The Polish perspective on European refugee policy

Syrian refugees sleeping in the open air during refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015
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Syrian refugees sleeping in the open air during refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015

Poland has also taken in refugees and economic migrants from Chechenya, Georgia, and Ukraine. Any solution to the refugee crisis requires EU-level efforts, including effective implementation.

According to Eurostat data, over a million third-country nationals applied for asylum in 2015. The greatest number of asylum-seekers was in Germany, where their number more than doubled. Surprisingly, Hungary came second with over 170,000 applications registered in 2015, or an increase of more than 400 percent compared to the previous year. Sweden ranked third, with more than 160,000 registered asylum-seekers, a growth of 100 percent – similar to Germany. Austria also recorded growth of more than 250 percent.

Poland, the biggest CEE country, did not record any fundamental changes in the number of asylum-seekers. For many years this country was definitely a leader in the number of applications received, mainly from Russian citizens of Chechen origin. In some periods there were also increases in the number of Georgians, or – recently – Ukrainians. But in 2015 Hungary took over the first place from Poland, followed by Bulgaria. However, it must be assumed that last year was exceptional, and now that Hungary has closed its external borders and Bulgaria has declared that it will do the same, Poland is likely to regain its top position in 2016. At the same time it cannot be ruled out that the closing of the so-called Balkan route will translate into increased interest in the eastern route running through Poland and Slovakia.

Poland has received large groups of economic migrants, mainly Ukrainians, in recent years. In 2015 the number of Ukrainians residing in Poland for more than three months exceeded 500,000. These were mainly seasonal workers, but the group also included students, entrepreneurs, and researchers. It must be borne in mind that there are currently approximately 1.5 million internal refugees in Ukraine who have fled their regions of residence due to aggression from Russia-supported separatists. If the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, some of those people may come to Poland. Therefore, Poland should be prepared for such a scenario and this fact has to be taken into account when searching for a resolution to the current crisis. The current Polish government has taken this position, which is shared by a large portion of the Polish society. Simultaneously, this is an argument in favor of searching for real solutions related to migration from third states at the EU level. In the future, Poland may need European solidarity to resolve its own migration crisis.

Ineffective EU policies

In the first few months of 2015, when it was already clear that immigration would exceed prior expectations, EU institutions focused mainly on pushing for a solution aimed at relocating migrants across the EU. After lengthy negotiations it was decided that 160,000 immigrants would be relocated. Under this instrument, Poland agreed to receive 6,182 refugees from camps in Greece and Italy and 900 resettled from Lebanon. However, it turned out that the adopted instrument did not work well. This was caused among other reasons by the fact that relocation was adopted via majority voting, with Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic voting against, while Poland supported this solution only at the very moment when the vote was held. Half a year after the introduction of this relocation concept, it is already apparent that the target of relocating 160,000 refugees will not be met. The data show that the EU has managed to relocate fewer than 1,000 people.

The relocation concept could not work for several reasons. First, it was in a way imposed upon Member States. Second, it was supposed to take place according to the principle that migrants could freely choose the state where they would like to go. Consequently, the most popular destinations would remain Germany or Sweden, which have in any case already received the largest numbers of refugees. Third, even if immigrants got to countries such as Poland or the Czech Republic, one should assume that after a short stay they would opt to go to Germany. To prevent this, it would be the receiving but not the country of destination for immigrants that would have to lock them up in refugee camps, which would constitute a blatant violation of human rights. A concept emerged in the Polish public debate to replace forced relocation with the solution put forward in a 2011 directive. It stipulates the relocation of migrants across Member States under voluntary principles. It would be up to the states to decide on how many refugees they would be able to receive in their territories on the basis of their integration capacities. Above that, the Polish public also favored the idea to resettle refugees directly from conflict zones.

The situation related to border protection is similar. At present, nobody has any concept of how to protect the Greek border if Turkey does not meet its obligation to stop migrants from leaving its territory – something that was agreed upon at the European Council summits on 7th and 17th March 2016. Moreover, the EU has failed to solve many technical problems related to readmission and deportation of those people who stand no chance of being granted international protection. After being handed an order to leave a given Member State, some migrants thus fail to do so and remain on EU territory illegally by taking advantage of extensive migration networks.

Ineffective European migration policy has also caused the renationalization of several migration-related actions. The most striking example is the unilateral introduction of border controls, which violates EU principles such as the free movement of people. Among EU-15 states the most radical views concerning the prevention of another migration wave are displayed by Austria and Denmark. Despite objections from the European Parliament and the European Commission, they introduced solutions that entailed physically stopping immigrants from coming into their territory.

Conclusions and Outlook

2016 started with a reduction of the inflow of refugees, but also with the necessity to answer the question of how to integrate those who already are in the European Union. It must be assumed that a decisive majority of refugees will not return to their countries of origin. At the same time, many Poles see that the integration of minorities in other European countries has been problematic. Therefore, whether we will manage to avoid similar problems in the future will depend on the effectiveness of integration policy. This conclusion is especially important for Poland and other CEE countries where very few foreigners reside; while at the same time, being open to immigration is also in their best interest. These countries need to adopt the principle that they can be open only to the extent to which they will be able to integrate foreigners in their societies. Integration must include zero tolerance for those immigrants who do not want to abide by the law and become part of the social model in place in the receiving society. This is the path currently embarked upon by Germany, which has announced that immigrants must learn the German. At the same time actions targeted at the receiving societies, making them willing to accept a larger number of foreigners will be necessary.

Quite certainly, a solution to the current EU crisis can only be found within a Community framework. No individual state will be able to address the challenge on its own. There is still a chance that the EU will come out of the crisis stronger than before. However, it is necessary to eliminate the divisions that have arisen between Member States and to redefine solidarity in migration policy and bear responsibility for management of migration processes, which are bound to take place in the future as well – responsibility which is shared, but not imposed from above.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".

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