‘Now you can see who a real refugee is and who is just pretending to be one’ – since 24 February, everyone in Poland has heard this phrase at least once. White Ukrainian mothers fleeing with their children are seen as ‘real refugees’, as opposed to the iconography of ‘vicious migrants’, that is, men with darker skin throwing stones at border guards.
In the wake of the humanitarian crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border in autumn 2021, the Polish public media, followed by social media bubbles, spread a race-based classification of refugees into ‘real’ and ‘fake’. The image of fake refugees, originating in earlier racist stereotypes, turned out to be very convenient – it relieved the conscience of Poles from any reproach. After all, it was only about the right to protect the state border from ‘Lukashenka’s tourists’.
The basic right of human life to be protected receded into the background, obscured by the primordial Polish woods and a line of uniformed soldiers. The mental image of race closed the Polish border in front of people ‘fleeing the wrong war’ and conflict, that in the Middle East. Those seeking refuge along the Belarusian border throughout the winter and still today are being pushed unscrupulously into the forest by Polish border guards. Volunteers are bypassing the bans imposed by the state of emergency to give the refugees any help under the cold Polish sky.
Not six months had passed since the closure of the northern section of Poland’s eastern border when, on its southern section shared with Ukraine, officers started carrying luggage and children, escorting Ukrainians who had escaped from the war into the care of thousands of freely acting and rightly admired volunteers. Western media immediately picked up on this contrast, interpreting it in the direction of the racial criterion used in Poland in the treatment of refugees, also non-white refugees at the Ukrainian border.
The most important border topic was and is the Ukrainian exodus. However, immediately after the Russian invasion started, western headlines aren’t focused on the unprecedented solidarity action, but on Poland’s ‘refugee apartheid’, to use Étienne Balibar’s term. While Western countries have accepted refugees from the Balkan and Mediterranean routes in recent years, even if less willingly than they accept Ukrainians, Poland’s eastern border – uncompromisingly closed to ‘non-white refugees’ in the north and wide open to ‘white’ ones in its southern section – has focused the twisted duplicity of European migration policy like a magnifying glass.
From a country of refugees to a country for refugees
Overnight, Poland has transformed its more than two centuries old notorious reputation as a serial refugee-producer into a receiving country, and has become the destination of the most intensive refugee influx in Europe since World War II.
Displaced people from Ukraine prefer Poland not only because it is physically the closest, but also because of its cultural proximity and the family networks established by those previously termed ‘economic migrants’. Poland has also turned into a sufficiently attractive country in economic terms, an aspect which is understandably absent from media analyses for the time being.
Media coverage has highlighted the welcoming of nearly two million people under the roofs of usually small eastern European homes within a dozen days, an event without precedent in the history of global refugee movements. Polish hosts are passing the test of humanitarianism with top marks acting from the grassroots, with marginal support from government structures, which this time simply don’t interfere, rather than help. David Harris, the CEO of American Jewish Committee reporting from Warsaw said: ‘Today we should associate Poland with the spontaneous welcome of refugees who fled Ukraine in biblical proportions’.
This sudden change of Poland becoming a receiving state did, however, not erase the racist refugee criterion of the government. Instead, their attention is more drawn to the racist refugee criterion of the Polish government.
On the one hand, the western discourse operates on the axiomatic conviction that people are equal before the law. When tested against this principle, the Herculean efforts of Polish civil society in putting its own concerns on hold to help the nearly two million refugees from Ukraine, will not erase the suffering of those refugee groups from the Near and Middle East at its borders.
But the choice of perspective is also informed by a journalistic search for sensationalism, and the stereotypical expectation of eastern European dysfunction.
Probably it’s also difficult to communicate the massive humanitarian reflex of taking in strangers under one’s roof. The refugees of previous years were primarily directed to special centres in western Europe. This was the result of an action organised on the state level rather than a grassroots activity, as in the case of Poland. In this article, let us look at the Polish discourse in a little more detail, because at the heart of the prejudice lies not only the image of race, but also the gender of the refugees.
The trope of mothers with children
In the first week of the war, the Polish authorities sent a dozen buses to the western border carrying Ukrainian refugees from the Kharkiv area. These were the first displaced by the war to reach the west of Poland. When the buses arrived at night in the towns of Gubin, Slubice and Kostrzyn along the Oder River, residents bewildered by the disembarking non-white students started to ask: ‘Where are the mothers with children?’
No one was asked to welcome them in their homes; these refugees were placed in school sports halls. In no time, a spontaneous hysteria erupted online and in the street against the ‘fake Lukashenka refugees’ who had tricked the Poles and, despite the fence erected by the government on the border with Belarus, took advantage of the tragedy of the Ukrainians to enter Poland. Those responsible for accepting refugees in the cities cited fearing public anger.
Outraged residents demanded the resignation of the school principals who had allegedly put the children in danger. A few hours later the only trace of the Asian and African students from Kharkiv were empty bunks. They had been taken to the nearest railway junction to head back east to Warsaw, where they received assistance from their countries’ embassies and consulates. Why they were not immediately transported to the capital, but transported to the German border is are anyone’s guess.
The public reaction to the international students is more fact than guesswork. It reveals the spectacular effects of the racist propaganda of the Polish public media, which had been labelling refugees of colour as agents of the Kremlin and zoophiles, potential sowers of terrorism and Islamism, and certainly of laziness. Keeping Syrians, Iraqis or Cubans trapped in the forests of eastern Poland takes its toll of indifference to invisible human suffering.
