By Daniel Tilles
Just like the Brexit campaigners, Poland’s own ruling party has been guilty of stoking resentment of outsiders, with the result that xenophobes have been emboldened and hate crimes have increased. The danger of leading the country in such a direction should be even clearer now that Poles themselves are falling victim to precisely such rhetoric in Britain, writes Daniel Tilles.
Since Friday’s announcement that the UK had voted to leave the EU, there has been a wave of hate crimes against immigrants in Britain. At this early stage, most of the evidence is anecdotal. But what appears absolutely clear is that the Brexit vote – which was motivated in large part by a desire to reduce immigration – has given xenophobes greater confidence to express their views publicly.
It’s equally clear that, although the hostility has been directed towards all immigrants (and even non-white natives), one of the primary targets have been Poles, who are the largest group of EU immigrants in the UK (and the second largest of any immigrant group, behind only Indians). The Polish embassy in London has stated that it is “shocked and deeply concerned by the recent incidents of xenophobic abuse directed against the Polish community”. David Cameron condemned the “despicable” hate crimes against Poles.
Moreover, although the last few days have seen a particularly intense outpouring of hatred, this is a situation that has been brewing through the whole Brexit debate (and even earlier, as I’ve previously blogged). Before Thursday’s vote, many immigrants were already saying that they have never felt so unwelcome in the UK. British-based Polish journalist Jakub Krupa, for example, wrote of how the “despised but voiceless” Poles had been left “absolutely terrified” after being repeatedly “named and shamed throughout the campaign”.
This wave of anti-Polish sentiment is absolutely shameful, and should be completely condemned. However, one also hope that some Poles may see the parallels to what has been happening in their own country over the last year.
Much of the xenophobic anger that emerged during the Brexit debate was stoked by right-wing politicians and media making claims of international conspiracies against Britain; of the need to “save our sovereignty” and “take back our country” from the creeping reach of the EU; and, above all, of how immigrants (especially Muslims) represent a threat to Britain.
Precisely the same concerns have been repeatedly expressed by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and the media that support it. The party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, claims that there is an international plot to keep Poland as a “colony of other powers”; that the country needs to protect its sovereignty from EU interference; and that, if Poland allows in Muslim migrants, they would “impose their sensitivities and requirements” in a “very violent and aggressive way”, with Poles “ceasing to be masters of our own country”. Such rhetoric has been regularly repeated by other leading figures in and around the party.
Poland has generally been a relatively welcoming place for outsiders, who may attract curiosity, and occasionally cultural insensitivity, but little explicit hostility. However, since PiS’s election victory in November, there has been an increase in attacks on foreigners (or anyone with dark skin) in Poland. The country’s ombudsman for human rights noted in March that there had been a rise in “racial beatings” (we listed a few such incidents on our Facebook page in December), and “an extraordinary wave of hatred on the internet”.
Since October, far-right groups have been increasingly prominent, conducting a number of marches and other events, protesting in particular against migrants, the EU and the LGBT community. A memorial at a Jewish cemetery in north-east Poland has been vandalised four times since it was installed two years ago, including being sprayed with antisemitic slogans and far-right symbols last month.
Polish-Nigerian author Remi Adekoya recently wrote that, while in recent years ‘Poles [have been] decidedly more relaxed and friendlier towards outsiders, including nonwhite people[,]…unfortunately, Poland’s current government is working hard to reverse this progress…[and] seems bent on resuscitating the most xenophobic instincts in Poland’.
Just to be clear, PiS is not itself directly responsible for any of these incidents; but it has helped to create an environment in which they are happening more commonly. Regardless of whether one supports the broader policies of the government, its efforts to exploit and exacerbate fear of outsiders can only lead in a dangerous direction.That should be even clearer now that Poles themselves are falling victim to precisely such rhetoric in Britain.