Poland favours Christian refugees from Syria
Some EU states select churchgoing refugees for resettlement in contentious policy
What Adnan Saad remembers from his home in Damascus are bombings in his neighbourhood and constant fear for his relatives. That is why he likes his new life in Warsaw — everyone walks freely in the streets and the government cares for human lives.
While hundreds of his compatriots attempt a perilous journey across land and sea to reach Europe, Mr Saad was bought a plane ticket to Poland a month ago. There, with his wife and infant daughter, he has a house, free language courses, medical care and spending money.
Why has he been so lucky? Because Mr Saad and his family are Christians.
As hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and poverty in Africa risk their lives to reach the safety of Europe, some eastern European states are embarking on a contentious strategy of selecting only Christian refugees for resettlement.
Poland agreed to accept 50 Christian families from Syria under an initiative led by a private organisation and agreed by the prime minister.
Slovakia has said it will take 200 refugees from the war-torn country, but only if they are devout churchgoers. The Czech Republic applied the same criteria to 70 families granted asylum this year.
“They [non-Christian refugees] can be a threat to Poland. I think it is a great way for Isis to locate their troops . . . all around Europe,” said Miriam Shaded, head of Estera, the Polish foundation that arranged the selection and immigration of Mr Saad’s and 49 other families into Poland.
“And if these people are not Isis representatives, [in Syria] their lives are not in danger, so then it is labour migration. If they are Muslim, they will not be killed because they are Muslims, because they believe in the same as Isis.”
The war in Syria, which began in 2011, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more, contributing to a surge in refugees that saw 110,000 enter Europe in July alone, the highest ever monthly total.
Germany has said it expects to accept 800,000 refugees this year, more than all EU states combined in 2014, and has called on fellow European countries to help share the resettlement burden.
But eastern European states, including Poland and Slovakia, led a move to block a proposal this year for all EU members to split 40,000 refugees between them on a mandatory basis.
Warsaw has since agreed to accept 2,000 refugees from Syria and Eritrea, 1,600 fewer than under the proposed plan, starting from next year, but only on a voluntary basis.
A spokesman for the country’s Office for Foreigners said that the resettlement programme would be organised in line with UN High Commissioner for Refugees standard operating procedures, but that “their religious background will have [an] impact on their refugee status applications”.
“When we talk about migration, we are talking about people, people like you and I,” Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said in a thinly veiled criticism of eastern Europe’s resistance to accepting refugees. “Except they are not like you and I because they did not have the good fortune to be born in one of the richest and most stable areas in the world.”
Selected by his church, Mr Saad met the stringent criteria demanded by his Christian benefactors. But his brother and sister are in Turkey, he says, after a failed attempt to reach Europe by boat saw them rescued by the Red Cross. “Now they are in custody and my brother is ill . . . People are desperate to get out . . . [This is a huge tragedy], especially for the Christians,” he said.
The Polish foundation plans to bring in 250 more Christian families from September, provided they can raise the funds needed to fly them to Poland and find them housing.
“It is obvious that these people are safe because they come from selected churches,” said Ms Shaded of the 50 families, whose foundation provides 2,600 zloty (£440) a month in spending money. The government provides medical care. “[They had to show], among others, their certificate of baptism, the recommendation from the clergyman, information about their health.”
When asked why Estera would accept only Christian refugees, Ms Shaded described Muslim immigrants as a “huge threat” to Polish citizens. “It is not the religion, it is a system . . . which deprives people from their freedoms and which is close to totalitarian system,” she said. “A lot of people who believe in Islam are criminals
Announcing the decision to accept the 50 Estera-selected families, Ewa Kopacz, Poland’s prime minister, said: “Today Christians who are being persecuted in a barbaric fashion in Syria deserve Christian countries like Poland to act fast to help them.”
Like many eastern European states, Poland’s reluctance to accept large numbers of refugees stems from a fear of social unrest. A recent survey showed that 70 per cent of the population were against accepting refugees under the proposed EU quota, including 36 per cent of those who are “strongly against”.
The most homogenous country in Europe, Poland is dominated by Christianity, with almost 90 per cent of Poles declared Catholics. A quarter of Poles believe that foreigners account for more than 10 per cent of the country’s population, according to surveys. The real figure is 1 per cent.
“From the beginning . . . everyone has been helping just Muslims,” said Mr Saad in an interview in Warsaw. “It is not fair for the Christian people . . . Maybe it is because they are in majority, and we are not.”
“We hope they [other Christians] will manage to escape,” he said.