Syrian refugees, Hungary, Austria
Europe has welcomed Ukrainian refugees with more warmth and services than were offered to Syrian refugees in the past. Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Since the Russian invasion, millions of Ukrainian refugees have been met with solidarity and support in Europe. Meanwhile, refugees from other conflict zones are left behind.

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A year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there aren’t many winners in this conflict. One of the few, however, is Poland. The country has not only been one of the most vocal proponents for providing arms to neighboring Ukraine, it has also received universal praise for stepping up to accommodate a flood of refugees. However, human rights activists note that this embrace of fleeing Ukrainians also highlights how poorly Poland has been treating refugees from other countries.  

They especially point to the hostile and human rights-abusing treatment of Middle Eastern refugees at the Belarusian border as evidence of a two-class system in which Poland allowed 1.5 million Ukrainians to find refuge within its borders while doing all it could to keep out Syrians, Afghans, and others seeking a safe place from the conflicts in their own countries.

“Everyone forgot about all other refugees,” said Kalina Czwarnóg from the Ocalenie Foundation, which helps refugees in Poland. She sees a two-class treatment of refugees because Ukrainians are granted more rights, given more assistance, and are accepted in far greater numbers. Poland accepts so few refugees from other countries that there is no good reason why it “couldn’t provide the same kind of support as we do for Ukrainians,” Czwarnóg said. “So if there’s no good reason, then I guess that’s just racism.”

The different treatment is evident when one takes a look at the Polish borders. In contrast to the welcoming attitude at the Ukrainian border, the government has started to build a wall at the Belarusian one. 

“No wall in the history of the world has ever stopped people from crossing the borders. So with this one, it’s absolutely the same,” said Czwarnóg. She added that the $400 million the Polish government invested in the construction of the wall could have ensured an adequate welcoming system instead.

Two tweets by the Polish Border Guard, posted on the same day, illustrate how Ukrainian refugees and those at the Belarusian border are treated differently.

“Yesterday, 98,000 people entered Poland from Ukraine. Since February 24, our staff cleared the entry of over 453,000 people fleeing war-torn Ukraine. #BorderGuardhelps #solidaritywithukraine,” the first tweet read.

One hour later, the account tweeted the following: “Last night, 51 foreigners tried to illegally cross into Poland from Belarus. 11 people from Syria, 33 from Iraq, 1 from Burkina Faso and 6 from Congo were arrested.”

The rhetoric of the tweet hints at the ways border guards violate human rights at the Polish-Belarusian border. People seeking refuge are beaten, denied medical assistance, and left without shelter or access to basic necessities, according to human rights organizations. Czwarnóg recalled how in just one day, four refugees froze to death there last year. 

“They were too afraid to call help,” she said. “They were too afraid to recognize themselves to authorities because they were afraid of being pushed back again and being tortured in Belarus.” 

The Ocalenie Foundation helps where it can, Czwarnóg said, but their efforts are limited when the Polish Border Guard treats the provision of medical assistance and other forms of aid as violations of the law. Frequently, activists get arrested for trying to help.

For example, when the activists call for ambulances to aid refugees who are in mortal danger at the Belarusian border, they are first asked whether the person in need is a foreigner. 

“We are then informed that an ambulance will not be sent until it is requested by the Border Guard or the police,” a report by the Ocalenie Foundation noted. 

That means that the Ocalenie Foundation often works more against the Polish government than with it, the activist argued. 

“Sometimes, our government even sees us as enemies or traitors, even though all we want from them is just to obey basic human rights and international and Polish law,” Czwarnóg said.

Article 3 of the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or country of origin in the application of these rights. The Ocalenie Foundation doesn’t believe that Poland complies with this article. However, the Polish branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) emphasizes how it is its duty to avoid discrimination: “Respecting human rights and refugee rights is not a choice — it is a legal and moral obligation and should never be contingent on nationality or mode of arrival.”

Meanwhile, Poland has received widespread praise for helping Ukrainians. 

“What the Polish people have mastered in the last 12 months — hats off,” said Chris Melzer, the German spokesperson of UNHCR. He went to the border during the first days of the Russian invasion. “I was moved to tears on both sides of the border. On the Ukrainian side from sadness and on the Polish side because I was so touched.”

However, he also spoke about the difference in how refugees are treated. Melzer believes that Poland could learn from its experience of welcoming Ukrainian refugees and apply it to future refugee arrivals. 

“A society ultimately decides for itself whether it sees high numbers of refugees and asylum seekers as a burden or an opportunity,” he said.  

Melzer did offer an explanation for the difference in Poland’s attitude toward Ukrainians and other refugees. 

Ukrainian refugees, Przemyśl, Poland

Ukrainian families fleeing Russian aggression seek asylum in Przemyśl, Poland. Photo credit: Mirek Pruchnicki / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

“The Polish people have shown this solidarity because they knew if it wasn’t Ukrainians, it would have been their land where the Russian tanks are rolling,” he said. 

Poland is not the only Eastern European country in which some refugees are treated much better than others. According to Czwarnóg and others, racism and Islamophobia are at the core of this differential treatment. Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s statement at the beginning of the war exemplified this bias: “These are not the refugees we are used to. …These people are Europeans. …These people are intelligent, they are educated people. …This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”

Even in Germany, a country that has been widely praised for being the second-largest host country for refugees worldwide, this mindset can be found. The governing mayor of Berlin, Franziska Giffey, said that the first question Ukrainians would ask upon arrival is where they could get to work, while other refugees would first inquire where to get their benefits. 

Please Donate to WhoWhatWhyHowever, statements like that overlook a key distinction between Ukrainian and other refugees. Following the invasion, for the first time in history, the European Union has triggered the so-called Temporary Protection Directive, which was put into place to provide immediate and temporary protection for displaced persons in the case of a mass influx of people. This directive grants Ukrainian refugees different rights than others. It allows them to reside, seek employment, and attend school in the EU for three years. An official asylum approval is no longer necessary. Thus, they immediately get access to benefits such as public healthcare or child benefits.

Non-Ukrainian asylum-seeking refugees, on the other hand, have to wait three months before they get access to governmental benefits or are allowed to work. 

Implementing the Temporary Protection Directive now and not earlier is a controversial matter. Czwarnóg regards it as more evidence of racism in EU asylum and migration policies because in 2015, for example, there were similar conditions of war for refugees from Syria, who did not receive that kind of help upon arrival in Europe. 

Melzer justifies the current implementation of the directive with the proximity and urgency that was present in the case of Ukraine. The escape routes of Ukrainians lead directly through Europe. Refugees from the Middle East might have spent a few years in a safe country before coming to Europe. Thus there was never such an urgent need for the temporary protection directive as there is now.

Czwarnóg sees this as a “silly justification.” 

“We all know how bad conditions are in the refugee camps for Syrian or Palestinian refugees in Lebanon or Turkey; they are not safe,” she said. “That is not a life that people should have for years after fleeing.”

But the situation at the Belarusian border has been largely ignored since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“Right now in Poland, we have every big international humanitarian NGO on the spot,” Czwarnóg said. “Almost none of them are even trying to take action on what’s happening at the Belarusian border.”


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