• Anti-immigration fears and sentiments have been used as a political ploy in Poland.
  • Majority of Poles oppose the admission of refugees or believe they should be granted only temporary shelter, with the younger generation the least in favour of receiving refugees.
  • Poland continues to be in strong opposition to compulsory refugee relocation under any scheme. Instead, Poland has lobbied for increased assistance for the refugees’ country of origin and periphery, supporting the idea of treating with the root causes of the refugee crisis.
  •  A set of laws and amendments, including anti-terrorist legislation, have been introduced that ease surveillance and detention of migrants.
  • Economic migration is seen as a possible solution for easing problems with demographic decline, but foreigners from Eastern Europe are preferred. People of Polish origin living abroad are another target group to attract to the country.



With low rates of foreign-born residents, Poland is a country of 38 million people that remains one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe. Nevertheless, it has faced the need to regulate growing migrant inflows, as over the past decade it has become a prominent destination for non-EU nationals, mainly citizens of Ukraine. This is due to a number of factors, including growing demand for cheap labour, geographical and cultural proximity, and relatively liberal migration policies compared to those of other Central European countries.

At the same time, similarly to what is happening in other countries of Central Europe, the attitude of Polish society toward migration and especially refugees differs fundamentally from that of many Western European countries. With knowledge about immigration limited and stereotypes widespread, the refugee crisis has contributed to an increase in negative opinions about refugees, despite the fact that refugees from Southern Europe have not reached Poland. A number of political actors have played upon these fears of immigration for political gain.

This paper presents an overview of the current trends in the public and political discourse on migration since the beginning of the refugee and migration crisis, as well as key legislative and policy changes that have been introduced since mid-2015. The analysis concludes with projections regarding the migration-related discourse and further policy changes.

Migration profile

In January 2017, according to official statistics, 266 218 foreigners held a valid residence card in Poland. Ukrainians occupy the leading position among immigrant groups in Poland, with their number continuously growing[1]. Ukrainians also account for over 53% of all foreign students in Poland, which as a whole is also growing.[2] These statistics however do not systematically reflect temporary and seasonal labour migration.

While the refugee phenomenon is a major source of contention in Poland and the V4 as a whole, it affects them to a far smaller degree than other EU member states in absolute terms, both in number of applications and those actually residing there. The main countries of origin of asylum seekers in Poland are Russia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan.[3]

It should also be noted that despite a dynamic increase in immigration to Poland, it remains strongly a country of emigration with 2 397 000 Poles staying abroad, mostly in United Kingdom, Germany, Holland and Ireland.[4]

Public discourse and political climate in relation to migration 

Across the entire European Union, the refugee crisis has provided fodder for traditionally anti-immigration forces. In the case of the Visegrad countries, it has created a great opportunity for both populists and the mainstream right, or left-wing parties to build support using fear and xenophobia.[5]For example, in the case of Poland, the scapegoating of non-existent refugees has proven to be a very effective political tactic, with most of society having limited experience and knowledge on the subject, thus being unable to assess the veracity of the often xenophobic message. For example, in an Ipsos survey for IOM, only 28% of Poles declared to have had contact with a foreigner in 2016.[6]

The refugee crisis began at a very specific moment in the Polish public debate – just before the parliamentary and presidential electoral campaigns. “The invasion of refugees” and “are we ready for a wave off refugees?” are examples of common slogans appearing in Polish newspapers at the time. The crisis sparked a heated debate on migration at a previously unwitnessed scale. Typical anti-immigration talking points (“immigrants do not assimilate,” “they are terrorists,” “they are good for nothing,” etc.) became and have still remained very popular. The public debate at that time was characterised by emotional narratives, feeding fears connected with Muslim refugees, and a frequent neglect of facts and data.[7] What was observed was the a clear ‘transposition’ of other countries’ immigration debates, as observed in France, Germany or Poland.

Unfortunately, the debate on refugees and migrants has been taking place a very low level, and the stereotypical approach to the issue seems to dominate. The media is also a culprit, describing the phenomenon with military allegories, comparing the crisis of refugees to natural disasters and diseases. According to a report by Kultura Liberalna’s Public Debate Observatory, two motives dominated the media: the “clash of civilizations,” and the moral obligation to help and accept refugees. While radicalised language can be observed across a wide spectrum of Polish media, news stories unfavourable or even hostile toward refugees could mostly be found in media closer to the right end of the political spectrum.[8]

The public debate on social media also experienced an unprecedented outburst of xenophobia. For example, according to the CBOS analysis posts from the social media conducted in October 2015, only 6% of Polish internet users commenting on the migration crisis spoke out in favour of helping immigrants and of their integration into Poland.

