By Daniel Tilles
Daniel Tilles analyses the intense recent debate in the Polish media over Europe’s current refugee crisis. In this Catholic, conservative and ethnically homogeneous country, disagreement has focused in particular on the dissonance between a Christian duty to help the needy and a desire to defend national culture and identity against the perceived threat of Muslim immigration. He examines the views of a range of Polish outlets from across the ideological spectrum, including Rzeczpospolita, Gazeta Wyborcza, Polityka, Newsweek Polska, Fronda and Tygodnik Powszechny.
As across all of Europe, media discourse in Poland has been dominated recently by the growing refugee crisis on the continent. This is despite the fact that Poland itself has barely been touched by the issue directly. There has been an increase in the number of illegal immigrants detained in Poland this year (including growing numbers from the Middle East and Africa, in the addition to the usual Ukrainians), but the figures pale into insignificance against the experience of countries, such as Hungary, Italy or Germany, that are along the main migration paths.
Even those refugees who do reach Polish soil are mainly in transit to the West, and it is unlikely that many will settle in Poland. Indeed, when the EU earlier this year pressed Poland to accept a quota of a few thousand refugees, the government strongly resisted. Now, with talk of that quota increasing to 12,000, Poland’s prime minister and president have reiterated their opposition to such ‘dictates’ from Brussels. (A regularly cited excuse is that Poland may at any moment be inundated with refugees from its eastern neighbour Ukraine, should the conflict there intensify).
Instead, Poland made a ‘voluntary’ commitment in July to accept 2,000 refugees from Syria and Eritrea. (Given the accelerating influx of asylum-seekers since then, the prime minister recently hinted that this number could be increased.) Yet even this tiny figure (equivalent to 0.005% of Poland’s population) has caused great controversy. Much of the concern has focused on the fact that the arrivals will be predominantly Muslim, playing on widespread fear in Poland regarding the supposed ‘Islamisation’ of Europe. (It has been noticeable that a private initiative to bring 50 Syrian Christian families to Poland has met with far less disapproval.) A recent poll suggests that opposition to the acceptance of refugees has increased over the summer, with particular opposition to those from the Middle East and Africa. Another survey indicates that the primary reason for such opposition is fear of ‘religious and moral conflict’.
Below is a summary of how, against this backdrop, the Polish media have reacted to the ongoing refugee crisis.
Opposition to the acceptance of refugees
The refugee issue has certainly offered a reminder of how in Poland – a homogenous (almost 100% white, 92% Catholic), conservative country with little time for political correctness – anti-Muslim sentiment is often expressed in mainstream public discourse in ways that would in Western Europe be regarded as the domain of the far right. A good example of this comes in an opinion piece (or, as the author puts it, an ‘Anti-immigration Manifesto’) published this week by Paweł Lisicki, former editor-in-chief of Rzeczpospolita, Poland’s foremost quality centre-right daily, and current editor of the conservative Do Rzeczy weekly.
In the title of his column, Lisicki declares that Poles should ‘Not love their neighbour more than themselves’. As this suggests, one of the issues he addresses is a conundrum faced by many Poles: given that the Pope, as well as leading Church figures in Poland, have called on their flock to welcome and house refugees, how can Catholics who are hostile towards the new arrivals reconcile this with their religious beliefs.
Lisicki deals with the issue rather bluntly, arguing that the Pope has ‘lost connection with reality’. By advocating a ‘massive influx of Muslim families into Catholic parishes’, Francis is accelerating ‘the collapse of already heavily weakened Christianity in the West’. Even worse, he is undermining the efforts of those who still have ‘the courage to defend Europe’s borders from the invasion of Islamic immigrants’ (Lisicki singles out Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for particular praise in this regard).
To resolve the moral question of assisting those in need, Lisicki claims that the people arriving in Europe are not refugees ‘escaping from the threat of death and persecution’, but simply migrants seeking ‘a more comfortable life’. This therefore obviates any humanitarian responsibility on the part of Europeans to take them in. In actual fact, the moral duty of politicians should be to care for the ‘wellbeing of their own community, state and nation’. In this regard, as the experience of France and Germany has shown, accepting Muslim migrants – who are unwilling to assimilate and are ‘brought up in a tradition that endorses violence against infidels’ – leads only to conflict and unrest, and creates ‘breeding grounds for terrorists’. Opening Europe’s borders to mass Muslim migration would, therefore, be ‘a declaration of surrender’ and even ‘gives the impression of suicide’ (echoes here of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech).
Lisicki finishes by accusing those who support the acceptance of refugees of ulterior motives: the Germans are ‘suffering from an incurable guilt complex over the Holocaust’, while Europe’s political elites, out of touch with ordinary people, are attempting to build ‘new, multicultural and non-Western societies’.
