Sanctioning Poland over refugees would be wrong

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Migrants queue up at the border between Serbia and Hungary, in the Hungarian transit zone at Horgos. Serbia, July 2016. [Edvard Molnar/EPA]

The European Commission is threatening Poland with financial penalties for refusing to take in refugees. But that approach misses the bigger picture, writes Bartosz Brzeziński.

Bartosz Brzeziński is a journalist and sub-editor at Flanders Today.

Earlier this month, the European Commission launched legal proceedings against Poland for refusing to take in refugees but the country’s government is unlikely to yield as it continues to use people fleeing war and persecution for its own political purposes.

In 2015, EU member states agreed to resettle 160,000 asylum seekers from overburdened Italy and Greece, the two main entry points for refugees into Europe. The Polish government, then ruled by Civic Platform, agreed to take in 6,000 individuals, mainly from Syria.

That same year, however, parliamentary elections brought to power the Eurosceptic Law and Justice party, with Civic Platform sliding into second place. The new prime minister, Barbara Szydło, vowed not to let a single asylum seeker into the country. “The EU has no right to blackmail Poland into putting ourselves in harm’s way,” she reiterated earlier this year.

Though litigation is likely to take months, if not years, the European Commission is losing its patience. “Relocation is a legal obligation, not a choice,” Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said on 13 June.

If the Commission has its way, Poland could lose hundreds of millions of euros in funding, but Law and Justice is unlikely to give in. The party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, though bordering on paranoia, is hugely effective. Two years ago, 74% of Poles surveyed said the country should at least temporarily admit refugees from the Middle East and Africa, according to Public Opinion Research Center.

The same poll, conducted earlier this year, found 75% opposed to the idea. Even the Civic Platform’s electorate is increasingly divided, with 49% saying Poland should not let any asylum seekers into the country.

As Law and Justice continues to use the refugee crisis for its own political gains, the response of the European Commission comes two years too late. Any financial penalties applied today will only feed into Law and Justice’s Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant narrative, further alienating the minority of Poles who remain welcoming to refugees.

The Commission should focus its efforts elsewhere. In so many of their speeches, reports and publications, Jean-Claude Juncker and his cabinet argue for a bottom-up approach to the refugee crisis, from allowing refugees into universities to letting them partake in sporting and cultural events. In short, inclusivity is the answer, says the Commission. And we have plenty of cases around Europe to support this notion.

Poland is no exception. Despite the growing societal divide, individuals all over the country continue to express willingness to take in people from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Social organisations, from the Ocalenie Foundation to Refugee.pl, organise awareness projects in schools and offer support to refugees already in the country, even as they lack structural support from the government.

Instead of trying to force Szydło and her party into compliance, the Commission would do more good by strengthening grassroots initiatives that help combat the dominant and vile anti-immigrant rhetoric in the country. Only those groups can create enough political and social pressure on the government to make it react.

Provide them with the know-how, help them connect with existing initiatives elsewhere on the continent and – crucially – fund their projects so they can continue showing people in Poland that refugees are not a threat. It took Law and Justice two years to sway the country into shutting its doors to people in need; undoing the damage will hopefully take less.