Wroclaw, Poland – The Polish government’s decision to accept 6,800 refugees fleeing Syria and Eritrea has created a fierce debate dividing Polish society with opponents of the decision dominating the discussion.
Since January, almost 600,000 migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have reached the shores of Greece and Italy. Poland has agreed to take just 1.1 percent of this number. Nevertheless, this policy has spurred thousands of Poles across the country to take to the streets to participate in anti-refugee marches organised by far-right groups, and to flood social media with comments insulting the mainly Muslim refugees.
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Poland’s religious and ethnic homogeneity is one factor behind the opposition to assisting refugees. Just 0.1 percent of the country’s population consists of foreigners, the smallest percentage in the European Union. Poland also has the heaviest concentration of Catholics in the world with 94 percent of Poles identifying with the religion.
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Rafa Kostrzyski, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) spokesperson in Poland, said Polish politicians’ opposition to accepting refugees has been another factor stirring up resistance among the general public.
“To me the resentment that has been recently activated has been stimulated mostly by politicians who were either giving xenophobic statements related to the refugee crisis, or seemed to have only a little idea of what they were talking about,” Kostrzyski told Al Jazeera.
‘Emergence of diseases’
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s largest opposition Law and Justice Party, recently warned refugees from the Middle East could bring dangerous disease and parasites to Poland.
“There are symptoms of emergence of diseases that are highly dangerous and have not been seen in Europe for a long time: cholera on the Greek islands, dysentery in Vienna… There are various types of parasites and protozoa that … are not dangerous in the bodies of these people, [but] could be dangerous here,” said Kaczynski.
His comments were heavily criticised in the media and by some of his political opponents. Janusz Palikot, a leader of the left-wing party Your Move, slammed Kaczynski’s statement as racist and fascist, and notified the public prosecutor of an offence of incitement to ethnic, religious, national or racial hatred, in violation of Polish law.
“I would kick them [refugees] all out,” said an entrepreneur in his mid-30s, who preferred not to give his name. “They will all come here and spread their diseases, bring terrorism and rape our women. I’m considering vaccinating my family against hepatitis.”
According to Marta Gorczyska, a lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, there are two major reasons behind such staunch anti-migrant views. The first is that media coverage has portrayed Muslims and Islam in a negative light. The second, she said, is that few Poles have met or lived near foreigners because of the country’s ethnic homogeneity.
“In everyday life we do not have any contact with refugees, and it’s usual that people fear the unknown. It also comes from not being aware of these realities and people,” Gorczyska explained.
Witold Waszczykowski, a member of parliament for the Law and Justice Party, said the main issue is integration.
“These [Arab] communities will demand from Europe to respect the way they are used to living. Only a few people will integrate. We are just afraid that we will have to deal with the same problems related to Muslim existence that some European countries have been facing during the last few years,” said Waszczykowski.
‘No safe place’
A private initiative called Foundation Estera received approval from the Polish authorities in July to organise the arrival of more than 150 Christian Syrians to Poland. The Syrian families have been assigned to various Christian communities helping them assimilate.
But Polish NGOs accused Foundation Estera of applying discriminatory criteria by choosing refugees of only one religion. Although all of the 150 Syrians were provided shelter and financial support, the spokesperson for Foundation Estera, Przemysaw Kawalec, said more than half moved to Germany.
Among those who stayed is 26-year-old Ehssan, along with his family from Homs in Syria, who agreed to talk to Al Jazeera on the condition that their last names not be used.
“There is no safe place in Syria now… Fighters used to shoot from the top of the roof of our house. We could see empty bullets falling down on us. We had a plan to run away, but we couldn’t make it because of high costs and the danger of travelling by sea,” said Ehssan, who lives with his mother, 24-year-old brother and 15-year-old sister in Poland’s Lower Silesia region.
In Ehssan’s opinion, successful integration depends on the will of both sides, and it can take a long time. His own efforts to assimilate have already started paying off – he has been employed by an airline in Poland.
Although he and his loved ones are surrounded by a community assisting them in settling in Poland, Ehassan has met other Poles who are not as keen on foreigners living in the country.
“Sometimes people give you a different look in the bus and don’t want to sit beside you. It happened. I can’t blame them, because some Syrians did really bad things,” said Ehssan.
However, these negative experiences have not put him off from getting engaged in helping the 6,800 refugees expected to arrive in Poland between 2016 and 2017, as part of EU and UNHCR relocation and resettlement programmes.
“I really want to help because we lost our first home. I don’t want us to lose our second home. I believe that a lot of steps can be taken to improve the situation. We are all human beings and everyone deserves to be given a chance,” said Ehssan.
Follow Natalia Ojewska on Twitter: @Natalia_Ojewska