No country for refugees: Hostile Poland’s growing fear of migrants

  • AFP, Linin, Poland
  • Updated: Dec 16, 2015 13:49 IST
Supporters of the National-Radical Camp (ONR) and the All-Polish Youth demonstrate against the refugees in Wroclaw, Poland. (Reuters Photo)

For most refugees arriving in Poland, it is only a stop on the way to wealthier and more welcoming European Union members.

The small percentage who choose to stay on in the devoutly Catholic country are faced with a population whose majority is hostile to migrants, especially Muslims, and an integration policy that exists only on paper.

“No one wants to stay here,” said a Muslim Chechen in her 30s and single mother of three who wanted to keep her face hidden and remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

“Impossible to find a job, an apartment. There’s practically no financial help. That’s why everyone leaves,” she told AFP.

Christian refugee Adnan Saad, who came to Poland with his family along with 200 other Syrians thanks to a Christian non-profit organisation, wanted at first to stay in Poland -- unlike the others who left for Germany.

Today, he is coming around to their point of view.

The Polish authorities “did our papers, they did our situation to be legal. This is good. Now we need some support. Here is good but I think it’s not enough,” said the Damascus native.

“In the four months I’ve been here, I’ve had my eyes opened. Those who left for Germany were probably right.”

Last year, more than 6,500 people requested refugee status in Poland, the majority of them Chechens.

A protester holds a sign which reads "I am a refugee" during a demonstration to welcome refugees in front of the Nicolaus Copernicus monument in Warsaw, Poland. Many refugees are supported only by non-profit organisations that offer language lessons or help them overcome administrative hurdles after they leave the centres.

‘Almost inhuman’

After making their refugee claim, they are taken to a welcome centre like the one in Linin. Located in a well-appointed former barracks, the centre is currently accommodating 217 people, most of them Muslim Chechens. More than half of them are children.

The refugees receive three meals a day, a bus takes the children to school while the adults can attend language lessons.

Each person also receives 70 zloty (16 euros/ $18) a month in pocket money, a sum that the young Chechen mother called “almost inhuman”.

But the hard part comes after they leave the centre.

“While the (immigrant) reception policy may work, the integration policy only exists on paper,” said Daniel Brzezinski from the local Praktycy Kultury non-profit organisation that works with immigrant children.

“It’s the NGOs and local authorities who try to take over from there.”

After they leave the centre, the state only offers each refugee 100-270 euros ($110-300) a month for a year.

They are then left to their own devices, supported only by non-profit organisations that offer language lessons or help them overcome administrative hurdles.

“The lack of housing and resulting risk of homelessness, the lack of work and financial benefits that are higher in western Europe discourage refugees from staying in Poland,” the national audit chamber NIK said in a November report.

Protesters from far right organisations walk during a protest against refugees in Warsaw, Poland.

‘Treated like lepers’

“The absence of any integration policy by the state is a policy itself. I think it’s a deliberate choice,” said Piotr Bystrianin of the Ocalenie (Salvation) foundation that helps integrate migrants.

A cause for concern is the increasing hostility with which immigrants are viewed by most Poles, as well as the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party that has been in power since October.

Poland welcomed 90,000 Chechens without an incident in previous years but “in the last year, six months, the attitude has changed,” Brzezinski said.

Polling figures back him up. According to a survey by the Warsaw-based CBOS institute, the number of Poles opposed to welcoming migrants more than doubled in the six months running up to October, going from 21 to 43%, while those in favour dropped from 72 to 54%.

“Before, they were well-regarded. Now, especially after the Paris attacks, they’re practically treated like lepers,” Brzezinski said, adding that the immigrant issue is now being exploited for political ends.

The refugee question became one of the hot topics in the run-up to the general election, which the PiS won after eight years in opposition.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski tapped into the public’s fear of the unknown, even warning that migrants could spread diseases such as cholera, dysentery and “all sorts of parasites” that could “endanger local populations”.

“Today refugees are afraid, they feel threatened,” said Bystrianin. “And it’s the children of immigrants who suffer the most. The terms ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ have become the worst insults among school children.”

A Warsaw demonstration organised by the far-right under the slogan “Poland for the Polish” drew tens of thousands of protesters on November 11, Poland’s independence day.

“When we’re at the store, people give us dirty looks. Some insult us, treat us like dirty foreigners. That wasn’t the case two years ago,” said the young Chechen mother of three.

“Schools didn’t want to take in my kids because they’re Chechens. I finally had to beg a principal to let them in. This is not a country for refugees,” she told AFP.

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