The engagement of civil society demonstrates that solidarity with refugees is not entirely lost in Poland.  As is the case with many other countries, there is a segment of society that expresses solidarity and humanity, but these efforts are often overshadowed by the anti-immigration discourse. Some activists, part of civil society and academia attempted to influence the debate through positive messaging. It is worth mentioning the example of the Polish Day of Solidarity with Refugees, which took place on October 15, 2015 and involved 130 institutions (NGOs, theatres, museums, etc.) or “Chlebem i solą”  initiative of informal grassroots origins initiating activities to improve the refugee situation in Poland and Europe. What’s more, more than 40 Polish newspapers initiated action “more knowledge – less fear –  refugees in Poland” to fairly characterize the refugee problem and bring it to the Poles.[9] Another initiative is the Refugees Welcome Poland (RWP), which is the Polish wing of a German project that started in November 2014 and is now active in 12 countries.

At the same time a number of Polish municipalities have announced pro-migrant and refugee positions and started to work on local migration policies. The announcement of welcoming orphans from Syria lead garnered a response from the Law and Justice (PiS) government that such decisions may have “negative impact on the security of Polish citizens”.[10] Such incidents show that local authorities may became important actors in the area of migration in the future.

It is important to note that the previous Polish government, after long negotiations, supported the EU’s proposed policy of distributing refugees, and hence agreed to admit approximately 7,000 people, which it knew would be difficult to accept domestically.[11]  By breaking the coalition of countries of the Visegrad Group, it was accused by the opposition – mainly PiS – of betraying the country and members of the group.

At the peak of the campaign, the Law and Justice party (PiS) warned that Poland was in severe danger of a massive inflow of Muslim immigrants, and that they were the only ones who could prevent it.[12]Jarosław Kaczyński incited fear using tabloid arguments that migrants bring “all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which (…) while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here.”[13] At the same time, other parties (including left-wing parties) avoided taking a concrete position defending the acceptance of refugees into Poland.

Public opinion

A public opinion study showed that it is not only politicians that have a critical attitude towards refugees; a considerable share of Polish society also opposes admitting people seeking international protection. Between 2015 and 2017, Poles have transformed from cautious supporters to decisive opponents of admitting refugees into the country. In the early stages of the refugee crisis, Poles were less sceptical than citizens of other countries in the region, with 21% opposed to admitting any refugees, while 58% agreed to admit them temporarily into Poland.[14]  To compare, in the most recent research poll conducted by CBOS, over half of respondents (52%) opposed the admission of refugees. Two out of five respondents (40%) believed they should be granted temporary shelter (until they can safely return to the country from which they came). Fewer than one in twenty respondents (4%) believed that they should be allowed to settle in Poland permanently. The same poll also showed a clear difference in attitudes between supporters of the more conservative PiS, and the more liberal PO. Among the supporters of PiS, 64% opposed receiving refugees, and only 30% expressed support.[15]Additionally, the attitude of Poles towards accepting Ukrainian refugees has been more positive compared to people from the Middle East or Africa. Significantly more than half of respondents (58%) believed in helping their Eastern neighbours, while one in three (37%) disagreed.

At the same time, according to a Pew Research Center survey, a significant number of people see a link between the refugee crisis and the threat of terrorism. Seventy percent of Poles believe that the presence of refugees could increase the likelihood of terrorism in Poland. Furthermore, a majority also think that they are a burden on the host country, taking jobs and social benefits.[16]

Young people are least in favour of receiving refugees. Moreover, young Poles, similarly to their counterparts in the Visegrad Group, are more sceptical towards migrants than young people in Germany or Austria are. Only 26% of young Poles believe that immigrants contribute to the country’s economic growth, compared to 42% of Germans. In turn, Hungarians (79%), Slovaks (72%) and Poles (70%) do not perceive such positive influence of immigrants on the demographic situation in their countries.

