Poles apart

Bread and salt – the traditional Polish welcoming gesture.

Such generalisations are dangerous, because they come with misunderstanding and prejudice. Reluctance to refugees is not a Polish specialty. Unchecked and unconditional immigration and terrorist attacks add fuel to the fire of prejudice not only in EU countries that already welcome immigrants.

But facts are facts: It adds fuel in Poland, a relatively homogenous country with 38 million inhabitants and only 175,000 refugees, less than 0,5 per cent of the population. Polish authorities increasingly close the doors for refugees. In January the government issued a regulation allowing up to 400 refugees until the end of 2016. So far not one has come.

Narrative of fear

Beata Szydlo’s government doesn’t accept refugees. She attacks the EU relocation scheme. This attracts voters to her ruling Law and Justice party, which is conservative and populist. Since Law and Justice won the elections in October 2015, the number of people who associate terrorist attacks with the influx of refugees, has been growing. The same goes for those who, with a sigh of relief, think that there are almost no Muslims in Poland. Thanks to government propaganda and government media, the concepts of islam, refugees and terrorism together now create a powerful shorthand that drives a terrible fear of all that comes from outside or simply is foreign.

But this shorthand is new. And it is political. During the 15 years that have passed since the terror attacks in the USA on September 11, 2001, polls for a long time showed that Poles were less islamophobic than many other European societies. For the majority, islam looked like any other religion – neutral or sympathetic. Only a small minority associated it with violence and terrorism, in spite of attacks in London and Madrid.

Migration, a Polish middle name

The turnaround is surprising.

The traditional Polish custom is to greet foreigners with bread and salt and welcome home every traveler. Historically, Poland has been the scene of series of migrations: Poles themselves emigrated, but newcomers also arrived in Poland. In the fourteenth century Poland became a destination for persecuted German, Hungarian and French Jews. In the sixteenth century for Hussites. When a wave of religious wars washed over Europe, Poland was one of the few places of tolerance and coexistence of different cultures.

Poles themselves have also been forced to leave the country. After 1968, nearly 13,000 people left Poland in the wake of an anti-Semitic campaign led by the government. In the 1980s, Poles again moved abroad under Wojciech Jaruzelski’s martial law. In 1988, just years before the fall of communism, Poles were the biggest group of asylum seekers in Western Europe.

Today, people do not know or do not remember that recent history. They also don’t remember that since the 1990s Poland has given protection to more than 80,000 Chechens, most of them Muslims.

The turnaround

So what happened to the Polish “willkommenskultur”?
The populist, anti-immigrant, conservative wave which today flows through Poland has swelled for years. According to a 2013 study by the Centre for Research on Prejudice at Warsaw University, 69 percent of Poles do not want non-white people living in their country. A vast majority believes that immigrants take work away from Poles and that their presence is harmful for the economy.

The 2015 election opened the gates for xenophobic policies and attitudes. The majority that initially accepted refugees, rapidly shrunk to a minority. Today it even has a proud name: The conservative revolution. In Central and Eastern Europe the prevailing view is that refugees don’t want to come here because they prefer richer countries like Sweden or Germany. Responding to that, politicians from ruling parties say: Why, then, should we open our doors for them?

Hungarian inspiration

The key figure in Poland’s ongoing populist and conservative blitzkrieg is Jaroslaw Kaczynski. He is the charismatic leader of Law and Justice and the “man behind the throne”, according to the opposition. Officially he’s only a gray-haired party leader and deputy without any formal authority. But his hidden influence on president Andrzej Duda and his admiration for Hungarian Viktor Orbán’s way in politics are no secrets. Hungary has led the way in strongly opposing an “open door” policy on refugees. Neither is it a secret that Kaczynski lacks experience with foreign countries and foreigners (his few and only visits abroad have been to the Ukraine, to the former DDR and last year to Hungary).

Well, we are not alone. Populism is on the rise in Hungary, France and Slovakia. Populists gather voters who are dissatisfied with the status quo, although not necessarily poor. In Poland many are patriots who like the emphasis on independence and national sovereignty – and to show their middle finger to liberals and “establishment”.

The invisible minority

Sadly and surprisingly, Poland has a large group of people for whom both refugees and democratic Europe are considered enemies. The case of refugees has become part of larger issues – Polish relations to Europe, Polish responsibilities in Europe and European values.

Politicians, journalists and ordinary people share disgusting or just foolish opinions about refugees. The real disaster, however, would be if such views should one day dominate the debate. I think, or rather I hope, that the public discussion on the refugees is partly suppressing more welcoming attitudes that are just as real.
For now, those who support refugees are vilified in public life. But they are there.

In May, on the Polish-German border, I met Poles from Szczecin who were helping refugees – they drove across the border to the German town Loecknitz, bringing humanitarian help to young refugees from Syria and organizing „international” dinners. They were afraid of terrorist attacks as everyone is in Europe. But on questions about links between refugees and terrorism, which in Poland are a constant, they just shook their heads: “What’s that got to do with anything?!”.

Poles are not against immigrants. Poles are caught by the blowing winds of a European, populist revolution. Revolutions pass. The key to end the suffering of people who are living in poverty in a foreign country or risk their lives to reach Europe, is solidarity. And about Solidarity Poles know more than most others.
It’s idealistic. And rational: Sooner or later we will have to open for refugees. If we don’t, we will lose what we have, the free movement within the EU.

And as every Pole knows: This is the most important thing that old, bad Europe has given us.