from building walls to welcoming with open arms

At the end of January this year, Poland began the construction of a wall on its border with Belarus with the aim of stopping the entry of thousands of asylum seekers, many of them Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. Just over a month later, the entire country has turned to welcome Ukrainian refugees. A wide network of volunteers has been deployed to meet them at the border and facilitate their transportation to the big cities or elsewhere in Europe.

“The difference with the situation in November – during the refugee crisis with Belarus – is that that was a forced emigration. Now it is obvious that people escape from a war, that they have not been manipulated”assures Dominica, one of those responsible for Caritas in the Przemysl reception camp, near the border between Poland and Ukraine.

The difference is that it was a forced emigration

Warsaw refused at that time to welcome the refugees who camped between the border fence of Belarus and that of Poland, 4,000 according to the first country and more than 12,000 according to the second. The Government described it as a “hybrid war” and a pressure strategy by the Belarusian president, Alexandr Lukashenko. Eight people died between July and November of last year, while the border police prevented the passage of NGOs that had brought food and medical assistance and also journalists.

Poland, become the main host country in a plot twist

The government of the ultra-conservative Law and Justice party has taken a 180-degree turn regarding its reception policy in the great refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016. At that time, it headed the so-called Visegrad Group, together with Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia , what rejected the reception by quotas decided by Brussels. The prime minister at the time, Beata Szydlo, assured that there could be terrorists among the refugeesjust after the Islamist attacks in Brussels.

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The country corresponded to 7,500 refugees according to that system that Warsaw did not receive. “The arrival of refugees will force us to always be vigilant so that 10,000 do not become 100,000,” said the government’s security adviser, Pawel Soloch. Now, the country has arrived about 650,000 people, about half of the refugees who fled from Ukraine.

“Ukrainians are like our brothers”

This welcoming atmosphere is appreciated as soon as they arrive in the country and tune in to their radios. Periodically, issue bulletins in English informing Ukrainian refugees that they can freely enter the country, even without any documents, numbers and addresses of interest are given and those who arrive with their pets are welcome. They will receive free check-ups and vaccinations from Polish veterinarians.

“Ukrainians are like our brothers, we understand each other when we speak,” says Piotr, a volunteer at another border crossing, Korczowa. He didn’t hesitate to temporarily leave his job and come help. “They are very appreciative, very patient,” he says. “Now the war is next to home”, says another volunteer at the Przemysl train station, to explain the country’s change in attitude. Poland and Ukraine have cultural ties, but Warsaw also feels the threat of the Russian neighbor very closeTherefore, both the Government and civil society have easily empathized with the victims of this conflict.

Help at border points is well organized. Refugees are transferred by buses from the border to reception camps such as Przemysl, from where more buses or individuals with their vehicles transfer them to other cities without asking for their passport on many occasions. At the train station in this Polish city, one of the main entry points, the Government has mobilized the public railway company, which transports refugees to Warsaw, Krakow and other cities in the country on dozens of trains every day.

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How is it possible that in just one week the reception has been organized so well? “We have all agreed that we have to help: hotels offer their rooms for free, public transport in cities like Warsaw is free. There is also very good coordination between social entities and the authorities,” explains Dominica.

Free distribution of SIM cards to Ukrainian refugees at the border ALVARO KNIGHT

Some of the most implicated are Ukrainian citizens who lived in Poland. and nearby countries that have come to help. Angelika is one of them. She fled from her native Donbas shortly after the start of the war in 2014. She first went to Kiev and two years ago she arrived in Poland. Now she delivers hot food and works as a translator in Przemysl. “From what I’ve been through I can understand what they’re going through, it’s easy to put yourself in their shoes,” she explains.

Poland and the European Union: from head-on clash to unwavering support

Since the 2015 refugee crisis, Poland and the EU have been multiple frontal clashes due to the harsh migration policy of Warsaw, but also for its authoritarian drift, discrimination against the LGTBI group or judicial independence, which has led to fines. Brussels threatened to sanction up to 250,000 euros per refugee not admitted to countries. The threat did not have much effect and the distribution by quotas ended up deflating, largely due to the frontal opposition of Visegrad.

Baby strollers donated to Ukrainian refugees in Poland ALVARO KNIGHT

At the end of last year, however, after the crisis with Belarus, Brussels showed a new face and fully supported Warsaw against what he saw as Lukashenko’s attack on European borders and proposed temporarily tightening asylum rules. He limited himself to asking Poland to “respect the fundamental rights” of the refugees, as the president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, assured.

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, opened the door for the EU will finance the wall that Poland has begun to build, in line with what was also defended by the European People’s Party and twelve countries, including Denmark, Austria and Greece. However, the Commission, competent in this matter, rejected it outright.

Now the Community and Polish interests have been realigned, but in the opposite direction, that of open doors. For the first time, Brussels has activated a directive that temporarily allows the unlimited reception of shelters: it will provide them, whatever the Member State where they are, a residence permit, access to the labor market and housing and medical and social assistance.

Until now, the Dublin Convention was in force, which generally obliged refugees to seek asylum in the country in which they arrived, which increased the tension in the main points of arrival of immigrants in 2015 and 2016: Greece and Italy. Now, however, those who have fled the war in Ukraine can move freely throughout the European Union, which allows Poland – and other receiving countries, such as Romania or Hungary – not to bear the full weight of the reception.

A group of Polish bikers distributes food to refugees near the border ALVARO KNIGHT

Also, due to the fact that no country has closed its border as it happened with the crisis six years ago, at the moment there are no dramatic images like those of the Idomeni camp, Greece, where up to 13,000 migrants waited day and night for weeks for the border with Macedonia to open. The difference is even more striking when the current situation, in terms of the number of refugees, is much more serious than at that time. Meanwhile in all of 2015 one million people arrived in the European Unionin just one week of war that number has already been exceeded.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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