Anti-migrant rhetoric dominates politics in Poland ahead of October elections | Political news

by MMC
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Warsaw, Poland – Dressed in a smart suit, Rafal Pankowski, the friendly leader of Never Again, a famous Polish anti-racism organization, delicately sips Arabic coffee in the bustling center of the Polish capital, Warsaw.

The city is gripped by political fervor as Poland heads towards general elections on October 15. Colorful political posters line the streets and activists throw leaflets to pedestrians enjoying the last moments of good weather.

There is “no doubt” that migration is the dominant issue in election campaigns, Pankowski asserts firmly.

The right-wing populist government elected in the 2015 elections exploited the refugee crisis to promote a relentless campaign of “xenophobic propaganda” depicting non-EU refugees and migrants, particularly those from the Middle East, as “terrorists.” Pankowski previously told Al Jazeera.

Recalling his previous statement, he says it is not surprising that the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and the far-right Confederation alliance have continued to promote this discourse during the current election campaign to achieve the support of their existing electoral base.

He says the migration debate in Poland has changed dramatically over the past three years, as two different refugee crises erupted on the country’s western borders.

One of them started in October 2021 and saw thousands of refugees and migrants, mainly from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, attempt the crossing from Belarus, while the other began in February 2022, when Russia launched a large-scale invasion scale of Ukraine, sending millions of Ukrainian refugees to Poland. .

The first crisis was seized upon by right-wing parties, who integrated it into an existing propaganda discourse aimed at instilling fear of an “invasion” of non-Europeans.

When the second refugee crisis hit, there just wasn’t the same reaction. In contrast, support for Ukrainian refugees was felt across the political spectrum.

However, Pankowski was surprised by a shift in rhetoric in recent months among right-wing parties to include anti-Ukrainian sentiments.

In another unexpected twist, other parties outside the right-wing political spheres have tried to “one-up each other,” Pankowski says, by supporting a tough response to non-EU refugees and migrants entering the country.

Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees crossing the Polish border wait to board a bus that will take them to temporary accommodation just days after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of their country (File: Nils Adler/Al Jazeera )

Film sparks heated political debate over migration

Rafal Wasowicz, a stocky, outspoken office worker, stands outside an elegant arthouse cinema.

He came to see The Green Border, a film made by veteran Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland about the border crisis between Poland and Belarus, which has angered Poland’s right-wing parties, with Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro comparing the film to Nazi propaganda.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland wins the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival for her film Zielona Granica (Green Border), September 9, 2023 (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

“I think this film shows reality more than the government,” Wasowicz says. “They say we are at war, but the government does not consider migrants as people. »

The film focuses on a Syrian family and an Afghan woman who are aggressively pushed around by border guards and soldiers while local activists face being sent to prison for trying to bring them to safety.

Rights violations have long been reported on both sides of the border, as Polish border guards and police regularly push asylum seekers in the European Union back to Belarus, according to civil society groups and activists. local organizations working at the border.

Al Jazeera spoke to several people who have attempted the crossing since 2021 and reported multiple human rights violations against them by the Polish and Belarusian authorities.

Al Jazeera met Yousef, a Syrian, in a hospital in eastern Poland in 2021. He had wounds on his legs where Belarusian guards had beaten him. Although he is still recovering from extreme dehydration, exposure to cold and high blood pressure, he said Polish border guards were waiting to take him back to the border (File: Nils Adler/Al Jazeera)

The constant travel back and forth through border forests, often wet and freezing, has led to at least 37 deaths since October 2021, according to activists, but the real toll could be much higher.

The government, in turn, has positioned itself as protecting the country from a hybrid war led by Belarus.

Belarusian authorities, mainly through Middle Eastern tourist agencies, were found to have encouraged disinformation campaigns proposing a route to the EU via Belarus.

This was seen by Poland and the EU as a strategy by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally, to destabilize the region.

The Polish government plans to release advertisements defending its treatment of migrants and refugees arriving from Belarus ahead of Green Border screenings.

Deputy Interior Minister Blazej Pobozy, who called the film a “disgusting slander,” told journalists: “Our advertisements show the background of the hybrid (border) operation and the course of this operation and the solutions which we introduced to ensure the safety of Poles. women and men.”

Anti-migrant and refugee rhetoric across the political spectrum

It is not only right-wing parties that are stoking fears of mass migration from non-European, mainly Muslim countries.

Donald Tusk, the leader of the largest opposition group, the Civic Coalition, speaks during an election campaign in Kepno, Poland (File: Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Former European Council President Donald Tusk, head of the centrist opposition Civic Coalition, criticized the current government in July for its involvement in an EU migration plan that he said would “allow even more people to to come from countries like Saudi Arabia, India, the Islamic Republic”. Iran, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

In a series of videos on social networks published in July in connection with the unrest sparked in France by police killing of 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan origin during a road check, Tusk concludes: “The Poles must regain control of this country and its borders. »

Civic Coalition activists in Warsaw, Poland (Nils Adler/Al Jazeera)

In an unexpected twist, the ruling party, which had long advocated its tough migration policy, was recently implicated in a scandal in which its agents in consulates, particularly in Africa and Asia, allegedly distributed Polish visas for bribes. de-wine.

The Civic Coalition took the opportunity to discredit the ruling party, with Tusk describing it as “the biggest scandal of the 21st century in Poland”.

A rise in anti-Ukrainian sentiment

Pankowski says the far right is now fueling fears that the millions of Ukrainian refugees in the country threaten a Polish “mono-ethnic state.”

“For the first time in a very long time, Poland has become a country of immigration rather than emigration,” he says, representing a seismic demographic shift in a country where, a decade ago, only 0, 3 percent of the population was foreign-born.

Rafal Pankowski in Warsaw (Nils Adler/Al Jazeera)

Today, the hashtag with the slogan “Stop the Ukrainization of Poland”, promoted by the Confederation Alliance, is trending on social networks, and Pankowski’s organization receives almost daily reports saying report of hate speech directed against Ukrainian children in schools.

He claims that the racist stereotype centered on groups of non-European male refugees and migrants posing a sexual threat to Polish women has been overturned.

With martial law in Ukraine, men aged 18 to 60 cannot leave the country, meaning almost all Ukrainian refugees are women and children.

“The stereotype is that Ukrainian women are there to steal your husband,” says Pankowski.

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