Ukrainian refugees fleeing the horrors of Russian aggression to Poland have received a warm welcome. The Polish-Ukrainian border that forms the EU’s eastern border is open to an influx of desperate people. But just a hundred kilometers to the north, refugees, mostly from the global south, who try to cross the Poland-Belarus border have been experiencing a different kind of treatment: barbed wire and walls that prevent them from entering the country, even if they manage to cross them , they are pushed back. What is the reasoning behind these different approaches?
A country becomes an NGO
Warsaw’s population grew by 17 percent in the first month after Russia invaded Ukraine, while Poland has the second-largest refugee population in the world. Of the 4.6 million people who fled Ukraine in the first two months of the war, some 2.6 million found refuge in Poland; 1.5 million remain there.
The sudden influx of refugees has taken Polish authorities by surprise, although since 2015 they have refused to resettle refugees from the Middle East on the grounds that Poland must be prepared to escalate the war in Ukraine. Despite being unprepared, the Polish government quickly reached out to Ukrainians, simplifying border crossing procedures, providing free transportation and enabling them to obtain a Polish Personal Identification Number (PESEL) for education, healthcare, Labor market and economic support.
However, Poland’s recipe for withstanding the challenge has more to do with the exceptional commitment of civil society and grassroots activism. Poles from all over Poland receive refugees from across the border, give them rooms in their own houses, help with bureaucracy, organize crowdfunding, cook meals, and open free “shops.” According to Karolina Jeznach and Steffen Lüdke: “The sense that Poland might be the next victim of Russian imperialism has turned the country into something of a gigantic NGO.”
good intentions may not be enough
So far, Poland seems to have passed the “test of solidarity”. Still, there are concerns that even the best intentions and open doors may not be enough to help Ukrainian refugees. In the long run, and given the unfinished business of Russian disinformation on Polish social media, Ukrainians arriving in Poland are targeting a particularly vulnerable group: they are mainly women, children and the elderly.
The need for assistance is great, but there can also be ulterior motives among the volunteers. Therefore, it should be verified to exclude persons sentenced for various forms of ill-treatment. This is one of those situations where national coordination is critical.
Due to Poland’s geographical, cultural and linguistic proximity to Ukraine, many refugees expressed interest in staying and working in Poland. But despite the country having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU, the market can only absorb one in five Ukrainians willing to work.
The Polish government is not considering transferring refugees to other EU countries, but wants financial assistance from the bloc in return. NGOs have warned that more funds should be diverted to local actors and organizations on the front lines, rather than the government.
Soaring rents and flat shortages as Poland is facing some pressing pressing problems: rising inflation, underfunding of public services, the lowest number of medical staff in the EU and the lowest health care spending. Dissatisfaction with Ukrainian “privilege” appears to be relatively isolated, but support has declined.
While 90% of Poles are optimistic about Ukrainian refugees in April 2022, 71% of Poles are in favor of accepting refugees in Poland. Some surveys paint a more pessimistic picture: They show that while Poles support the Ukrainian cause, they harbor resentment towards Ukrainian refugees for the reasons mentioned above. Therefore, this issue should be addressed in time before it triggers social tensions and becomes a political weapon in the 2023 parliamentary elections.
The root causes of Ukrainians’ warm welcome are manifold. As neighboring Slavic states, Ukraine and Poland share many cultural, linguistic, and historical ties (although history often proves to be a bone of contention).
On the eve of the war, there were about 1 million Ukrainian diaspora in Poland, and Ukrainians also accounted for more than 50% of international students. Thus, the first wave of refugees fled mainly to their relatives and friends. Many Poles know people from Ukraine. That doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t discriminatory: There are many cases of mistreating Ukrainian workers or making politically incorrect remarks.
Another factor that unites the two countries is a common enemy. Unlike Hungary, Poland has for decades, if not centuries, hated the Russian political elite. Poles fear their country could be the next target of Russian aggression and identify strongly with Ukraine’s plight. In the days following the Russian attack, shelves in many stores in eastern Poland were empty and queues formed at ATMs and gas stations.
People across Poland are applying for new passports collectively. Most Poles know the war historically, but the memory of World War II remains very vivid in the collective memory. For many, Russia’s unwarranted aggression against Ukraine echoed Poland’s fate: the attack by Nazi Germany and the subsequent Soviet accusation against the Nazis under the guise of “fraternal help”.
Last but not least, the refugees from Ukraine fit very well with the “romantic” perception: they are mainly women and children and, in the eyes of many, “proper refugees”. This is mainly because Ukrainian males between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine.
refugees not welcome
The warm welcome by Ukrainians stands in stark contrast to the treatment of refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border, where many are still stranded. The Polish Border Security Guard regularly reports obstruction and “illegal crossings into Poland” on the Polish-Belarusian border by people from Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria and Afghanistan – countries ravaged by conflict or in dire humanitarian situations.
From the beginning of 2021 to December 19, approximately 15,000 People are trying to cross the Polish-Belarusian border into Polish territory. For many, deportation is tantamount to death. Their plight has not gone unnoticed among Ukrainian organisations, which have written an open letter to the Polish government and the Border Security Guard pledging to treat all refugees equally.
A decisive factor that distinguishes the treatment of refugees is the intervention of the authorities and the politicization of the problem. On the border with Ukraine, the government has not erected a wall or punished any attempts by locals, media, doctors or volunteers to help. NGOs are not banned from border areas. But this is already common a hundred kilometers to the north.
Governments and public broadcasters were quick to label refugees from the global south as “dangerous,” “illegal” or “economic” migrants sent by the much-despised Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko to destabilize Poland . The last statement is correct, which is why many EU countries support Poland. However, few people noticed that these people were deceived and involuntarily became pawns in Lukashenko’s vendetta.
Many help refugees regardless of legal consequences and “criminal solidarity”. Some locals fed them or allowed them into their homes. Volunteers across Poland sought them out in forests close to special emergency areas, helping them apply for asylum and providing them with warm clothing and food. Some also cut barbed wire along the border .
Demonstrations took place in large Polish cities and in small towns close to special emergency areas. A poll published in early January 2022 showed that 72% of Poles supported “illegal” aid to refugees.
This is not to say that the hostile policies of the Polish government are not supported by certain groups in Polish society. Poland is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous countries in Europe. Very few people know Muslims or people from Middle Eastern countries. All the information they received came from the media and history textbooks.
One of the most memorable historical events in this predominantly Catholic country was the 1683 Battle of Vienna against the Ottoman Empire, which perpetuated the self-identification of many Polish nationalists as Antemurale Christianitatis (Fortress of Christendom). Even when widely reported, wars in Syria, Yemen or Afghanistan are distant and incomprehensible to ordinary Poles.
It is worth noting, however, that over the past few decades, Poland has hosted many Muslim Chechen refugees, and religion did not play a significant role in the public discourse at the time. It has become politicized over the past decade.
Poland as a country of immigrants
Over the past few decades, Poland has been a country that people move out of or through rather than into. The past few years have shown that this trend has changed. However, authorities and society may not be aware and ready to accept the changes that are taking place.
Poland’s ethnic, cultural and religious homogeneity is not necessarily an advantage. Unfortunately, the topic of refugees is often used for political gain and to influence social attitudes.
This can be illustrated in 2015, when a majority of Poles initially supported the idea of supporting refugees, but when the issue became a mainstay of the Law and Justice party’s campaign, they completely changed their approach. Let us hope that the Polish parliamentary elections in 2023 will not repeat the same mistakes.
[Conner Tighe edited this piece.]
[Fair Observer is a media partner of Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.