I’ve been watching the refugee crisis unfold for months now. The crisis has many different dimensions: political, economic and cultural but the underlying theme is fear. Fear - this widespread irrational force that has been dormant in European societies for many years – basically since the end of World War II and, for some countries, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Widespread fear that makes us question the idea of solidarity and our own identity. It’s particularly true when we look at the newcomers in the European Union – members of the Wyszehrad Group including Poland. What do people in these societies fear and why do they protest so violently against those who show up on their border despite having been emigrants themselves for so many years?
Fear, as Karen Thomas Walker says, is our stories about the future(1). It’s unintentional storytelling that goes on in our minds. We are both the writers and the readers of our fears. She uses the whaleship Essex to illustrate the point. When the ship sank in 1819, far away from the shore, the castaways trapped in their tiny lifeboats faced a dire choice: they could sail to the nearby Marquesas Islands but they had heard rumors that the islands were populated by cannibals, they could sail to Florida but the stormy season was about to begin and their rafts would probably perish in the storm and finally to sail over 1500 miles to the coast of South America risking that they’d run out of food long before reaching the land. Each option represented a story. They were choosing between stories of the future and the choice they finally made can teach us a lot about the nature of our fears today.
In the last couple of weeks Poland has witnessed one of the biggest debates in its modern history: the debate that has left no one neutral, everyone took sides. That was the case in western countries as well but in Poland there was something striking about the ferocity of the debate and the level of this debate: those who were against accepting immigrants started spreading messages of such hatred that many very liberal newspapers including Gazeta Wyborcza were forced to close the comment section and threaten to prosecute authors of the hate-filled comments. This is the first time in modern history that any topic has caused such division, regardless of how people identify themselves on the political spectrum. Poland is a very homogenous society where the population of immigrants constitutes less than 0,1%. Most Poles have never met a Muslim(80%) and yet 73% declare they have a negative attitude towards them(2).
How come educated people from a free and relatively wealthy country could feel such fear and express such an overwhelming amount of hatred? To answer this question we must first look at the context and the moment in history that Poland has reached.
This year we’ve proudly celebrated 25 years of transformation. It was a year of debates and forums where we had a lot to say about the past - success stories about our economy and progress we’ve made since 1989 in all possible rankings but we stumbled whenever asked about the future. We find questions about the future annoying, disquieting and often inappropriate. After 25 years of transformation and momentum we’re at this stage where we can no longer define ourselves as a former soviet republic which succeeded despite years of centralized economy and communism. We’ve come to a point where what got us here, won’t get us there. Our past can no longer define us or motivate us and we can already see the symptoms in the economy. We’ve come to a point where we need to embrace the future and find new engines of growth. This is also a moment when we feel particularly vulnerable. And in this vulnerability refugees and the immigration crisis are defined. It’s this vulnerability that fuels our fears and prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.
Choosing the story
Back to the whaleship Essex. The castaways ignored the most likely outcome: death from starvation and opted for the longest journey because they were so afraid of the unlikely but vivid in imagery death by cannibals. The last survivors that were picked up had by then resorted to cannibalism.
I think Eastern European countries are at a point where they get to choose between stories as well. Stories we tell ourselves about immigrants – the one that has been fed to us by the media images and right wing politicians is the story of cannibals – terrorists who will flood our country, start blowing up buildings and forcing women to cover their heads. It’s powerful, vivid, scary and feeds on ignorance. The other story is more subtle. It’s a story of isolation, lost opportunities and skill shortages that the Eastern Europe will experience if they choose the policy of closed doors.
Economic arguments are overwhelming: Eastern European countries suffer from the plague of skill gap resulting in underserved hospitals where there aren’t enough doctors and nurses to treat the patients. There are only 5 nurses per 1000 citizens in Poland compared to 13 in Germany. IT sector reported that in 2014 alone it needed 50 000 IT specialists more than it could find and when we look at the demographics and budget deficit the future of these countries without immigrants looks grim(3).
Yet when we look at the attitudes in Europe we see that most people still refuse to look at the data and their perceptions are skewed by vivid media imagery and populist agenda. It’s especially shocking to see Polish attitudes since Poland hasn’t seen any immigrants just yet. Unlike Italy, Greece and Hungary we don’t have overcrowded refugee camps(4).
Much like the castaways from the whaleship Essex we’re biased towards a less likely but a more scary story.
Each generation has its defining moment. It’s the moment in history where they take responsibility and action to shape the future. For our parents it was the transformation and solidarity movement of the 1980’s-1990’s and for people aged 20-35 it could be the immigration crisis. Our reaction as citizens will determine the direction in which Poland will go. It will define our identity for years to come. After all there is only so much that governments and institutions can do about immigrants. The decision has been made, steps have been taken, procedures are in place and the funds have been guaranteed. Now the immigration crisis is a big test for civic society - particularly from Eastern and Central Europe where civic society and grass-root movements are still in diapers. Are we going to get scared of potential cannibals(potential terrorists) and revert to our old ways or see the opportunity in disguise and embrace it ? Are citizens of Poland and other Eastern European countries going to open their doors and work with the refugees to make them feel at home?
Some fears are justified of course. Refugees do come from cultures very different from our own and although historically Poland has experienced cultural diversity it was too long ago for today’s society to remember it. We will need to relearn how to live with cultural differences and how to turn them into productive force. The fears and worries that the immigration crisis has created should mobilize us to prepare for changes rather than succumb to denial and paralysis. Poland is not in danger of being flooded by refugees thanks to its geopolitical location. The Polish government has agreed to accommodate 7000 refugees, mostly from Syria and Eritrea. For a country of over 38 million people it’s a drop in the ocean. But it’s a drop that shouldn’t go unnoticed but rather serve as a trigger for greater responsibility and inclusion which one can only hope will define our society in the future.
1.) Survey results
2.) Karen Thomas Walker „What fear can teach us”
3.) The Economist „More vacancies than visitors”
4.) PEW research