“Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the EU bureaucracy?” This is not a sentence from a far-right magazine, but one of four questions that Polish citizens will have to decide on in an upcoming referendum on “matters important to the state”.
On the same day, Sunday, October 15, they will also cast their votes in the general elections. Playing the migration card has previously aided the ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) in winning elections. Can it pave the way for their victory again?
Politicization of migration and asylum
In the last few decades, Poland has not been a magnet for immigration, except for a brief period when it hosted Chechen refugees. Poland has had a relatively low asylum acceptance rate.
The “refugee crisis” of 2015 shifted European politics: Migration became a central theme in political campaigns, as seen in the Brexit “Leave” campaign. In Poland, it played a vital role in the rise of PiS to power. It was used to instill fear, shape public attitudes and discredit aid to migrants.
After coming to power in 2015, PiS reversed the previous government’s decision to accept 7,000 refugees. Poland’s government and state-controlled media have maintained a negative narrative about migration, portraying refugees and migrants from the Global South as threats to safety, identity and Christianity. This narrative was evident during the 2021 humanitarian crisis on the Poland-Belarus border.
However, the Polish response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine showed that countries with hostile asylum policies can be welcoming to refugees from neighboring states with shared cultural or religious backgrounds.
Referendum as a supporting campaign tool
PiS had been publicly considering a referendum on migration for months, even though its outcome would not influence EU policies. Referenda are rare in Poland, with only four held since 1989. The most recent binding referendum was in 2003 (EU accession).
The timing and the wording of the questions are not accidental. Let us call a spade a spade. The claim about the “imposed” relocation scheme is a false and repeatedly propagated assertion. The PiS party deliberately misrepresents the European Pact on Asylum, which stipulates that if a country refuses to accept refugees from member states facing an excessive burden, they must contribute €20,000 for each person.
Given that Poland currently hosts one of the highest numbers of refugees from Ukraine within the EU, it is highly unlikely to become a target for relocations. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson has reaffirmed this. The primary aim of the referendum seems to be to provide a platform to reiterate the ruling party’s slogans and revive old arguments, even if they do not align with the current context.
“Safe future for Poles” or a campaign of fear?
The third question of the referendum asks, “Do you support the removal of the barrier at the border between the Republic of Poland and the Republic of Belarus?”
This barrier was constructed to hinder refugees and other migrants from the Global South. Those who managed to cross were often pushed back, despite this being in violation of international law. In Poland, these pushbacks have been legalized. PiS has exploited the issue in political campaigns, and those opposing such practices have been labelled Putin’s sympathizers.
The film Green Border by Agnieszka Holland, depicting the plight of people in the border zone between Poland and Belarus, became the target of political attacks and smear campaigns, with some politicians comparing the acclaimed Polish director to Nazi propagandists.
When an Afghan refugee sexually assaulted a young Polish man in Germany, Prime Minister Morawiecki promptly tweeted about it, blaming “open border policies” and emphasizing his party’s commitment to safety. “Safe Future for Poles” became the campaign slogan for PiS. Multiple ministers and candidates visited the Belarus border to deliver speeches about the perceived threat posed by “violent illegal migrants.”
Political struggles did not spare refugees from Ukraine either. The far-right party Konfederacja was the first to exploit the discontent of some Poles and talked about the “Ukrainization of Poland.”
PiS also criticized Ukraine, although to a lesser extent than Konfederacja, alleging ingratitude. They aimed to secure the votes of farmers who feared that cheaper Ukrainian grain would depress prices in Poland and threaten their livelihoods. The goal was to manufacture a sense of exaggerated fear, even where it did not exist, and then present their own party as the sole solution.
Can the migration issue secure victory for PiS? The party currently holds a slight advantage over its main rival, the Civic Coalition led by Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and President of the European Council. Konfederacja poses a threat in attracting more radical voters. This may explain why PiS is using various methods and resorting to aggressive tactics in its campaign to maintain its hold on power.
Double standards: visa scandal
However, luck has not been on PiS’s side. It was recently revealed that Polish consulates granted work visas to people from Muslim countries on a mass scale, despite PiS’s anti-migrant rhetoric being directed specifically against them.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, as new revelations indicate a complex corruption case at high levels of power. Polish consulates issued Schengen visas in thousands of questionable cases under pressure from higher authorities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A “sped-up process” reportedly cost about five thousand dollars. Poland served only as a transit country on the way to the USA. Opposition parties immediately highlighted these double standards, and the EU demanded explanations from PiS. It remains to be seen, though, if this scandal will affect electoral preferences.
When the electoral dust settles …
Electoral victory is a short-term goal, and easy solutions are frequently employed to secure it. However, the consequences of harmful narratives do not dissipate once the campaign dust settles. In the long term, they can lead to increased discrimination, double standards and unconscious biases.
If politicians want to make migration a centerpiece of their campaigns, they should focus on topics of real importance: how to build a diverse society and create an environment conducive to integration. These issues require far-reaching efforts and cannot be resolved with a single suggestive referendum question.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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