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The new unknown: what’s got Poland so scared?

The end of communist rule marked a new era for nationalism in Poland. Since 1989, the country’s key political goals have been the maintenance of national sovereignty and the minimization of external influence. Nowhere has Poland’s nationalism been more visible in recent years than in its debate regarding the EU and the refugee crisis. Since September last year, Poland has been taking a clear stance concerning refugees and the requirements of the EU on the refugee quota, and the country’s reluctance has gained significant attention. While sovereignty, culture, and security seem to be important and legitimate areas of concern, the debate has not been without its problems.

Mainstream media has been quick to criticize Poland both in terms of its stance on refugees, and its recent political developments, which have been considered a threat to liberal values and democracy. However the country’s situation might not be such a simple matter, and we might need to consider its historical position. Having relatively recently gained political independence from the Soviet Union, the opposition posed against EU’s demands becomes simply a protective response to a threat against Poland’s frail sovereignty. As a new country still rebuilding its identity, there are clear incentives to minimize outside influence in the nation’s affairs. Demands for sovereignty have been appealed to in various instances, most notably in arguments against the EU pressure to accept refugees, and more recently with the European Commission’s proposal to fine member countries for not doing so.

While such arguments may find political legitimacy, the country’s anti-immigration discussion has also stepped onto a rather uncomfortable path. In both the political and civil dimensions of the Polish immigration debate, racial bias and hostility have been openly expressed and justified. For instance, a study conducted in 2013 found that 69% of Poles would not welcome non-white people into the country. Furthermore, a more recent study showed that two-thirds were opposed to taking in refugees from the Middle East and northern Africa. A large portion of the Polish population believe that immigrants take jobs from native Poles, and that their welfare is too costly.

Since last September, these views have become notably manifested in practice. In November last year, over 70,000 thousand Poles marched through the streets of Warsaw, waving Polish flags and chanting anti-immigration and anti-EU slogans in a demonstration arranged by a range of nationalist groups. That same month, a Syrian refugee was physically assaulted by three men on the streets of Wroclaw. The man recalled onlookers passively watching the abuse, and some even encouraging it, telling the attackers to “kill him”. What should especially be noted, though, is the fact that last year, the Polish people cast over 50% of their vote on right-wing, anti-immigration parties (PiS 37.6%, Kukiz`15 8.8%, and KORWiN 4.8%).

In Poland’s political debate, the anti-immigration discourse has not been subtle, something that especially applies to the currently ruling government. Since coming to power, the populist conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS) party has made it one of their priorities to resist calls to aid refugees on the continent. Under the rule of the previous government, Poland agreed on taking in the relatively small number of 7,000 people, a plan that was initially supported by PiS. However this initiative did not last long, and with the Brussels attacks in March of this year, the new ruling party finally got an excuse to back out of the deal, claiming that Poland’s security would stand at risk if it carried through with the plan.

Polish politicians have also expressed their views on middle-eastern refugees in questionable ways. In 2015, the leader of the PiS party Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Syrian refugees carried diseases into Europe, a comment which was unquestioned by the party itself and was repeated by the president Andrzej Duda at a later date. Moreover, Poland’s new foreign minister suggested that the newly arrived Syrian refugees form an army and go back to fight for their country, instead of “drinking coffee in the cafes of Berlin”. Even more uncomfortable were the comments made by the leader of the right-wing KORWiN party, which currently holds two seats in the European Parliament, and received 4.8% of the Polish vote in last year’s election. During a meeting of the European Parliament last year, the leader said that the European migration policy “causes the flooding of Europe with human garbage”.

Out of an estimated 9 million Syrians having fled the war since 2011, about 150,000 have declared asylum in Europe. Picture: By Joachim Seidler, photog_at from Austria (20150904 174) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Out of an estimated 9 million Syrians having fled the war since 2011, about 150,000 have declared asylum in Europe. Picture: By Joachim Seidler, photog_at from Austria (20150904 174) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

All this might not come as a surprise though, considering that Poland remains a largely homogenous country both in terms of religion and ethnicity. Data from 2014 shows that only 0.3% of the population consists of foreigners, and the country has accepted few Syrian refugees into the country (151 since the start of the Syrian war). Thus it might just be that the Polish people are not familiar with the foreigners that they have been asked to accommodate, and their point of view represents a “fear of the unknown”. This is however only strengthened by the immigration-hostile government, which has been granting itself increasing control over information in the country.

The perspective of the Polish people should perhaps not be ignored, and criticizing almost half the country’s population must arguably be approached with care. Valid arguments have been proposed by the country’s representatives and its population, however the debate is undoubtedly also guided by misinformation, fear, and a hostile political discussion. Public opinion demonstrates that racism is alive and well, and sadly, the country may be a long way from changing its approach to the idea of a multicultural Europe.

Michal Gieda

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