Inside Poland’s Drastic Immigration Reversal

Sharp contrast but understandable:

For the largely Middle Eastern migrants arriving in Poland during the fall 2021 border crisis with Belarus, the reception was chilly – in more ways than one. After trudging through freezing temperatures, many were met at the Polish border by armed soldiers who pushed them back, at times violently.

Following the crisis, in which Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko enticed thousands of Middle Eastern asylum seekers into his country and then funneled them west, the Polish government started construction of a fence spanning 115 miles along the Polish-Belarusian border.

The moves to strengthen the border were largely supported by the Polish public, which has generally opposed resettling Middle Eastern refugees in the country. In 2015, during the Syrian refugee crisis, thousands of Poles marched through Warsaw’s streets, chanting, “Today refugees, tomorrow terrorists!” In 2016, 73% of the Polish population said they viewed refugees from places like Iraq and Syria as a “threat to their country.”

Now, during the second full week of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, Polish rhetoric surrounding refugees has taken a dramatic turn.

“We will do everything to provide safe shelter in Poland for everyone who needs it,” Poland’s interior minister, Mariusz Kaminski, said to journalists at the beginning of the crisis.

Poles have similarly lent their voices and even homes to support the roughly 1.2  million Ukrainians who have poured into their country. They have distributed food, raised funds, and organized medical convoys to give aid to their besieged neighbor and its residents.

In fact, relative to other EU member states – namely Italy, Germany, and Finland, France, Romania, and Sweden – Poland citizens indicated the greatest willingness to host Ukrainian refugees, according to a poll taken by the European Council on Foreign Relations in late January.

Why the radical shift? Experts attribute Poland’s initial embrace of Ukrainian refugees to the pre-existing Ukrainian population in the country, as well as to historical and cultural ties. In other words: proximity and similarity.

Despite the recent virulence aimed at Middle Eastern refugees, experts say anti-immigration attitudes aren’t long-standing in Polish society and have roots in the Syrian refugee crisis that shook the European Union just seven years ago.

“If you look at the 1990s and early 2000s, migration was not a politicized topic… At that stage, Poles were getting more and more open toward other nations,” says Marta Kindler, a sociologist and research fellow at the University of Warsaw’s Center of Migration Research.

Then came the 2015 migration crisis and the election the same year of Poland’s current right-wing, populist Law and Justice Party, whose platform stoked the flames of nationalism and xenophobia with alarmist tales of “severe diseases” from non-European migrants.

Following the party’s significant victory, Kindler says that “hostile attitudes, especially toward Muslim migrants” were allowed to openly proliferate among Poles, resulting years later, during the Belarusian conflict, in what she believes to be “racism at the border.”

The current migrant crisis, of course, is sending thousands of mostly white, mostly Christian refugees to the border. And while several factors are likely contributing to the warm embrace Poles are giving to Ukrainian refugees, race is likely one of them, Kindler says.

“It is clear that this is unfortunately on a racist and ethnic basis,” she says. “This is an issue that I think is right now really striking.”

Poles are fairly accustomed to seeing Ukrainians inside their borders, and experts say that familiarity as well as the cultural similarities shared by the countries may be the driving forces behind the altruism exhibited by Poles this time around.

Though Poland remains a fairly homogenous society, Ukrainians make up the largest group of foreigners in the country, at 57%. The Polish government says 300,000 Ukrainians currently hold residence permits in the country. However many more are likely in Poland through the visa-free agreement between the two countries. The New York Times put the total number of Ukrainian citizens in the country before the Russian invasion at around 1 million.

Many came for economic opportunities following the fall of the Iron Curtain. At the time, Poland in particular had developed a reputation as a country with ample economic opportunities and higher wages relative to some of its neighbors.

“[During the 1990s] the situation in Ukraine was very poor,” Kindler says. “It was not so much that people were unemployed in Ukraine, but that they earned so little that they were not able to support their households.”

Ukrainians once again set out for Poland in large numbers in 2014 and 2014 as a result of their country’s economic and security situation. The two countries also have some linguistic overlap. As of 2020, at least a third of Ukrainians had at least a basic command of the Polish language, according to a survey.

Another factor likely influencing how Poland is reacting to Ukrainian refugees is the shared concern both countries have about Russian expansion.

“There’s also the geographical proximity to the current events in Ukraine, which makes people also feel personally threatened,” says Hanne Beirens, a director at the Migration Policy Institute Europe. “There’s explosions only 70 kilometers away from the Polish border. I think that’s also feeding into how people are responding.”

For many Poles, the specter of Soviet oppression still takes a toll on the collective psyche.

“There’s also a historical dimension that weighs in into this, which is the memory of suffered repressions of Polish citizens [in the days of the Soviet Union]. So that’s very much still alive in the collective memory in Poland,” Beirens says. “Hence, there’s this kind of sympathy or empathy with what Ukrainians are experiencing at this very moment in time.”

But as the crisis continues to unfold and the numbers swell, many wonder whether the goodwill will persist.

Despite the current rapport between the countries, the relationship between them has historically been fraught. Tensions were briefly reignited in 2016 following a decision by Poland to label the killings of Poles by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II as a “genocide.” During 2016 and 2017, violence against Ukrainians escalated, with more than 44,000 cases of hate crimes against Ukrainians in a single Polish region.

“I’m just hoping for society in general, this solidarity that is being shown right now will not be temporary, and that it will not fade away,” Kindler says.

Source: Inside Poland’s Drastic Immigration Reversal

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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