Across the West, an electoral backlash against large-scale immigration has contributed to the successes of populist movements and politicians: Brexit in Britain, Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Matteo Salvini in Italy. The government of Poland, which since 2015 has been led by the conservative Law and Justice Party, is often viewed as part of this transatlantic anti-immigrant trend. But this perception is simplistic. Poland’s government, along with much of Polish society, is in fact pro-immigration. What is true is that Poland eschews the policies of Western European multiculturalism—by encouraging immigration selectively, from countries with similar cultural values.
In 2016, according to Eurostat, Poland issued 586,000 first residence permits to nationals of non–European Union countries. Poland issued more such permits that year than did any other EU member-state except Britain—and more than Germany (505,000), which has more than double Poland’s population.
The vast majority of these non-EU migrants have come from the former Soviet Union, especially from Ukraine, a nation plagued by war, poverty, and corruption. (Belarusians are a distant second.) In late 2017, 1.45 million Ukrainians were working legally in Poland. In a country of 38 million, that amounts to nearly 4 percent of the population, and between 4 and 6 percent of the workforce. One in ten inhabitants of Wroclaw, the fourth largest Polish city, is Ukrainian. It’s impossible for a Polish speaker to visit Poland without noticing advertisements in Cyrillic, and vast numbers of cashiers, waiters, and building contractors who speak with “eastern” accents. Increasingly, Roman Catholic parishes are making their churches available to Ukrainian priests so that they can celebrate the Greek Catholic liturgy.
The rapid increase in the number of Ukrainians in Poland has not sparked nativism. An October 2017 poll reveals that 88 percent of Poles are not afraid that Ukrainian immigrants will take their jobs. On the other side of the border, a recent poll shows that 50 percent of Ukrainians have a “warm” attitude towards Poland, making it the foreign country Ukrainians like most. As speakers of a Slavic tongue, Ukrainians learn Polish quickly. The soaring number of Polish-Ukrainian marriages is evidence that Ukrainians assimilate well in Poland.
Contrary to its nationalistic and anti-immigrant image in much of the Western press, the Polish government encourages these newcomers from the east to stay. Currently, the Ministry of Family, Labor, and Social Policy is working on a bill that would allow skilled workers from six countries—Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine—to become permanent residents after working legally in Poland for two and a half years, and would give their families permission to settle in Poland. The text of the bill includes the following clause: “The aim of these changes is to make it easier for the citizens of six culturally similar countries who have qualifications related to professions needed for the Polish economy to settle in Poland.”
The Polish government encourages non-white, non-European immigration as well. The Ministry of Family, Labor, and Social Policy is negotiating with the Philippine government a bilateral agreement that would bring to Poland thousands of immigrants, who would work above all as caretakers for elderly persons. Like migrants from the former Soviet Union, Filipinos hold many of the same cultural values as Poles. Eighty percent of Filipinos are Catholic, and, like the Poles, Filipinos have a long history of fighting against subjugation by foreign powers. Filipino migrants have assimilated rapidly in countries as diverse as the United States, Italy, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. Stateside, they are often referred to as an “invisible minority.”
Naturally, the embrace of immigrants from the former Soviet Bloc and the Philippines is motivated by economic interests: After 1989, Poland’s birth rate declined significantly (though it has been making a comeback since the Polish government introduced pro-family benefits). Poland is one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, and a declining labor force cannot sustain such growth. But an economy’s need for immigrants does not automatically produce an embrace of immigration. Wealthy Asian economies such as Japan and South Korea are infertile and face rapidly declining populations, yet they resist immigration, favoring cultural homogeneity.
The Polish government is, however, wary of immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Much of Polish society takes a similar view. A July 2018 poll shows that 52 percent of Poles favor taking in refugees from Ukraine, whereas only 22 percent support the resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees in Poland.
Poles are not alone in East-Central Europe in holding these attitudes. Slovak prime minister Robert Fico has said, for instance, that “the integration of Muslim refugees is impossible,” noting, among other things, Muslims’ “divergent approach to women.” People in the EU’s eastern states have seen the failure of Western European Multikulti, which embraced Muslim immigrants without requiring them to respect the values of their adopted country. They know about the terrorist attacks that have ravaged Germany, France, and Belgium in recent years, as they are aware of the mass rapes in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015, and they don’t want the same happening in their countries.
From a historical perspective, a homogeneous Poland is a recent phenomenon. For centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which at one point stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, was home to many ethnic and religious groups. Rulers such as King Casimir III the Great welcomed Jews, Armenian merchants, and others. Today, Poland is once again becoming the fatherland of many nations. But it gives preference to migrants from Christian-majority societies, societies with similar cultural values—challenging the postmodern notion that the West can assimilate all cultures equally well.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, European Conservative, and Tygodnik Powszechny.