It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white? Poland’s refugee treatment in focus7 min read
According to the UN, since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine from 24 February to 27 April 2022, 2,968,716 Ukrainians crossed the border to Poland. The majority of Polish people enormously support their neighbors, but the way non-white people fleeing from Ukraine have been treated has brought concerning patterns to light.
Since 24 February 5,372,854 Ukrainians have fled their country. In March the Polish border guard reported that 6% of those escaping from Ukraine do not hold Ukrainian citizenship.
In recent years, about 76,000 foreign students from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East chose to study at Ukrainian universities. Ukraine’s affordable university fees and the possibility of permanent residency acted as a door to life in Europe. They are escaping the same war as the Ukrainians arriving in Poland, but their journey has been riddled with discriminatory treatment and the only difference that appears to separate them is the color of their skin.
Data from UNHCR, 27 April 2022
“This was always about race”
On 7 March, the Polish parliament approved a new law, allowing Ukrainian refugees to easily legalize their stay and receive an identification number (PESEL), thanks to which they have access to healthcare and education. The latter is incredibly important, as, among Ukrainian refugees, approximately 500,000 are still children.
The bill approved by the parliament provides extensive support to Ukrainian refugees now in Poland. As commendable as this may be, what about refugees without Ukrainian citizenship? What about thousands of people who are currently on their own without any systematic support? Unlike Ukrainians, they will not have access to a wide amount of benefits. Legalizing their stay in Poland under the same conditions as Ukrainians is politically impossible. Many activists argue that “this was always about race” and it is hard not to agree. Years of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and racist politics of the PiS’government, combined with misleading media coverage, have led to this lack of care for non-white refugees from Ukraine.
One of the posts of @blackispolish from March 13.
Numerous reports prove that non-Ukrainian citizens have received different treatment in Poland. Several disappeared under mysterious circumstances without the knowledge of the authorities and were later found in Kostrzyn nad Odrą – where they had been taken without their knowledge or consent. Several dozen people from Egypt, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and other non-European countries were taken to Gubin, although they wanted to go to Warsaw. It is clear in these examples that these refugees’ voices are left unheard by authorities and their needs are not being taken into consideration.
“Defending” Poland…from what?
As soon as the war started and the first refugees of color began to enter Poland, misinformation about their alleged aggression and violence against Poles in Przemyśl began to spread. Although police confirmed this to be fake news, rumors spread that “all these attacks were so far done by people with darker skin color, against whom our country defended itself not so long ago”. Others later claimed that the Polish government is preparing Poland to “become a second Germany”, which in their twisted opinion is “flooded” by non-white, Islamic refugees.
Conversations with inhabitants of Polish cities where the attacks supposedly happened admitted that they only heard about it, but personally did not experience any abuse from non-European refugees. In fact, attacks did take place, but only one of them involved a foreigner. Some of the other attacks were organized by local hooligans, who harassed three black people shouting “Przemyśl forever Polish”, which by right-wing media was presented as taking “matters into their own hands.”
Polish human rights organizations regularly raise the issue of discrimination against non-white refugees in media reports. They also appeal to the government for various changes to the aforementioned bill so that non-Ukrainian citizens coming to Poland will receive the same treatment as Ukrainian citizens. Nonetheless, the Polish government seems not to recognize refugees with a skin color other than white. “Whiteness” suits their ideology, to portray Poland as a religiously and culturally homogeneous country protecting its Christian Catholic society.
It all goes back to the beginning
To understand why people of color are facing discrimination in Poland, it is necessary to go back to 2015 and the so-called refugee crisis in Europe. Poland, together with Hungary and the Czech Republic, refused to accept any refugees from the Middle East. Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS’ chairman at the time, argued that refugees will bring parasites causing diseases that in a magical way were only dangerous for Europeans. The dehumanization of people from a particular part of the world began.
Some examples of newspaper covers from 2015. The first says “Islamic rape on Europe”, the second “refugees brought deadly diseases”, and the third “these are invaders, not refugees”.
The media played an important part in the campaign against refugees. Numerous newspapers presented refugees as a fatal danger to Poland’s safety. Expressions such as “wave of refugees” or Islamic refugees” were commonly used in both rightist and left-center media. Using phrases like “inflows” or “waves” of refugees conveyed the idea that the country was being flooded by outsiders.
Political and media narratives of refugees had a significant effect on attitudes among Poles. They generally thought that Poland should accept refugees, but only those from Ukraine, not Africa or the Middle East.
Data from CBOS, 2015
Currently, Polish media covers the topic of Ukrainian refugees rather neutrally; however, as increasing numbers have begun to put a strain on resources, some of the previous terminology is beginning to reappear. “Warsaw is getting ready for an influx of refugees from Ukraine,” says Rafał Trzaskowski, Warsaw’s mayor. “Central Europe is buckling under the burden of the influx of refugees from Ukraine,” alarms Reuters. While in Do Rzeczy it has been stated that “the influx of waves of refugees” is caused by the Russian Federation and Putin himself. Despite the adoption of similar phrases to describe the migration situation, different approaches to the two groups of refugees are noticeable.
The common enemy – Russia, and Putin, might be the reason why not only Polish media but also society empathizes with Ukrainians. Grażyna Skąpska, a sociologist from the Institute of Sociology of the Jagiellonian University argues that the positive attitude of the Poles may arise from the fact that Ukrainians make up a significant and well-integrated part of society. They are the biggest group of foreigners living in Poland – as reported by Gazeta Wyborcza, in 2021, over 2 million Ukrainians lived and worked here. Above all – they are white and Christian, therefore there is no fear of massive rapes or Islamisation that is attributed to risks connected to “other” refugees.
“Good” versus “bad” refugees
Poles’ attitude to receiving refugees has improved over the years and more people are in favor of accepting them into the country. Yet, at the peak of the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border in 2021, only 33% of Poles said that Poland should accept Middle Eastern refugees, while 52% opposed taking them. Is it because they are “different”, because of their skin color and religious beliefs? They had good clothes, phones, and even cats! Yet Ukrainians fleeing with the exact same possessions to Poland have not received the same reactions.
Part of Polish society was engaged in providing help on the border of Poland and Belarus, but the general social reaction was different from the current one, even though children on the border are still dying from sickness, cold or hunger. Meanwhile, migrants on the Polish-Belarusian border were violently abused and essentially forced to live in horrid conditions inside the forest at the start of winter. Despite the fact that the Lukashenko regime in Belarus manufactured this crisis, the refugees kept at the border were repeatedly dehumanized by both sides.
The rot starts at the top, that being the Polish government. Their propaganda machine during last year’s crisis reached a disturbing level. During an official conference in September last year, the Minister of National Defense, and the Minister of Internal Affairs and Administration presented photographs and videos, allegedly found on one of the refugees’ phones. These were supposed to prove that the migrants were “drug addicts, pedophiles, and zoophiles”.
Eventually, it was discovered that the videos were actually old VHS recordings, so there is no chance that refugees from last year were featured in this material. These methods are based on misinformation and used by the government only when it comes to non-white refugees.
We find a reflection of these differences in attitudes towards white and non-white refugees in the reactions of society to the current crisis. I do believe that the scale of Polish support for Ukrainian refugees could be an example to the rest of the world, but Poles are less likely to empathize with non-European refugees. Still, the main question remains; what must happen so that all the people will be treated equally regardless of their skin color, nationality, or religion? Is it something achievable for Polish society?