Since February 24, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, millions of Ukrainian refugees, mostly women with children and the elderly, have crossed the Poland-Ukraine border. According to the Polish border guard, a month after the conflict began, the number of refugees who entered Poland exceeds 2.3 million. Such a social and political change is challenging in its own right, but the dangerous speech that has targeted the refugees from the moment their exodus began makes matters even more difficult.
To the west and southwest, Ukraine borders five countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova; however, it is the 535-kilometer-long Polish-Ukrainian border that the majority of refugees decide to cross. Some of them continue farther west, but most of them choose to stay in Poland. There are several reasons for this. First, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians immigrated to Poland after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, so there was already a large and relatively well-established Ukrainian diaspora in Poland before the aggression of 2022. Second, the nations of Poland and Ukraine are culturally compatible – their languages are similar, the countries used to be part of the same political entity, and in modern, post-communist times, the countries frequently cooperate, organizing UEFA Euro 2012 football championships together, for example.
Most importantly though, individual Polish people have shown Ukrainians compassion and offered them hospitality, and the government has followed suit. There are many initiatives, both private and public, to help the refugees. People spontaneously mobilized for help: donated money, gave shelter in their homes, prepared meals, organized transport, and offered supplies and medicine. State-funded aid is also being distributed.
This willingness to help might be attributed to the fact that, as an MSNBC report fittingly captioned it, Poland is “no stranger to Russian aggression”. Those born before 1989 remember the times of the People’s Republic of Poland – a communist state that emerged after the end of WWII, and was politically dependent on Russia (then USSR). Therefore, Russian imperialism is a threat that many Polish people understand and, given the current political situation, also fear.
Accompanying the Ukrainian refugees was an increase in anti-refugee propaganda. In the first days of the Russian invasion, Poland’s Government Center for Security released a warning, calling the public’s attention to six “false narratives” that might be employed to turn Polish public opinion against the Ukrainians:
- Ukrainian refugees will change the demographics of Poland, and Polish people will become second-class citizens.
- The border guard does not control the borders, criminals are coming through.
- Ukrainian refugees will harass the Poles.
- Ukrainian refugees will bring crime and illnesses.
- Ukrainian refugees will take welfare money that should be given to Polish families and children.
- Ukrainian refugees will be too great a burden to the Polish economy.
Their predictions were correct, and in the following days, messages mirroring these “false narratives” circulated online, many promoted by former COVID misinformation groups and accounts thought to be administered by the Russians. Among the numerous messages were posts about refugees raping Polish women in Przemyśl, a city near the Polish-Ukrainian border. False rumors of refugees raping women is a common example of dangerous speech, illustrating the dangerous speech hallmark of “assertion of attack on women”. This narrative was also present in the far-right Polish discourse surrounding the wave of migration from Syria in 2015 and 2016, although Poles reacted to the dangerous speech of the time quite differently. There are likely a variety of reasons for this, including the fact that the 2015 conflict was more unknown and distant than the current crisis.
The current anti-Ukrainian dangerous speech also included an infographic that presented uneven distribution of social welfare – showing Ukrainian refugees receiving significantly more financial help than Polish citizens. Another case of potentially dangerous speech was a press conference about Ukrainian immigration called “Yes for help, no for privileges”, organized by Konfederacja, a far-right political party. The theme of privileges was also visible in the reaction to the Arka Gdynia professional football club’s charity initiative, which offered Ukrainian refugees free tickets for a match with GKS Katowice. This move was criticized by some fans as, in their view, the refugees were enjoying ‘all-inclusive holidays’ and ‘got everything for free’.
The abovementioned speech acts are just a handful of examples of what is already a worrying trend. The Institute of Internet and Social Media Research indicates that there are about 10.000 social media accounts that distribute anti-Ukrainian propaganda and that the anti-refugee narrative has “a narrative advantage” over the pro-refugee one.
Fortunately, so far this has not changed the behavior of the Poles. As of publication, no major incidents of physical violence against the refugees have been reported and the outpour of sympathy and help has not stopped. However, it is not certain whether such an attitude will be permanent – a deliberately caused, long-time refugee crisis might be one of the ways to weaken support given to Ukraine by countries most affected by it.
For now, however, the support for Ukraine continues. The counterspeech that has followed most of the anti-Ukrainian messages may be one contributing factor to this. For example, the alleged rape incidents were officially denied by the Polish Police, and, in a similar vein, the welfare inequalities were denied by the Polish Research and Academic Computer Network. The “Yes for help, no for privileges” conference was unanimously boycotted by all mainstream media and was only available on the official channels of the Konfederacja political party. And lastly, Arka Gdynia bluntly addressed their embittered fans, asking them to post their names in the comments section so they could be given free tickets as well. Such reactions require considerable effort, but seem indispensable as the war in Ukraine is not only fought on the battlefields, but also in the minds of public opinion.
Paweł Trzaskowski is a Polish scholar based at the University of Warsaw and Polish Radio, and a 2020/21 DSP Global Research Initiative Fellow. He holds a doctor’s degree in applied linguistics. His academic work focuses on language pragmatics, especially the phenomenon of unethical speech. His latest work concerns the manipulative and toxic language of online comments and dangerous speech that targeted Silesians infected with COVID-19.