While Lisicki express his views more stridently than some, such sentiment is widespread on the religious, conservative right wing of the Polish media. Writing in the quarterly magazine and online news site Fronda, a Catholic priest, Jacek Jan Pawłowicz, likewise rejects any Christian duty to help those arriving in Europe by defining them as economic immigrants rather than refugees. In same publication, Janusz Wojciechowski argues that, because the migrants want to get to Germany, it would actually be unethical to ‘imprison’ them in Poland. The ultra-conservative Catholic magazine Polonia Christiana claims that ‘a Christian must love everyone, but not equally’; he should look after his own nation before helping outsiders. (At the time of writing, the main story on Polonia Christiana’s homepage is an article from its current issue headlined: ‘Immigration. The Rape of Society’.)
The more mainstream Catholic weekly Gość Niedzielny has greater sympathy towards genuine refugees, but one of its writers, Agata Puścikowska, still expresses fear that many of those arriving are ‘crowds of aggressive young men’ whom it would be ‘naive’ to think can be safely and successfully integrated into Polish society. Indeed, many outlets, such as nationalist-conservative Gazeta Polska, have been keen to advertise violent behaviour by the refugees, in particular apparent instances of ingratitude towards attempts to provide them humanitarian aid. Another common refrain is that Europe should not be expected to help when wealthy Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are doing so little.
Support for the acceptance of refugees
However, closer to the political centre ground of the Polish press, as well as on its left and liberal side, one finds far greater receptiveness to refugees. This is sometimes for purely pragmatic reasons. Lisicki’s former employer, Rzeczpospolita, on Tuesday published a column by its chief foreign affairs writer, Jerzy Haszczyński, suggesting that Poland’s reluctance to accept refugees is damaging the country’s image abroad, which in turn will negatively impact on its foreign-policy goals. If Poland shows a lack of solidarity with its EU partners during the current crisis, they will be less likely to lend their support on issues that are important to Poland, such as the establishment of permanent NATO bases in the East.
A columnist in the left-liberal Polityka weekly, Ziemowit Szczerek, similarly argues that Poland, always ‘so keen to evoke the ghosts of betrayal by the West in 1939, so strongly demanding Western support against the aggressive policies of Russia, so keen to talk about solidarity, has an obligation itself to show solidarity to the West…[by] responsibly taking on part of the European burden’. He does not deny that integrating Muslims into Polish life may be hard, but the refugees are already flooding into Europe and must be dealt with somehow: ‘The problem does not disappear if you close your eyes.’
Another writer for the same newspaper, criticises Poland’s government for treating the EU as a source from which benefit can be extracted without offering anything in return. In an itemised list, he also challenges some of the ‘stupid’ arguments of the refugee ‘haters’, and indeed Polityka has published a number of articles attempting to counter the ‘stereotypes and deluge of inaccurate information’ that characterise discussion of the refugee issue in Poland.,
There is also often genuine humanitarian sympathy expressed for those fleeing to Europe. Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s main quality centre-left daily, yesterday published a rebuttal to Lisicki’s piece, written by a Dominican priest, Tomasz Dostatni. He attacks Lisicki for distorting the Christian faith to make his anti-refugee argument, and accuses him of in fact representing an ‘anti-Christian system of values’: ‘selfishness, laziness, lack of empathy, seeing enemies in all who are different from himself’. In a similar vein, Tygodnik Powczechny, a Catholic weekly, laments the ‘death in us of compassion, solidarity, willingness to help, openness and love for our fellow man’; one of its authors, another priest and former editor of the newspaper, Adam Boniecki, called last month for greater sympathy for ‘our immigrant brothers’. The newspaper has long advocated for a more humanitarian asylum policy, one that ‘does not discriminate against any group of migrants’ given that, as other countries have shown, the idea that Muslims cannot be integrated is a ‘myth’.
Finally, one of the loudest voices in the favour of the reception of refugees has been the Polish edition of Newsweek, whose chief home affairs correspondent, Renata Kim, last week expressed her ‘shame’ at Poles for giving in to ‘division and prejudice’ in the face of a humanitarian crisis. This week, the magazine’s editor, Tomasz Lis, has written that he ‘does not understand how we can claim to be Christians’ while abandoning those in need. He also reminds Poles of their own long history of fleeing their homeland during times of trouble. This final point is one that has also been widely made on social media, where a popular meme shows an image of Polish children in Iran during WW2, noting that when 116,000 refugees who had escaped war-torn Poland entered Iran 70 year ago, no one checked their religious faith before allowing them in.