The people of Poland have allowed 2,500,000 people from Ukraine to claim asylum or refugee status in the last couple of months. That is an astonishing moral achievement. But Poles are not perfect. Who among us is perfect?
We all know that in recent years waves of refugees have been crossing European borders from troubled lands. Poles were not always so generous with these refugee claimants. With them they were not so generous. Why was that?
First, the pressure is always greatest on the nearby countries. For example, for Syrian refugees the greatest numbers have fled not to Germany, which rightly who got a lot of credit for their heroic efforts. Lebanon and Turkey accepted the most refugees because they were close. This was not just out of humanitarian spirit, but that was not absent. The same goes for Poland. neighbours often have little choice. If they don’t help the neighbouring country, they will have a humanitarian crisis on its hands.
As Melissa Martin acknowledged in her insightful article for the Winnipeg Free Press:
“Still, there’s no question Ukrainian refugees have received a markedly warmer and less fraught embrace in Europe and North America than refugees from, for instance, Syria. Countries, including Canada, rushed to simplify entry requirements and open their doors to Ukrainians in ways many were reluctant, if not outright hostile, to do for others seeking safety.”
The refugee crisis from predominantly Muslim countries like Syria was treated very differently. The Muslims, unlike the Ukrainians were treated with suspicion. In fact, even worse, they were treated as “ammunition in political wars” as Martin called it. Starting in 2021 when Muslim refugees started surging across European borders to seek asylum in Europe, including from Belarus to Poland, Belarus used the people as hostages in their dispute with Europe. As Martin reported:
“In May 2021, in response to proposed European Union sanctions on the country, Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko warned the EU that his nation would cease stopping “drugs and migrants” and allow the EU to “eat them and catch them yourselves.” Within months, Belarus state tourism had begun advertising in countries including Iraq.
People came, and they headed to the border. But once there, the asylum-seekers and migrants found themselves caught in a nightmare. Poland pushed them back, but Belarus wouldn’t let them stay, either. Humanitarian aid was denied, and asylum-seekers reported being beaten by Belarusian police. Poland and other countries accused Belarus of “hybrid warfare.”
Whatever the truth of this, Poland’s government was quick to go along with treating people like weapons, and then hid them from view. It enforced a three-kilometre exclusion zone against the border, into which journalists, doctors and humanitarian aid workers were forbidden to enter. It’s now building a border wall with Belarus, as is Lithuania.”
Some of the refugees found themselves living in the forest of Poland or Belarus in winter. That is about as much fun as spending the winter in Manitoba, living outdoors.
Even Melissa Martin, that bleeding heart liberal, admitted that the different response to Ukrainian refugees compared to Muslim refugees had at least a partly darker basis, namely, racism. As she said,
“There is no way to look at the responses and ignore the Islamophobia and racism that has animated the difference; we must name that to have any meaningful discussion about these issues.”
Hatred, just like kindness, is complicated. No, the Poles were not unmixed saints. No one is.
Some commentators have referred to this as Poland’s “other” refugee crisis. Martin preferred to say it is was all part of the same crisis and that is a world crisis. Both have their dark sides too. As she said,
“Refugees from Ukraine flee a war launched by Russia, an unprovoked invasion that has caused unimaginable destruction. At the border with Belarus, people come from Iraq, which was destabilized by the unprovoked 2003 American invasion and the ensuing civil war; and from Afghanistan, brutalized and toyed with for decades by more powerful nations.
They come from Yemen, where Canadian weapons sold to Saudi Arabia are among those wielded in a war that has killed more than 200,000 civilians and triggered mass starvation. And they come from Syria, where… well, we don’t have space to untangle all the forces that have combined to prosecute the sheer human trauma inflicted in that conflict.
In all of these events, the story in the broadest strokes is fundamentally the same: powerful forces unleash hell on a civilian population to shore up their own geopolitical aims. In all of these events, the wealthy stand to gain, and they convince their people to either support it or, at the very least, ignore their complicity in it. Those who suffer most have no say.
This is why the wildly divergent experiences of refugees in Poland must be seen together, and one shouldn’t be told without the other, because they form a coherent story about how human beings must exist in a world battered by the use and misuse of power, and also offer a crystal-clear contrast study in how such crises of humanity can be handled.”
Russia is to blame, but so is the United States, Canada, UK, Turkey and pretty near every powerful country in the world. I don’t have enough time in my life to search for the innocent country. We must all take a share of the responsibility to solve this crisis.
Everyone knows it will be difficult for the refugees in Poland. It is always difficult for refugees wherever they go. The refugees have a rough road ahead of them, yet most of them are very grateful for what they have received from countries like Poland and to a lesser, but significant extent, Canada.
Most of the refugees are women with children or old people. Refugees are invariably the most vulnerable people and often people try to take advantage of them. Refugees invariably want to go home as soon as possible, but some have to admit that is not likely to happen soon or at all, so they permanent asylum somewhere.
Notwithstanding that, Martin described what happened this way:
“But for now, at least, the breadth and depth and spirit of the Polish response will stand as one of the most remarkable our generation has witnessed. It was at times chaotic, sprouting in countless small efforts that grew into a messy sort of safety net; but it worked, and it saved lives, and it’s one of the most immediately beautiful things I have ever witnessed.”
It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard of. Humans at their best. But not simple. It’s a complicated kindness.