Analysis of the various research results shows that PiS’s strategy of building support by inciting fear – toward more issues than just the issue of migration – seems to have magnified society’s feelings of insecurity. Although Poland sees very few foreigners from Arab countries and has never been a victim of a terrorist attack, IPA/DEMOS polling from 2016 showed that Islamic terrorism is the biggest problem currently facing Poland.[17]

Towards comprehensive migration strategy

Steps to facilitate access to the Polish labour market were taken several years after the country joined the EU in 2004. This decision was primarily brought about by labour shortages, especially after a major wave of Polish emigration in 2004 and sustained economic development. These factors have led to more interest among employers in searching for workers from outside the country. As a result, the business community lobbied to open the Polish labour market to foreigners, which resulted in the liberalization of access of selected groups of foreigners to the national labour market, starting in 2006 with the introduction of relaxed rules for seasonal work.

Three main instruments have been employed in the partial opening of the Polish labour market. First, to deal with sectoral (mostly low-skilled) work shortages, citizens of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia or Georgia could be employed seasonally without the need for a work permit. Foreigners subject to this system have thereby obtained very easy access to the Polish labour market (relative to other foreigners outside the European Union). For the second policy, students in certain fields and university graduates have been authorized to the same employment rules and conditions as Poles. At the same time, the EU Blue Card, aimed at facilitating immigration of qualified workers, remains essentially a dead letter in Poland.  Finally, the Polish Card (Karta Polaka) allows people of Polish origin to obtain a long-term visa, with entry/exit rights that can secure legal employment without having to obtain a work permit, and access the Polish education system free of charge.

The above mentioned policy decisions prioritize seasonal employment and immigration from Eastern Europe, mostly from Ukraine, which is the unambiguous priority of past and present Polish authorities, targeting culturally and linguistically aligned migrants that do not constitute a significant challenge in terms of integration.

These regulations allowing access to the labour market have, however, not been accompanied with any comprehensive integration measures. From lack of political initiative and a perception of migration as mostly temporary and limited in terms of scale, no systemic integration policies have been implemented in Poland. Migrants encounter numerous barriers to their active participation in the labour market, including insufficient knowledge of the language, legal complications and unequal treatment by employers.

Asylum seekers are allowed to access the labour market six months after an asylum application is submitted if a decision has not provided in this time, while refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection have access to the labour market according to the same rules as Polish citizens. The most acute problems for refugees are the unavailability of (permanent) work and a surplus of jobs below their qualification, linked to their poor command of the language – and this is tied to limited access to language lessons or their low quality. Access to appropriate housing, housing exclusion or event homelessness remains another important problem.

Only those who have been granted refugee status or subsidiary protection qualify for participation in the annual Individual Integration Program (Indywidualny Program Integracji – IPI), while other groups of migrants are not entitled to state funded support and rely on NGO assistance. Persons who have obtained permission for so-called tolerated stay are deprived of the state funded integration assistance, only having the right to assistance in the form of shelter, food, necessary clothing and designated benefits that cover costs of the purchase of food, medicines, household goods, etc.

From discourse to policy change: PiS government and migration policy

When it first came to power, the new PiS government announced a continuation of the relocation plan. However, after the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, the new Prime Minister Beata Szydło abandoned the plan and announced that Poland would not accept any refugees. The Polish position, expressed by such government officials as Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak, emphasized that the redistribution mechanism is “a way to attract more migrants” rather than a solution to the crisis situation.

One of the priorities of the Polish Presidency of the Visegrad Group (1 July 2016 – 30 June 2017) is coordination of the position of the V4 at the EU forum that “should enhance solutions to address the migration root causes with emphasis on the effective protection of EU external borders. The V4 countries should focus on opposing any changes that would result in the introduction of any permanent and compulsory redistribution mechanism or would significantly reduce Member States’ competencies in this area”.[18]

Simultaneously, the office for Foreigners has been cooperating with EASO, and in 2016 organised around 60 missions to Italy and Greece. Poland has also been lobbying for increased assistance in the refugees’ countries of origin and their neighbours, supporting the need to address the root causes of the refugee crisis. Among others, Poland helps refugees and victims of war from Syria that stay outside the country, in the following countries: Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Despite the noticeable increase in humanitarian aid, Poland assistance still seems to be comparatively low.[19]

At the same time Prime Minister Beata Szydło announced that “Poland accepted one million Ukrainian refugees” which was clearly an element of PiS propaganda since the recognition rate for Ukrainian asylum seekers in Poland remains at an extremely low level, as Poland implements the concept of ‘internal flight alternative’ that serves as the legal basis for rejection of almost all asylum applications. With such careless extrapolation of data, Polish leaders have been using Ukrainian labour migration to avoid accepting refugees as part of the European Union’s relocation program.

