Strong Economy and Catholic Outlook Lead to Poland’s Expanded International Role
Deputy foreign minister says his country, the homeland of John Paul II, stands for the rights of the oppressed.
The Law and Justice Party (PiS) has governed Poland since 2015 and retained control of the powerful Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, in mid-October parliamentary elections. PiS has implemented policies premised on Catholic social teaching and national identity, while resisting leftist values and ideologies popular in the West.
It also corrected the shock-therapy economic experiments inspired by World Bank/International Monetary Fund programs prevalent after 1989, such as the abrupt privatization of publicly owned properties and natural resources and the instantaneous eradication of tariffs and state subsidies, which led to an exodus of millions of impoverished Polish people from the country. With Poland’s more than 5% annual growth in 2018 and unemployment down from 8% to 3% since 2015, PiS has been able to pursue family-friendly social policies while expanding Poland’s development assistance to others.
For instance, the government expanded benefits for families with children in the nation of 39 million, lowered the retirement age, and restricted shopping on Sundays. It renationalized parts of the financial sector and also expanded its presence abroad, especially to benefit Christians in the Middle East, as well as refugees from the Syrian war.
From the start, PiS resisted the European Union’s attempt to force each EU country, including Poland, to accept a quota of migrants who surged into Europe. Instead, the PiS developed a program of “on-site” aid to help Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq — people hoping to return to their own country.
Register senior international correspondent Victor Gaetan interviewed Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, 34, to learn more about the country’s assistance to refugees in the Middle East as well as to Ukrainians in need closer to home but similarly harmed by war.
I understand the Polish government is providing aid to Christians in the Middle East. What is the nature of this support?
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, we have done our utmost to help people in need in the Middle East. Poland is a country deeply attached to the values of individual liberties and human rights, including freedom of conscience and religion, rooted in our history of religious tolerance and countless struggles to defy repression, totalitarian regimes and violence.
Being the homeland of John Paul II, [Poland is] among the front-line countries to stand for the rights of the oppressed. In the Middle East and many other parts of the world, these oppressed groups are very often Christian communities. Although, both Polish development and humanitarian aid goes to those in need, regardless of their religion, we are well aware that Christians cannot always count on efficient support from other governments. That’s why Polish aid is provided on-site, that is, in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Please tell us more about your government’s activities.
Polish aid in response to the Syrian crisis reached over $34 million in 2016, over $40 million in 2017 and in 2018, about $36 million.
In Jordan, we implement mainly shelter projects. In the past, we also delivered psychological care for refugees, voucher-based food assistance and socio-educational projects for youth. Currently, Caritas Polska provides shelter to non-camp Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians in four provinces. The Polish Medical Mission provides medical assistance to Syrian refugees and Jordanians, especially women and children living in underserved areas. Our activities will continue in 2020.
During his visit to Jordan a few years ago, President Andrzej Duda visited projects conducted by Caritas Polska and met with refugees. We are very active in Jordan, thanks to very good relations with the government, in particular with King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein.
In Lebanon, Poland supports humanitarian projects that focus on providing shelter and winterization activities, as well as medical care. We also provide direct financial aid via the “Cash for Rent” project, which is a targeted grant, meant to secure living quarters for Syrian refugees. The program, offered to the poorest Syrian refugees, increases their ability to rent shelters from the Lebanese. The main beneficiaries of the project are Syrian refugees who migrated to northern Lebanon between 2012 and 2014. The project includes 975 families of Syrian refugees and 500 Lebanese families, who rent their shelters to them (6,385 people). The program prioritizes families living in higher-altitude locations, where winter temperatures are the lowest.
In Lebanon we also finance The Bire educational facility, constructed in 2016, which conducted classes for 600 Syrian children aged 7-15 in 2017-18, allowing them an easy transition to Lebanese schools. We do vocational training for young people after primary school. For Syrian refugees, this is one of the few opportunities to acquire professional qualifications for jobs such as nurses, pharmacists, electricians and computer specialists.
In Iraq, we have been present with humanitarian aid since 2014. In 2018, in response to the persecution of the Yazidi population, Poland financially supported a project for women and children focused on gaining economic independence. In Iraqi Kurdistan, we provide basic health services and emergency response.
Have these activities been a priority since President Duda took office in 2015?
The previous government was also quite active in the Middle East, but the political situation in the region was different. For the projects I mentioned, between 2016 and 2018, we spent $110 million, and we are very proud of that.
