A small room with a whiteboard is filled with 20 people from all over the world. Africans, Asians, South Americans are slowly repeating Polish phrases. For some many of the sounds are almost impossible to pronounce. But learning the language is a gateway to a better life. A Polish lesson at the Foundation for Somalia in Warsaw (Photo: Foundation for Somalia)
In the Foundation for Somalia, in Warsaw, there are currently seven groups of free language courses. In each group there are 20 people. More than 200 people are on the waiting list.
Hamdi came to Poland a year ago with his young Polish wife whom he met in Egypt, his country of origin.
They fell in love, got married and quickly decided to move to Poland, a more stable and secure option than Hamdi’s homeland.
It took the Polish authorities a long time to recognise his marriage and grant him a residence permit.
“I felt like I bought her on the market and forced her to marry me. I was treated with lot of suspicion,” Hamdi recalls.
After half a year he managed to get a job in a travel agency, largely because he speaks Arabic. But he doesn’t feel accepted at work.
“People look at me strangely like I’m bothering them. It’s because of my religion, my skin colour plus some think I’m taking away somebody else’s job,” he says with bitterness.
But he wants to stay in Poland for the sake of his wife. “She wouldn’t find herself in a Arabic country. So this is our place,” he says.
Poland is a relatively homogenous country. With over 38 million inhabitants, it has only 175,000 refugees. Around 5,400 of them are of African origin.
For every 1,000 inhabitants, six percent are migrants. This puts the country at 17th place among the 28 EU member states.
According to a 2013 study by the Centre for Research on Prejudice at Warsaw University, 69 percent of Poles do not want non-white people living in their country.
Research commissioned by the “Africa another way” foundation, an NGO, found that over a third of Poles (36%) believe there are too many migrants – it is a view held mostly by people from large cities, the elderly and those with a lower level of education.
Almost two third of respondents believe that Poland can’t afford to have migrants while every fourth interviewee thinks that immigrants do not benefit society.
The attitude toward migrants is widely associated with the fear of radical Islam: Sixty percent of respondents believe that newcomers pose a terrorist threat to the society.
Thirty-nine percent of those asked think that the culture and lifestyle of those of African origin is of less value than those of European origin.
“The most xenophobic attitudes are strong among 11% of respondents. They all share the above-mentioned beliefs plus they would never want to see their children marrying a person of African origin. This is pure racism,” says Mamadou Diouf from “Africa another way”.
No to immigration
These attitudes have meant that Poland has been among those EU governments holding out on European Commission plans to resettle 40,000 asylum seekers based in Italy and Greece and another 20,000 refugees from outside Europe.
Poland is set to take 2,000 immigrants, fewer than the 3,600 migrants the commission had slated the country to take based on criteria such as GDP and population.
The number may change on Monday (20 July) when EU justice ministers are due to discuss the issue in Brussels.
“The final number will depend on what other countries offer,” says Małgorzata Woźniak, a spokesperson for the interior ministry.
Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, for her part, has declared her solidarity with asylum seekers but said Poland does not have enough resources to take more migrants. She also highlighted that Warsaw fears a wave of immigration from conflict-ridden Ukraine.
According to Eurostat, out of the 2,732 applications Poland received last year, 73 percent were rejected. Other EU countries – such as Hungary, Croatia, Luxembourg, Greece, France, Portugal and Latvia – have a higher rejection rate.
Sweden had the most applications as a proportion of its population, with 8,432 applications for every one million inhabitants.
Barbara Kudrycka, a Polish MEP, notes that Poland cannot ignore immigration.
“Polish migration policy will face a major challenge,” she told this website, referring to the upward trend in migration numbers.
“What is very important is how refugees are perceived and accepted by local communities. If they are rejected, they will start building their own ghettos and this will further deepen isolation and separation.
“It is important that asylum seekers will develop a sense of belonging, respect for our culture and a strong will of language learning.”
A group of Africa-origin people interviewed by the ‘Africa the other way’ NGO had all experienced racism, including insults and physical attacks on the street.
The attitudes makes it difficult to get a job and therefore a proper foothold in society.
“African immigrants in Poland are employed under two informal conditions: Either they really have rare skills that are competitive on the market – like not popular languages – or they are willing to do jobs nobody else wants,” says Magdalena Rosada, a volunteer at the Foundation for Somalia, which offers free language courses, career counselling and legal advice to migrants.
“That’s why in Warsaw a majority of Cameroonians works as dish-washers in cheap bars,” she notes.
Meanwhile migrants are entitled to some benefits – but the system is not overly generous.
“There are two stages of financial support for refugees – before and after receiving the asylum status,” MEP Kudrycka explains.
Assistance is provided for the duration of the asylum procedure (six months) and two months after its completion. Limited financial support is then offered through individual integration programmes. Refugees are, however, covered by national health insurance.
“This is very little. Fortunately, many immigrants who come to Poland do not need extensive financial support,” says Rosada.
“In many cases they have been preparing themselves to leave their country of origin for some time so they had gathered funds to sustain themselves. This image of benefit seeking immigrants is a part of a harmful stereotype,” she adds.