The new government first suspended, and in March 2017 subsequently abolished the “Polish Migration Policy” document written by the previous government. Reasons for this decision included the elevation of the refugee and migration crisis, as well as an increase in Ukraine immigrants due to the military conflict with Russia. However, by far the most significant reason was the ideological incompatibility between the current government and the previous one. According to the official statements, the key differences included the attitudes toward the idea of multicultural society, and opening doors for migrants of various cultures and religions. According to Jakub Skiba, secretary of state in the Ministry of Interior and Administration: “This is a pragmatic position, rather than an ideological one. In our opinion, an ideological approach that is based on a vision of multiculturalism and broad migration absorption is incorrect.”[20]

The political change resulting from the elections in 2015 has put the discussions on the Polish integration policy on hold. It should also be underlined that the low priority given to the issue of integration is manifested not only by the suspension of work on integration policy but also the reduction of funding for the NGO sector in these areas.

The PiS government has recently expressed the following priorities in the field of migration policy that is now under consideration: internal security (including border protection), facilitation of channels for economic migration, and further easing of the inflow of people of Polish origin.[21] It is therefore safe to assume that integration policy will not be treated as an important element of this new strategy.

The securitization of migration and the perception of migrants as potential threats can be seen not only in the political discourse, but also in the actions that have already been taken. In June 2016, the government adopted a so-called antiterrorist law, in accordance with which every foreigner in Poland can be put under surveillance without a court order, for essentially an indefinite period of time. It also grants the Internal Security Agency, the police and the Border Guard the right to take fingerprints, facial images and even biological material (DNA) from foreigners in the case that there are doubts concerning their identity. The NGO sector has criticised the new regulations for potentially leading to discrimination and stigmatization.[22]

The new approach to migration policy has been exemplified by the draft of an amendment to asylum law that introduces border asylum procedures (applicable to almost every asylum seeker), including the option to detain people during border procedures and accelerated procedures, a de facto deprivation of the possibility to appeal against a negative decision in the border procedures (and the possibility of immediate deportation), and denial of the chance for court appeal.[23]

The frequently-reported cases of foreigners being denied entry into Poland at the Polish-Belarusian border crossing in Terespol are another example of this new course in migration policy. These instances of people who were repeatedly rejected entry to Poland and are often forced to stay at Brześć railway station have been reported by both the NGO sector and the media.[24]

At the same time, economic migration is seen as a possible solution for easing problems associated with demographic decline. However, the government has also clearly noted that foreigners from Eastern Europe are preferred over any other group.

To conclude, the recent developments may lead to a situation where Poland will de facto close itself for both refugees from Southern Europe (relocations) and so called spontaneous asylum seekers crossing the Polish Eastern Border. It is also highly probable that the government will play the “Ukrainian card”, framing the immigration from this country as a significant challenge for the Polish state.  The priority of migration from neighbouring countries will probably be maintained as a safe reservoir of cheap, temporary labour with theoretically no or limited integration needs.


The PiS government has been successfully exploiting Poles’ anti-immigration fears and sentiments. As the examples of Poland or Hungary show (changes in the legislation, Hungarian referendum), the governments’ strategy is to project and exploit the topic in the long run. The question is, how long will it be possible to keep migration at the top of their agenda, seeing that hostile discourse can be counterproductive even for the government’s own goals. A prime example of this is combining xenophobic rhetoric with plans to further open up the labour market to Ukrainians.

In the longer outlook, the diminishing funding for civil society that is not openly pro-government may hinder the possibilities of creating pro–migrant coalitions and narratives in the future and hault almost all integration initiatives in the country.[25] At the same time changes in the asylum law that will likely be introduced in 2017 may result in the detention of almost all foreigners applying for international protection in Poland, a systemic violation of the rights of foreigners that are included in the Geneva Convention and international law.[26] A similar strategy combining both detention and closure of the border to many potential asylum seekers can be observed in Hungary.[27]

Looking at the international dimension of the refugee crisis, the Visegrad Group response and solutions proposed by the European Commission have been particularly striking. Unexpectedly, the migration crisis has reunited countries that are divided on many other issues. For the Visegrad Group this is connected to a common vision of EU migration: reducing and controlling the migration flows (border protection) and increasing aid to refugees staying outside of the EU. It remains to be seen whether disagreement over the EU mainstream approach to migration challenges will lead to a fundamental reassessment of their EU membership in the future.


