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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » July 13, 2016
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Can Poland Turn Its Back on Refugees?
July 13, 2016   
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I feel personally offended by what has recently been said and done about refugees in Poland. I come from a family whose ancestors once fled a homeland they loved dearly.

Before World War II, no fingers were pointed at those who had left Poland in search of a better future. Like many of his countrymen from southern Poland, my grandfather was an economic migrant. Then came World War II, which, apart from wreaking havoc in Poland, caused a rift in the nation that affected many families. Some people found the idea of living in the new communist system unthinkable, while others considered the land of their forefathers to be still their own. Many Poles who had been fighting for a free Poland refused to accept the new political deal and as a result, they became refugees with nowhere to return to safely. And it is widely known what the country’s communist authorities did to repress whoever they thought were their political enemies, including many of Poland’s faithful sons.

I was born10 years after the bloodiest war in European history ended. Patriotic traditions ran strong in my family and patriotic values were painstakingly instilled in us since we were little kids. It was no easy task for my parents as they hailed from two different social backgrounds and had different outlooks on the political system at the time. Things were like that in many other families. Nothing was as plain and simple as people these days like to think and say it was.

It is safe to say that every young Polish resident in my generation was subjected to a program of “training in patriotism,” communist-style. The authorities’ concept of patriotism often contradicted what we were taught at home.

My generation never had to man any barricades, but it was hard to pretend we did not know there was a different life out there. As a coming-of-age man, I yearned to see the world from a different perspective and apparently, I was not the only one. When people who are around my age attend their class reunions today, they are often shocked to discover that a quarter or even a third of their former classmates had emigrated from the country. They left Poland for a variety of reasons: some wanted a better life for themselves, others sought the hippie kind of freedom and still others, like myself, just couldn’t stand the raging hostility against countries with different political systems and people of different political views.

I want to make this clear: when I was leaving my country as a young man, I was a political refugee in every meaning of the word. I was granted political asylum in France, an open and tolerant country. Back then Western Europe was literally flooded by Poles and Yugoslavians in search of a better future. Only a small fraction of them were political refugees like myself. The rest were purely economic migrants and I remember how that frustrated the “old” military émigrés, to the point where they refused to even speak to the new ones.

Why I am writing all this is because I remember how all those people who came to France, including asylum seekers, were vetted by a special NATO agency and/or the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA) upon arriving in France. I believe there were millions of such people over several years, people of different cultures and religions. It was a tidal wave that citizens of many European countries had to face and Poles accounted for a large part of that wave.

The fall of communism changed the political status of many migrants and enabled them, including me, to return to Poland.

Looking back at those days, we need to learn a lesson about what has been going on today. I must say I cannot understand the Polish government’s attitude to this urgent matter. Contemporary refugees from the Middle East and Africa do not form a homogenous group and many of them are actually political refugees. I am not one to judge how they should be vetted, as there are special services for that, but what I do know is that the refugees are like me and other Poles were in the past: they will want to go back after the political situation in their home countries changes. I am confident that, just like I used to dream before, they are dreaming of living a normal life in peace and building a future for their loved ones in their home countries. I do not want Poland, the home of the political émigrés of the past, to be ostracized by the “old” Europe, which once opened its borders, took the likes of me in and helped us when we needed asylum, though obviously not unconditionally and not without checking us first. I do not mean reaching out to just anybody in overly good faith, but I am talking about reasonable admission of those who run away from violence in their countries. The question should not be whether to accommodate them at all, but on what terms and what status they should be granted.

I refuse to accept the hypocrisy where Poland is building an Emigration Museum while the Polish authorities are being outright xenophobic. In 1951, the United Nations adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and we must not forget that Poland was among the 130 signatory countries. The Refugee Convention is still in effect, complete with the Protocol of 1967. Not only do we need to keep this in mind, but we, Poles, also need to have special respect for the Convention for the sake of our own history.

Robert Kusiak

The writer is a businessman with a dual Polish and French citizenship.
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