Polish people enjoy presenting themselves as advocates of tolerance. In the public debate we often refer to the glorious times of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (17th-18th centuries). Back then, the country was a home to Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Jews, Armenians, Tatars and dozens of other nations who lived next to each other, though not necessarily together. We also eagerly point out to the sacrifice of Poles who helped in rescuing Jewish people during the World War II (much less eagerly though we recognize that not only German Authorities, but also some Polish people hampered these actions). Regrettably, it is far easier to idealise the past, than to work on our approach to tolerance right now. The refugee crisis debate supports this statement very clearly. The effort to be borne by Poland is probably one of the lightest. Nonetheless, the country was among those which very strongly contested its pragmatic solution.
Reading the countless comments on the refugee crisis is a disputable pleasure. The constantly repeated arguments which deny the humanitarian tragedy are probably worse than the uncovered hate speech. In fact, these arguments attempt to introduce into the public discourse an essentially non-humanitarian position.
We hear a lot about allegedly unreasonably high burden which needs to be carried by European countries. What should then the 4-million Lebanese society say, considering that they host over one million people from the crisis region? Most refugees actually relocate within the crisis countries or their immediate neighbours. A flight further away remains their last choice. We cannot expect from people living in dessert-camps, with no school access for their kids, that they will accept this situation for an undefined period of time. And only an unreasonably optimistic person could expect that the crisis in Syria will stabilise within a year or so. Among the top ten of host countries not a single one is European, unless we calculate it per capita. If we do so, numbers nine and ten would be respectively occupied by Sweden and Malta – for different reasons.1
The anti-migrant feelings have much to do with the anti-Islamic feelings which have been aggravating already for a longer time. The selective perception of Islam starts with quoting controversial verses of Koran and focussing on the most threatening information from Muslim communities. The information biases lead to creating a picture of Muslim migrants as homogeneous crowd of Islamists. Even if experts recognize that not all migrants are extremists, it is often emphasised that terrorists fighting in favour of the Islamic State might be among them. Furthermore, representatives of distant cultures have traditionally been considered a threat for women. Here we could recall a German propaganda poster from World War I which features a black soldier harassing a woman. Even earlier, the right of Europeans to brutally exploit indigenous population from other continents was justified through their alleged practices of cannibalism or incest. An Italian feminist Silvia Federici was one of the authors who captured this phenomenon.
As it is widely known, the non-humanitarian practices of cannibalism, or human sacrifices indeed existed among non-European tribes. Even nowadays we get to hear about terrifying phenomena such as girl circumcision, honour murder or radical Islam. Yet colonising Africa had so much to do with bringing enlightenment to the continent, as today’s anti-Islamic phobias have to do with protecting human rights in the Islamic world. Back then we justified this way acts of aggression, nowadays the vision of the “evil foreigner” support an extremely defensive position.
Sometimes we also get to hear that Poland should in the first instance accept Christian refugees. Yet, we tend to forget that also they live in a specific cultural context. If girls’ circumcision in Islamic societies rouses our indignation, so should the same practice among Ethiopian Christians, or Egyptian Copts. If assassinations, committed by the Islamic State against the unfaithful cause an outrage, so should the actions of Anti-Balak movement in Central African Republic. And not to mention assassinations of Christians by the Asad regime in Syria that only faced a very passive reaction by the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Arguing for providing a selective support only to Christian refugees is only a way to rationalise the resistance against accepting refugees as such. In fact, the hate speech addressed at Islam turns also against non-Islamic migrants. One of such victims of the anti-migrant demonstration in Warsaw was a falafel-bar, run by a Lebanese Christian. Polish debate also raises the need to invite in the first instance ancestors of Polish people who were forced in the 19th century to move to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Yet, they also have to deal with xenophobic stereotypes in the Polish society (anti-Russian biases) and are publicly called to go back home.
Accepting increasing numbers of migrants is certainly not an easy process. We always have to ask the question who is coming and for what purpose. Supporting refugees should be a simple humanitarian gesture. When giving up, we deny the ideals of European civilisation to a greater extent than in the case of any prior mass migration. When biological racism loses it grounds, the advocates of cultural racism try to gain supporters by rationalising their biases. Immigration is not necessarily an opportunity, but neither does it need to be a threat. We should see it as a challenge. It is a challenge to integrate communities that represent a culture different than our societies represent. And to do it in a way that makes us stronger together. One thing is certain – strengthening stereotypes will empower processes that will turn against all of us.
1 UNHCR Global Trends 2014 – http://unhcr.org/556725e69.html