effort. Witkowski agrees that, while he can’t confirm these specific stories were plants, that kind of strategy has been used in the past by the Kremlin and would be advantageous to them now.

“Presenting Poland as racist and aggressive towards other countries is exactly the kind of soft power that Russia could wield to destabilize the country’s standing on the global stage,” he said.

Indeed, later that day, Witkowski sends along the latest figures from the Polish Institute for Internet and Social Media Research, which found more than 120,000 attempts at disinformation in Poland under the hashtags #Ukraine, #Russia and #war in the last 24 hours. Much of the content related to fuelling anti-refugee hysteria.

The trains are still arriving in Przemyśl — 47,000 people in the last 24 hours, Soufiane tells me — but the feeling on the ground has certainly shifted. Blanket-huddled figures are now being quickly shuffled onto buses to their next destination and volunteers are encouraging people to move onto bigger cities like Warsaw and Krakow instead of lingering.

“I’m afraid today because I’m thinking: what if they think I’m a refugee?” Sanoufie tells me as we jockey between two officers in their own blue balaclavas. He’s been living in Poland for seven years, and this is the first time such thoughts have entered his mind.

“I took the bus home last night. Walking just didn’t feel safe.”

Source: Mood shifts in Polish border town as alt-right supporters go after dark-skinned refugees from Ukraine

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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