Poland both welcomes Ukrainian refugees, setting an example of hospitality, and keeps pushing Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis and Afghanis back to Belorussian forest
Almost two months have passed since Putin’s Russia waged war on Ukraine. On the very first day of fighting, the Polish government declared the Polish-Ukrainian border open for refugees and set up first reception centers. What happened next was one of the most, if not the most heart-warming episodes in the 33-year long history of the Third Polish Republic: ordinary citizens rushed to support the refugees. The NGOs and local authorities set up information booths at bus and train stations. People welcomed Ukrainians at their own homes. Schools, museums and cultural centers organized activities for refugee children. The parliament quickly voted for a special law allowing Ukrainians to register and start working immediately. Public space was filled with Ukrainian flags and solidarity emblems – in both big cities and small towns. Even memories of darker moments of the common history seem to fade away: at the moment, the absolute majority of Poles agrees that it was Ukraine which fell victim to Russian aggression, and that Ukrainians need, and should receive, our help.
But there is also another face of the Polish attitude towards people who have run away from their war-destroyed country. The Afghanis, Yemenis, Syrian, Kurdish people are still trapped on the Polish-Belorussian border. The hypocrisy of the authorities is demonstrated in broad daylight. It is enough to have a look on the Polish Border Guards’ official Twitter profile. Tweets about welcoming thousands of Ukrainians, accompanied by photos of friendly and professional servicemen, are paired up with menacing messages about how the guards bravely located a few tens of ‘illegals’ on Belorussian border.
A number of facts and stories illustrate that the Polish state applies face control when demonstrating care and humanism. This selective hospitality shows an ugly face to the world beyond the Polish eastern neighborhood. And if the Polish pretense to be human is not vain, we need to be caring and considerate of others, not only to the extent that this serves the political interests of our state, party or in-group.
Of course, Belarus is no longer actively inviting Iraqi or Syrian citizens to come to Minsk “on a tourist trip”, and Belarussian consulates in Baghdad and Erbil were closed back in November 2021. However, not all those who came “on a trip”, hoping to reach Western Europe in a safer way than through the Mediterranean Sea, went back home. Some Iraqi Kurds decided they would rather try crossing the border again and again than fly back to Iraq, where nothing awaits them. For Yemeni, Syrian and Afghani citizens, going back to their homelands means going back to a bloody war zone. From 16-17 April, this may refer to Iraqi Kurds too – as Turkey began its consecutive „special operation” against PKK fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan. That means that they have the necessary preconditions to be granted refugee status.
All this does not matter neither to Belorussian, nor to Polish authorities. The Belorussians closed down the temporary shelter for migrants they had built months earlier in a former warehouse in Bruzgi. They use physical violence to push migrants into Poland, they beat up those who are found back in Belorussian territory. Polish Border Guards, on their part, keep patrolling the border and pushing the migrants back to Belarus. There is no question of international protection or asylum seeking. Furthermore, Polish authorities do a lot to discourage citizens even from offering basic humanitarian aid to those who crossed the border. The immediate border zone was sealed off back in September. But even outside of the zone those who search for migrants in the forests to give them food, drink and warm clothing, are stopped by the police. Local citizens, living in the border areas and thus allowed to stay in the zone, claim to be under constant watch from the Border Guards and other law enforcers. On 25 March 2022, the police arrested a young Catholic activist who helped refugees. The 21-year-old woman will stand trial for ‘facilitating illegal migration’, an accusation which she calls absurd.
Catholic faith, which is supposed to be the foundation of Polish society, did not save the young activist from a brutal reaction of the state. Catholic symbolism does not work either: there was no love or charity on the border on the Catholic Easter days. On the 16/17 April 2022 night, the Catholic Easter night, one more group of Iraqi Kurds were pushed back. There was no place in Poland for five children (aged 4,5,6, 13 and 17) and an elderly person. Before disappearing in Belarussian woods, they managed to contact Polish activists and share their story: ten consecutive push backs on the border, having been beaten up by Belarussian soldiers.
Last year, when the migrants began coming from Belarus, Polish government explained that Poland simply could not accept them: they were too numerous, they could have been terrorists or criminals, and their real destination was Germany. According to surveys conducted back then, most of the Poles seemed to believe that a no-entry policy was justified: there was no single survey in which a majority would clearly stand for accepting asylum applications and not for pushing people back. Instead, support for the government grew.
Against this backdrop, it seems that the Ukraine crisis is a moment for a second thought on Polish migration policy and attitudes. If we welcomed more than 2 million Ukrainians, out of which half a million intend to make a permanent stay, we apparently could have welcomed another few thousand desperate people (out of which a fair number would have gone to Germany in the end). Logical? Not to everyone. The Border Guards’ command issued an order not to push children and elder people back – an order that was ostensibly broken on 16/17 April 2022. And the campaign of hatred against refugees, Muslims and Arab people, orchestrated by Law and Justice party and right-wing media back in 2015, left a profound mark. Many Poles are eager to believe that there is a profound difference between Ukrainian and Middle Eastern refugees: the first group is thought to be hard-working and ready for assimilation in Poland, the second group is feared and despised. While there are still brave volunteers searching for all refugees in the forest, nobody seems willing to explain to the wider public why people are migrating from that far. Afghanistan got a more serious coverage on the Polish media only on the occasion of American retreat. Syria was quite interesting for the mainstream back in 2014-2016. Yemen or Iraq news appear only in small outlets, if at all.
This Easter, people living in the ‘security zone’ in the East reminded of the central Christian message: ‘Whatever you did to my smallest brothers, you did to me’. They stuck boards with this Bible quotation, and other messages of solidarity and compassion, to the signs marking where the zone begins. This is, however, a voice of the minority. The bigger part of the society is simply indifferent to the plight of those who come from Belarus. And the government is not willing to close down the zone where the state’s hospitality is replaced with cruelty and the ugly human face is shown. It is the face of Polish face control for refugees itself. Even for a moment, can we stand a look in the mirror?
Photo: A solidarity with Ukraine sign in the small town of Pasłęk, northern Poland (source: Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat)