The European refugee crisis and refugee protection in Poland

ZOiS Spotlight 19/2019 by Karolina Lukasiewicz (15 May 2019)

Protests in support of refugees in Krakow 2015 © Witajcie w Krakowie // Welcome to Krakow

On 15 May the European Court of Justice will hold hearings into cases brought by the European Commission against Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic for failing to fulfil refugee relocation obligations. The Council of the European Union established an emergency relocation mechanism in September 2015 in response to the humanitarian crisis in Italy and Greece after the sudden inflow of asylum seekers into these countries. The mechanism obliged EU member states to accept a total of about 120,000 asylum seekers. Most countries received less than a third of the number of refugees they had committed to, but Poland and Hungary were alone in taking in none at all.

In Poland, former prime minister Ewa Kopacz of the Civil Platform party had originally committed to receiving 6,182 asylum seekers. But her successor, Beata Szydło of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, who took office in November 2015, refused to participate in the relocation mechanism. This position was strengthened by other PiS politicians, including the president, Andrzej Duda, and the current prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who argued in the European Parliament in July 2018 that Poland had already accepted 1.5 million Ukrainians. In response, NGOs working with refugees and liberal media in Poland argued that Ukrainian workers who enter Poland on work permits receive no social welfare support, unlike refugees, who are protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Recent moves against refugee protection

The Polish government’s withdrawal from the refugee relocation mechanism is one of many steps the ruling PiS party has taken against protecting refugees. Another is the rejection of asylum claims at Poland’s borders. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Association for Legal Intervention, and Amnesty International have reported that people trying to file asylum claims at Polish borders have repeatedly been denied their rights. The situation did not change even after the European Court of Human Rights issued interim measures prohibiting the removal of people who have expressed an intention to apply for asylum.

In addition to refusing to participate in the EU relocation mechanism and rejecting asylum claims, the Polish government changed the mechanisms for distributing EU funds for NGOs serving refugees in Poland. It did so in such a way that organisations that had been protecting refugees for decades could no longer access these EU funding streams. In response, some organisations used crowdfunding platforms to raise money for their services, but this solution was largely unsustainable.

An established history of helping refugees

The discourse of the PiS on refugees has often contradicted existing evidence. Contrary to claims by the party’s politicians, most refugees in Poland (over two-thirds of all asylum applications between 1992 and 2016) originated from the largely Muslim Republic of Chechnya, not from Ukraine. Refugees have been in Poland for decades and are not a ‘new threat’. And over the last twenty-seven years, Poland has developed a protection system that can process many asylum claims, according to the Polish Office of Foreigners, refuting politicians’ statements that the country cannot process more claims than it does now.

From the creation of Poland’s refugee protection system in 1992 until 2016, over 150,000 people applied for refugee status in Poland, and some 23,000 received protection—either refugee status, a permit for a tolerated stay, subsidiary protection, or asylum. The Polish refugee protection system developed in line with a common EU framework. Asylum seekers waiting around a year for their cases to be processed in Poland are housed in open reception centres, private locations of their choice, guarded centres, or detention centres. After being granted international protection, they can participate for twelve months in individual integration programmes and are offered cash transfers, Polish-language training, counselling, and access to employment offices and healthcare. Refugees in Poland also have the right to access institutions that provide welfare assistance under the same conditions as Poles.

However, integration assistance is insufficient given refugees’ needs and operates poorly on the ground. There is a lack of integration activities aimed at the native Polish communities in which refugees are settled; these communities often discriminate against refugees when it comes to housing, employment, and education.

A lack of solidarity in the homeland of Solidarity?

Although the issue of refugees has been largely absent from the mainstream public discourse in Poland, it was brought up by PiS leaders during the parliamentary election campaign in 2015, when it was used to garner political support. The PiS discourse invoked Islamophobia, Euroscepticism, anti-internationalism, and anti-Semitism to frame refugees as a Muslim threat and a security concern. This resonated well with a historical ‘fetishisation of the nation-state’ and stereotypical religiously and ethnically based definitions of what it means to be a true Pole.

This discourse was followed by a drop in Poles’ historically high support for accepting refugees. In May 2015, 72 per cent of Poles surveyed were in favour of accepting refugees; by the end of 2017, the number had fallen to only 33 per cent. A similar change of opinion took place with regard to the EU relocation mechanism. In 2015, 45 per cent of Poles were in favour of the scheme; by the end of 2017 only 20 per cent supported it. The drop was the largest among young Poles.

At the same time, only 15 per cent of Poles were in favour of accepting Muslim refugees, even though Poland was about to lose EU funds for refusing to participate in the relocation mechanism. In 2017, 17 per cent of PiS voters and 64 per cent of Civic Platform voters supported accepting refugees. When asked specifically about accepting Ukrainian refugees, most Poles (62 per cent)—even PiS voters—were in favour.

Support for refugees at a local level

While the PiS, with the support of many Poles, has developed anti-refugee policies, grass-roots activism in solidarity with refugees has blossomed in Polish cities, with initiatives including Chlebem i Solą, Uchodźcy.info, and Witajcie w Krakowie. As early as 2015, various evidence-based campaigns started to inform a broader audience about who the refugees were and why they wanted to come to Europe.

Support for refugees was also expressed at a local level by twelve mayors of large Polish cities, including Paweł Adamowicz, a mayor of Gdańsk who was assassinated in January 2019.  Refugees, who had been absent from the Polish public discourse before 2015, suddenly gained many active supporters. However their voices, unlike those of PiS politicians, were relatively unheard in both the mainstream Polish media and the international press.


Karolina Lukasiewicz is a postdoctoral research fellow at McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, and an adjunct faculty at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University. She is currently a visiting researcher with the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) at ZOiS.