Justyna Segeš Frelak is Director of the Migration Policy Programme at the Institute of Public Affairs, Poland.


[1] Office for Foreigners, 2017.

[3] Record number of over 1.2 million first time asylum seekers registered in 2015, Eurostat, 4

March 2016,

[4] Informacja o rozmiarach i kierunkach czasowej emigracji z Polski w latach 2004 – 2015, Główny Urząd Statystyczny, 5. 09. 2016,…

[5] Mapping and responding to the rising culture and politics of fear in the European Union…, “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?”, Demos 2017.

[6] Badanie na temat postaw  wobec cudzoziemców w Polsce, Ipsos dla IOM, Warszaw 2016.

[7] D. Hall and A. Mikulska-Jolles, Uprzedzenia, Strach Czy Niewiedza? Młodzi Polacy o powodach niechęci do przyjmowania uchodźców, Warsaw, Stowarzyszenie Interwencji Prawnej, 2016.

[8] Ł. Bertram, M, Jędrzejek, Analiza Specjalna Obserwatorium Debaty Publicznej: Islamskie hordy, azjatycki najazd, socjalny dżihad. Jak polskie media piszą o uchodźcach, „Kultura Liberalna”, 14 October 2015

[10] E. Stawikowska, J. Harłukowicz, R. Radłowska, Kolejne miasta mówią: Chcemy pomóc uchodźcom

06.02. 2017,

[11] “Kopacz: Przyjęcie uchodźców to nasz obowiązek, test na przyzwoitość” (Accepting refugees is our responsibility, a test of decency), Gazeta Wyborcza, September 10, 2015.,82983,18748772.html#ixzz3oAMlNOII

[12] Mapping and responding to the rising culture and politics of fear in the European Union…, “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?”, Demos 2017.

[13] J. Cienski, “Migrants carry ‘parasites and protozoa,’ warns Polish opposition leader,” Politico, 14 Oct 2015.

[14] “Polacy wobec problemu uchodźctwa,” CBOS, June 2017,

[15] “Stosunek Polaków do przyjmowania uchodźców,” CBOS, January 2017,

[16] “Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs,” Pew Research Centre, July 2016.

[17] Mapping and responding to the rising culture and politics of fear in the European Union…, “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?”, Demos 2017.

[18] Programme of the Polish Presidency of the Visegrad Group, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Warsaw 2016

[19] Development aid in 2015 continues to grow despite costs for in

donor refugees, OECD, Paris, 13 April 2016

[20] “‘Pragmatycznie, a nie ideologicznie’ – o polityce migracyjnej Polski,” Interview with Jakub Skiba,  Biuletyn Migracyjny, December 2016.

[21] Potrzebne jest stworzenie nowej polityki migracyjnej,,Potrzebne-jest-stworzenie-n…

[22] J. Niklas, “Projekt ustawy ‘antyterrorystycznej’: cudzoziemiec = podejrzany?” June 3, 2016; W. Klicki, “Ustawa antyterrorystyczna wchodzi w życie – co się zmienia,” July 1, 2016, Panoptykon.

[23] Projekt ustawy o zmianie ustawy o udzielaniu cudzoziemcom ochrony  na  terytorium RP oraz niektórych innych ustaw z  dnia  30  stycznia  2017  roku

[24] Comp. Invisible Refugees on Belarus – Polish Border, Human Constanta, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, September 2016; “Komunikat RPO dotyczący wizytacji kolejowego przejścia granicznego w Terespolu,” September 21, 2016.

[26] Uwagi Helsińskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka do projektu ustawy o  zmianie ustawy o udzielaniu cudzoziemcom ochrony na terytorium  Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej oraz niektórych innych ustaw (projekt z  dnia 30 stycznia 2017 r.)

[27] Hungary: Government’s New Asylum Bill  on Collective Push- backs and  Automatic Detention Information update by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee 15 February 2017