Discussions / War Against Ukraine

Friday, March 11, 2022

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Over 1.3 million people have arrived in Poland as of March 10, with so many coming to Warsaw that they now constitute 10% of the city’s population. Poles have answered with an outpouring of generosity on an unprecedented scale. Yet there has been a troubling undercurrent to this story that must not be ignored.

In recent years there has been a push among scholars in our field to grapple with the role of race in the region’s history. Such efforts have often received pushback from those who say we are imposing American analytical categories where they do not apply. The events of the past year, however, cannot be explained without recognizing the power of racial categories.

Last summer and fall, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere appeared on Poland’s eastern border, cynically deposited there as a provocation by the Belarusian president, Aliaksandar Lukashenka. Jarosław Kaczyński, the de facto ruler of Poland, responded by declaring martial law along the border, turning back all those seeking asylum, making it a crime to provide any aid to these refugees, and allowing only journalists from the pro-government state media to report on the situation.

Today, just a few hours’ drive to the south, people are being welcomed into Poland by the hundreds of thousands, often without even needing to show documentation. We now have a situation in which volunteers who provide assistance to (white) refugees in one part of the country are treated as heroes, while those who provide the very same assistance to (non-white) refuges in another part of the country face detention by the military.

A majority of Poles (58% as of December) supported the government’s policies blocking the admission of asylum seekers coming from Afghanistan, Syria, or Africa (33% disagreed). Meanwhile, a survey taken immediately prior to the Russian invasion revealed that 56% of Poles approved of accepting refugees from Ukraine, with 22% disapproving. On March 9 the Polish parliament passed a law, with a vote of 439 to 12, granting citizens of Ukraine 18 months residency, along with access to the same social services (health care, education, child support, etc.) that Polish citizens receive. None of those benefits are available to those escaping this war (or any other war) who are not Ukrainian citizens.

It is understandable that many Poles have considered race irrelevant to their country: after all, in the (almost total) absence of racial minorities, how could there be racial discrimination? Yet as we can see so clearly in this example, racial categorizations can thrive even when few people inhabit those categories.

None of this should diminish the efforts to help those fleeing Putin’s aggression. Instead, we can hope that this might be a moment of reckoning for at least some of those who opposed accepting refugees several months ago. In the words of Polish MEP Janina Ochojska, this might inspire people to “stop differentiating between refugees because of where they come from, what color their skin is, and who is more ‘deserving’ of aid.” 

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