Is your government also active in helping people in the Middle East return to their homes?
It is a new situation. At the beginning of our government, the war in Syria was still going on, and the situation was very bad. Right now, it doesn’t look very much different. That’s why we do our utmost to assist all the people in need on-site in neighboring countries.
The EU has been very aggressive in pushing for a policy to bring more refugees to Europe and then to distribute them throughout the EU countries. Has Poland been successful in persuading Brussels to change its policies?
There was considerable discussion in Europe about how to tackle the problem of uncontrolled migration. Our approach, from the very beginning, was to provide help on-site or in neighboring countries. This approach, backed by Poland and other Visegrad Four countries [The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia], seems to have reached EU leaders. The problem with the system of quotas was that it forced refugees to settle in a particular country against their will. [Some] simply didn’t want to stay in Poland.
Making it possible for refugees to go back to their homeland is very important, also in the case of Christians. They have been present in the Middle East for over 2,000 years, and it seems unacceptable that they will disappear because of the ongoing conflicts. However, discrimination and persecution of Christians is a growing challenge, and according to statistics, Christians are victims of about 80% of attacks on religious grounds. In the Middle East, in Iraq and Syria, the escalation of violence and violations of human rights on the grounds of religion or belief reached an unprecedented level.
You are a devout Catholic, and so are many members of your government and your party. What role has the Catholic dimension played in the work that your government is doing?
Poland is a Catholic country. Over 90% of our population is Catholic. Christianity is very deeply rooted in our history, our approach and our ethics. I believe that since communism ended, every government [in Poland] has taken into account expectations of the people based on Christian values. So in many actions, those Christian values are visible and present.
Regarding Christians who, often, are not supported to such an extent as other religious groups are, we want to show our solidarity and make the problem visible for world leaders.
However, when it comes to helping those in danger because of brutal conflicts, we do not differentiate between religions. If you are in need, it does not matter if you are Christian, Muslim or Jewish. If you are in need, we are just trying to help you. Your faith doesn’t really matter [when it comes to who may receive aid].
I read Poland has accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian migrants and refugees. Most are not registered as refugees because they find jobs. How many Ukrainian migrants and refugees are in Poland today?
Yes, to be honest, it is really hard to count. Since there is a free-visa regime between EU and Ukraine, it is difficult to keep track of those going back and forth from Ukraine. But we estimate that currently in Poland there are about 1.5 million Ukrainian migrants. They came to find a job because of the weak economic situation in their country, which was also caused by the conflict in the Donbas region. So, at the end of the day, it was also incentivized by war.
We need to remember that there is an ongoing conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine. Since its outbreak, many Ukrainians have decided to come to Poland, and they did it for a wide array of reasons. Even Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission, has said lately that it is hard to ignore the fact that Poland has already welcomed 1.5 million people coming from the country where there is a hybrid war and where people are still dying. This is also the way Poland expresses solidarity with other European nations in the migration crisis.
Are Ukrainians who came to Poland mostly from the conflict area, from eastern Ukraine?
They are from all over Ukraine, to be honest, because the situation caused by the conflict reached the whole country. It’s not only in the eastern part of Ukraine; it is not only in Donbas; it is all over the country. Ukraine is spending a lot of money from its budget for the army. The social situation in Ukraine, because of this war, is bad, affecting each Ukrainian citizen.
The Ukrainian government passed a law “doing away with” the languages of minorities. Is Poland concerned about that discriminatory law?
We are aware of this legislation. It was done at the very end of the [Petro] Poroshenko [fifth president of Ukraine] parliamentary group’s time in power [2014-May 2019]. It was controversial. In Ukraine, there are Ukrainians, but there are many who speak other languages: Polish, Hungarian, Romanian. What we expect is that there will be a new law presented in parliament, which will defend minority languages. From the Polish government’s point of view, it is very important to secure the status of the Polish language in Ukraine.
How many Polish people are in Ukraine today, approximately?
It’s hard to count, again, because we’ve lived with Ukrainians for hundreds of years. Sometimes people identify themselves as Poles, and they don’t speak Polish; and on the other side, sometimes people speak Polish, but they feel Ukrainian. So it is really hard to say. I can’t give you a precise number, but there are thousands of Poles living all over Ukraine. After World War II, a significant number of Poles had to leave, but a lot are still there.
Register senior correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international