But it is no longer just a physical barrier, but also a psychological one, grown out of the fear and hatred of the other, cultivated by government messaging. These arise automatically at the sight of a non-white young person, especially when male. Government propaganda and its derivatives is one thing. But it seemed to have yet to overcome the barrier of independent individual human conscience.
Not only racial, but also gender prejudice
Prejudice lies not only in the perceived race of the refugees, their cultural and religious affiliation, but also in their gender, broken down into several motifs. Firstly, in this mythology, real refugees are only women with children.
This is indicative of the idea, indeed the expectation, that the refugee is a human being who is fully dependent and reliant on external help, not an active figure of one’s own survival. It also codes women as passive participants, mere sufferers of events.
Many of the people fleeing the Near and Middle East do not correspond to the European image of passive and defenceless refugees, because they are young men (in reality about 70% men to 30% women). And men, unlike women, are culturally assigned the role of active subject.
In the nationalist imaginary, men are supposed to fight for their country, just like the Ukrainians, and not ‘cowardly run away’ – the second motif of gender bias. Here, with the impressive heroism of the Ukrainian men and women soldiers, several facts are overlooked. Men are obliged by law to remain in Ukraine. The law is still in force in this war-torn country.
Many of these men, and many women for that matter, sincerely believe in the cause for which they are fighting in the regular state army and as volunteers. It is clear to them, as it is to the whole free world, that they are fighting on the right side. Those men who remained outside Ukraine or who managed to leave it after the war broke out (for good reasons, one has to guess) – are shamed from the safety of the peaceful home fronts under the NATO umbrella.
Refugees from Syria or Afghanistan weren’t fleeing the rule of law. They did not flee from serving in a state army that would fight to defend their values and loved ones. The state with which they would identify with does not exist. Their countries are in chaos and anarchy.
They could try to fight against the terror of the despots, but the wars in their regions have been tribalized. The state army became a fraction, with many militias fighting one another and being supported by powerful neighbouring states. As shown by the case of Syria, whose infrastructure and army are in the hands of the head of state, beholden to a violent friendship with Vladimir Putin, and not freedom fighters like Volodymyr Zelensky.
How are young people supposed to carry out this fight against everything and anything? These wars are without rules: with soldiers on the ground being ‘irregular fighters’ not subject to the Geneva rules for prisoners of war or other international protection.
Mass executions, the use of chemical weapons, rape are direct consequences of this anarchy.
There are also many powerful international actors in the region working against the individual civilians’ desire for peace and freedom: Turkey, Iran, and above all Russia, which has been wreaking havoc there for a decade. As a result of Putin’s involvement in the region, there is no structure left for the youth to fight for, and no charismatic leaders of freedom under whom they are willing to die for the right values. The war crimes of these regimes in Syria are fortunately not yet matched by the war in Ukraine, and let’s hope they never will. These would freeze the blood in our veins if we bothered to take an interest in them.
Few Europeans take the trouble to understand the geopolitical situation of these refugees who were mere children themselves when war broke out in their country.
The myth of abandoning women and children
A third myth is that the young men who flee for Europe abandon their wives, mothers and children to the violence from which they save only themselves. A similar false accusation against was raised against young Jewish refugees from Poland who tried to flee from the Germans in WWII, suspected of leaving the weaker ones ‘to the mercy of the crematoria’.
In reality, every refugee movement has its own dynamics, conditioned by the situational context. The families of today’s young refugees from the Near and Middle East first moved on to neighbouring countries, quite like the millions of displaced Ukrainians do right now.
But those Middle Eastern families ended up been living in camps for years, with no movement, no development and no hope of a better future. It was up to young people, physically fit sons, who were sent on the dangerous path of crossing to Europe, to strive for a better future and to break the despairing stagnation of the camps.
Those who had already started their own families often left with their wives and children or made use of the instrument of family reunification, once they reached safety in Europe. Along the Belarusian border, in Michałów, Narewka and Białowieża, there is no shortage of children sleeping on bedding under the open sky.
They don’t get any toys, nor juice, they warm themselves around bonfires in a place where, 83 years earlier, Jewish refugees fleeing from the Germans lived under the open sky in a strip of no man’s land fenced off from the other side by the Soviets. This coincidence of refugee geography is uncanny, it’s a devastating repetition of history.
A last vicious argument says these men are not all fleeing from war zones, rather they come to Europe ‘only’ for a better life. Either they will not work or, worse still, they will work and take jobs away. Yes, the Cubans or Eritreans are not escaping war but repression, Iraqis not war but from internal terror, while Afghans leave behind both war and extreme poverty.
In this narrative, a European has a natural right to seek a better life and material status – a Pole in Germany, a Lithuanian in Great Britain. An Asian or African man at the threshold of his adult life, their world turned inside out by the geopolitics and the history of European colonisation, ought to humbly endure repression, terror and misery.
The Polish government and large sectors of public opinion deserve the strongest and most uncompromising media criticism for their racist refugee policy, and the lack of empathy for the non-Ukrainian refugees who continue to risk and lose their lives every day at the maritime and forest crossings of Europe’s borders. But this is a phenomenon that far transcends this country. It is well-nigh universal in Europe (and elsewhere). Therefore, it is more correct to speak of a general European selectivity, of the double standards vis-á-vis refugee policy.
The western conscience tends to pick out its remorse according to traditional racial and gender criteria that obscure consideration of the plight of individual human beings.
The author is a member of the research team of the ERC-Project ‘Unlikely Refuge? Refugees and Citizens in East-Central Europe in the 20th Century’ (grant agreement No 819461).