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Poles fear jihad

Jo Harper, WarsawJanuary 6, 2016

Many Poles argue that Poland cannot take in a large number of refugees from the Middle East. When asked why, some of the nation's old complexes and excuses come to the fore. Jo Harper reports from Warsaw.

A Ukrainian woman and child who found refuge in Poland
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Fludra

Of the more than a million refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015 the Polish government agreed to take in mere thousands, a tiny amount for a country that is growing fast economically and is perhaps now more politically influential than it has been in centuries.

The new right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government, elected in October, has been vocal in its opposition to taking in refugees and critical of the obligatory EU allocation system. Many Poles have even taken to the streets to participate in anti-refugee marches.

So, why has Poland come out so strongly against when many in Europe are welcoming the newcomers with open arms?

Gavin Rae, a sociologist at the Kozminski University in Warsaw, says the antipathy to refugees is strongest among the young, and is a largely the result of a drip feed of frightening media images and the rhetoric of the ruling party. "Added to this, Poland's place in the world has never been very stable and anything that seems to upset the geopolitical status quo tends to frighten people here. Borders matter."

"The ruling party has talked about disease being carried into Poland by the refugees and there have also been suggestions that some of those entering Europe are jihadists, with all of us aware of all that that potentially implies," Rae says.

Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said in November that Syrian refugees arriving in Europe should form an army that could be sent back to liberate their home country, "instead of drinking coffee in the cafes of Berlin while western soldiers face [IS]."

Demonstrators from a far-right nationalist party in Warsaw
Several demonstrations have been held against Poland accepting refugees from the Middle EastImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Dabrowski

"It's hardly a surprise - added to the shift to the right in Poland - that many young people have identified Islam as a threat, despite the lack of Muslims here," Rae says, commenting that Poland is still a place where anti-Semitism persists "without Jews … It is more about the lack of a strong democratic tradition. The new 'Other' is Muslims," he says.

Anti-EU backlash?

"Added to this," says Jan Darasz, an editor at "The Varsovian," an online magazine from Warsaw, "the PiS government was elected on a ticket that called for a rethink of Poland's relationship with the EU. Many in the party said they did not want Poland to be pushed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel into accepting an EU-wide quota of refugees."

During the election campaign PiS said it would close Poland's doors to refugees but lend financial support to EU efforts to solve the crisis. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo has since then backtracked somewhat, subsequently saying Poland would honor the commitments made by the previous government, which agreed to take around 7,000 refugees as part of the EU's relocation plan.

Fear of the unknown

Even for those Poles who didn't vote for PiS, some of the government's words ring true.

Witold, a 74-year of ex-engineer at PKN Orlen, Poland's largest oil company, who worked in both Iran and Iraq in the 1980s as an energy sector engineer, says there is a fear of strangers generally in Poland. "This, added to issues of money and logistics, makes us afraid," he says.

Beata Szydlo
Prime Minister Szydlo has acquiesed to accept around 7,000 refugees in 2016Image: Getty Images/AFP/J.Skarzynski

Witold tells a well-trodden story of how tolerant Poland was destroyed in the Second World War. "The problems started in the war, when the Germans and Soviets played one ethnic group against another. Then after the war Poland was separated from other nations," he says.

Others are less convinced that the notion of Polish tolerance ended by foreigners many years ago holds much water as an argument today. "Polish tolerance in the past is now somehow mythologized by some," says Jan Mus, an analyst at the Institute of East and Central Europe in Lublin. "Tolerance is not the same as inviting people with open arms. It speaks of guarded - and this time not so guarded - misgivings about new neighbors. Poland is still a rather frightened society, and we have no experience of immigration from the Middle East."

Poland not ready

Thirty-year old Kamil, a financial controller at an American firm in Warsaw, is perhaps less diplomatic in his analysis, but agrees with the main thrust of Witold's opinions.

Kamil suggests Merkel hasn't really thought through the refugee question. "She said we will take all the refugees, but before she knew how many of them there would be. We in Poland aren't ready. They would have nowhere to live, no benefits. We don't have these things for ourselves, so why should we give them to strangers," Kamil says.

Added to this, Poles are not mentally ready to live with Muslims, Kamil suggests. "We have a problem accepting people from other cultures. Skin color, religion or even Poles who dress differently. We are not open to people who are different."

Kamil, like Witold, focuses on history when it comes to refugees. "Germany was not good for us Poles in the war and it took us many years after to rebuild Warsaw and the rest of the country. So, why do the Germans want us to help them now? Germans want to change their image. They go from one extreme to the other," Kamil continues.

A building next to woods
A few hundred refugees, mainly Chechen Muslims, have found shelter in Linin, outside WarsawImage: Getty Images/AFP/W. Radwanski

The refugee crisis has caused Poles to examine their attitudes to the European project, the kind of society they want to live in, and the kind of international society they want to be part of shaping.

Poland has yet to decide if it wants to be a small big country or big small one, Darasz concludes. "It is a big one when it suits its needs and likewise a small one without any money when this works," he says.

The issue is clearly one of logistics and money, but with good will both would go a lot further, he concludes. Yet, Polish good will appears to be in short supply at the moment.