'We know our reality': Why Poland is cool on the EU refugee crisis

Rural Poles say it would be destabilizing to accept significant numbers of Muslims due to cultural differences. And they don't mince their words. 

Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File
Protesters hold flares and shout slogans during an anti-immigrant rally in front of the Royal Castle in Warsaw on Feb. 6. The banner reads 'We will not give Poland.'

Anna Pakuła-Sacharczuk has dedicated the past half year to a furious bid to get Syrian refugees to Poland.

That makes the city clerk somewhat of an anomaly. Poles have voiced some of the strongest dissent in Europe against taking in refugees fleeing the war-torn Middle East.

Ms. Pakuła-Sacharczuk says her Catholic ethos informs her choice to help a young family of three and three others move from Damascus to this conservative corner of Poland. She says she’d gladly squeeze all six into her three-bedroom home in Rzeszów, the capital of Podkarpacie, where she lives with two grown sons, her husband, and her parents.

“I want to teach [my sons] that to save a life, all they have to do is move into a more cramped room,” she says.

And yet she has a clear caveat: she is only trying to save Christians. The family she wants to shelter, that of a man her father has known for many years, are Christian Syrians. 

Muslim refugees, she says, are a different matter. In fact, she counts herself as one of the strongest opponents of the European Union’s quota program for accepting migrants. 

Even more than economic bailouts, the refugee crisis threatens to tear the EU apart. While the debt crisis divided Europe into a north-south battlefield, on the refugee crisis it is east-west. Those like Germany that are bearing the brunt of the crisis have scolded countries like Poland that openly say that Muslims don’t belong in their societies. 

Residents here in southeastern Poland don’t see themselves as xenophobic at all. Pakuła-Sacharczuk says she doesn’t hold a blanket distrust of Muslims; if she knew some, she might also fight to bring them to Poland. But she says it would be destabilizing for Poland to accept significant numbers of Muslims. 

“I feel sorry for the individuals, but this is something different – a mass, illegal immigration that could be a threat for Europe's stabilization, its culture,” she says. “This is not discriminatory. We know our reality."

A Poland apart

Eastern European nations aren’t used to outsiders like Western Europe is, which is at the root of their rejection. The homogeneity of Poland after World War II was formed not only by the massive extermination of Jews in German concentration camps, but also post-war resettlement and forced deportation. Later, as Western Europe welcomed foreign guest workers, Central Europe remained in the hermetic enclosure of Soviet rule.

Given the enduring gap in living standards, foreigners don’t naturally gravitate to Eastern Europe. And in places like Podkarpacie, which registers one of the highest emigration rates in Poland, workers are insecure about their own jobs.

Now some in this state like Przemyśl resident Andrzej Zapałowski, a Polish professor of defense security and a former politician, are pushing for a wall along the Medyka border with Ukraine. Mr. Zapałowski is convinced refugees from the Middle East will cut through the fields and hilly woodlands here.

“It’s just a matter of time,” he says, and that represents a clear threat to Polish and European society because “Muslims don’t integrate.”

Podkarpacie Governor Ewa Leniart defends Poland's stance. "Poles were refugees themselves, so they are willing to help those who are in need and have found themselves in a dramatic situation," she says. 

Yet when the mayors in this state were asked to fill out a questionnaire asking if they had the means to take in refugees, not a single one said yes. "Our values, commitment to tradition, and Catholic religion make us less open to people who have a totally different religion and values than ours," the governor says. 

More xenophobic?

But while Poles may be more blunt in their rejection of immigrants, that doesn't necessarily mean they are more racist or xenophobic than other Europeans.

Dutch academic Kees van der Veer, a professor of psychology and peace and conflict research at VU University in Amsterdam, led a large-scale study attempting to measure fear-based xenophobia across countries, but found it was nearly impossible to measure. While the more educated are less likely than respondents with lower education levels to express xenophobia, this could simply be political correctness, Mr. van der Veer says.

“People think that those in Western Europe are more tolerant or more inclined to accept immigrants or foreigners than in the East,” he says. “I wouldn’t dare say Eastern Europeans are more xenophobic than the Dutch. There is no evidence for that.”

Western Europe, under pressure from record levels of migration, is hardly immune to xenophobia, from burned down refugee homes in Germany to anti-immigrant politicians on the rise from France to Scandinavia. And critics say the EU’s deal reached this week with Turkey on Syrian migrants is turning a blind eye to human rights.

“We don’t see that Western Europe has the solution either,” says Stanisław Sowa, editor in chief of the daily Nowiny, the biggest circulation newspaper in Podkarpacie.

Stirring up history

The East-West framework has also, unintentionally, rekindled historic resentments. Poles complain that Germany is dictating terms to others while acting in its own self interest as an aging society that needs younger workers and can absorb migrants. 

When Pakuła-Sacharczuk talks about the quota system, she loses her calm demeanor. “Germany built concentration camps in Poland during the war, we don’t want them to tell us now to build refugee camps,” she says.

But history could play a tempering role too, especially when it comes to walls. The head of the border patrol in Medyka, Cmdr. Jacek Szcząchor, says there is no need for a fence. And the Interior Ministry in Warsaw confirmed in January it is not planning on building one.

Commander Szcząchor say authorities here have to be ready for any eventuality, including the overspill from the continuing conflict in Ukraine or a future influx of refugees that Zapalowski envisions. But so far the traffic is a trickle. 

In 2015, only four Syrians were caught illegally – out of 65 offenders total – along the unmanned portion of the border. The other 61 included Vietnamese, Georgians, Turks, and Afghans.

“Among my friends, we don’t like the idea of a wall,” adds Elżbieta Pikor, the spokesperson of the Border Patrol here. “It reminds us of the Berlin Wall.”

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