Resentment on the western front

05-12-2022 09:26 AM
Sławomir Sierakowski

Poland is home to about 2.7 million refugees from Ukraine: 1.2 million arrived after 2014, and a further 1.5 million arrived following Russia’s invasion on February 24. By comparison, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that Germany has taken in 1 million Ukrainians, the Czech Republic 464,000 and several other countries 200,000 or less. As of mid-October, some 4.7 million Ukrainians had registered for temporary protection outside their country.

For their part, Ukrainians, both in Poland and at home, constantly express gratitude to Poles for their welcoming response following the invasion and for the military aid that Poland has furnished since then. Yet, it is the Ukrainians who deserve thanks. They are the ones fighting and dying not only for their own freedom but also for Poland’s. Nonetheless, interviews that Przemysław Sadura and I have conducted reveal growing resentment among Poles toward these refugees.

It is a resentment that features some grim paradoxes and ultimately has little to do with the Ukrainians themselves. Poles are concerned about being deprioritised in the allocation of public benefits and services, such as healthcare and education, and many object to Ukrainians receiving national identification numbers, free public transport, and other benefits. There is a belief that such “generosity” will discourage refugees from returning home, thus overburdening already-inefficient public services and taking jobs from Poles.

In fact, more than 400,000 newcomers who arrived in Poland in 2022 were already employed, and economists point out that the labour market could absorb at least twice as many. But facts matter little to those holding such views, which tend to come from second-hand accounts. Apparently, it is now “refugee season” in Poland: if you need someone to blame for your problems, look to the Ukrainians.

Scapegoating Ukrainians turns them into victims of Poland’s deteriorating economic situation. Inflation is running at about 18 per cent, energy prices have skyrocketed, and the state and low-level public services are paralysed. Refugees are not helped by the fact that Polish government propaganda blames all these problems on the war.

Further complicating the picture, the growing resentment towards Ukrainian refugees does not imply any reluctance to aid Ukraine itself. Few Poles are trotting out old grievances from their country’s difficult history with Ukraine, such as the 1943 Volhynia Massacre, and the public sphere remains almost devoid of contrary views about the war. The hostility toward refugees is largely confined to gossip, not firsthand stories. With the exception of the far-right Confederation party, neither the ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), nor any other party is seeking to exploit the public’s growing fears about Ukrainian refugees. That said, no party has properly addressed the issue, either.

For now, the aversion toward Ukrainian refugees has not led to dehumanisation or hate speech of the kind we saw when Belarus tried to funnel refugees from the Middle East across the Polish border. Unlike migrants from other cultures, Ukrainians are still generally accepted as guests.

But the souring mood will need to be addressed. Poles should be encouraged to share some of what they are feeling as part of a broader dialogue. That would help people see that the problem is not really about Ukrainians; rather, it is about a lack of trust in the state and each other. Opposition parties should lead this conversation. If the topic of refugees is not discussed in an open and thoughtful way, sooner or later populists will exploit the issue.

It will not necessarily be those in power who stir the pot. The PiS government does not want to squander the international esteem it has won by welcoming Ukrainians and supporting the war effort. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of Germany’s experience in 2015. Because public concerns about the massive influx of refugees were not aired in the media or by mainstream parties, the right-wing Alternative for Germany party was able to fill the vacuum, winning seats in the Bundestag (parliament) for the first time in 2017.

Something similar could happen in Poland’s general election next year. To defuse the ticking bomb, opposition parties should craft a message acknowledging that Poles have a right to be afraid in the face of rising house prices, a lack of space in nurseries, and difficulties securing a doctor’s appointment. They have a right to be tired of helping. After acknowledging this, Polish leaders should patiently explain that refugees are not the real threat.

At the same time, Polish civil society should step in to provide more real, not just legal, support for refugee integration, so that more Poles come to know Ukrainians, Belarusians and other refugees firsthand. Because integration is rarely spoken of, such efforts remain superficial. It will be up to the media, NGOs, and public authorities to change that. As matters stand, social media is increasingly filled with anti-refugee statements, many of which are peddled by anonymous trolls and bots. In the absence of mainstream coverage, such messages create the impression that elites are trying to hide “what things are really like”.

It is a mistake to flatter Poles for their response to the war; but it is equally foolhardy to heap contempt on Poles who resent refugees. What the country needs is an honest conversation about the economic problems people are experiencing. The longer politicians remain silent, hoping that the issue will just go away, the greater the eventual reckoning could be.

Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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