Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Polish
Main religions: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Church, Protestantism
Poland is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous countries in Europe, a legacy in part of the Holocaust, continued racism in the post-1945 era, border shifts during the Soviet era and mass deportations of non-Polish residents. Today around 97 per cent of the population identifies as ethnically Polish, and 87 per cent per cent of the population belong to the Roman Catholic Church. However, with increasing migration from Ukraine and other countries, this is likely to change in the future.
Poland’s minorities have been reluctant to self-identify in official surveys due to widespread suspicion about how the data will be used. Poland’s last census, conducted in 2011, was the first to allow respondents the option of multiple identification by asking respondents to answer the questions ‘What is your nationality?’ and also ‘Do you feel you also belong to another nationality or ethnicity?’. The results found that groups primarily identifying with a non-Polish identity included Silesians 435,750 (1.1 per cent), Germans 74,464 (0.2 per cent), Kashubians 17,746 (0.05 per cent), Belarusians 36,399 (0.1 per cent), Ukrainians 38,387 (0.1 per cent), Roma 12,560, Lemkos 7,086, Lithuanians 5,599, Russians 8,203, Slovaks 2,294, Jews 2,488, Tatars 1,000, Czechs 1,307, and Armenians 2,971.
A significant number of other respondents identified with secondary non-Polish nationalities or ethnicities. The total for these groups, identifying as either primary or secondary nationalities, were Silesians 846,719 (2.2 per cent), Kashubians 232,547 (0.6 per cent), Germans 147,814 (0.4 per cent), Belarusians 46,787 (0.1 per cent), Ukrainians 51,001 (0.1 per cent), Roma 17,049, Lemkos 10,531, Lithuanians 7,863, Russians 13,046, Jews 7,508, Armenians 3,623, Czechs 3,447, Slovaks 3,240 and Tatars 1,916. A considerable number of respondents (around 521,000) did not provide any ethnic or national identity.
The country’s minorities are classified into three main categories: national minorities, mostly defined as groups associated with a nearby kin-state (German, Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Lithuanian, Russian, along with Armenian and Jewish), ethnic minorities (Tatar, Karaim, Lemko and Roma) and regional minorities (Kashub). Silesians, while comprising the largest minority group, are not recognized as either an ethnic or national minority.
Kashubs (or Kaszubs) live concentrated in north-central Poland, along the Baltic Sea coast. They speak a regional language, and while Kashubs consider themselves to be of Polish nationality, some regard themselves as belonging to a separate ethnic group. The government does not recognize Kashub as an ethnicity.
The German, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Russian, Slovak and Czech minorities live concentrated near Poland’s borders with their respective national homelands. The government previously considered Lemko Ruthenians (or Lemkos) as Ukrainians, but now recognizes them as a distinct ethnic minority. In 1947 communist authorities forcibly dispersed much of the group throughout Poland and Ukraine.
Updated July 2018
While Poland has adopted a range of human rights legislation since joining the EU in 2004, much of it focused on the protections of its minorities, there has in recent years been a rise in right-wing political organizations and the mainstreaming of nationalistic rhetoric within the media. This has been reflected in the increasing frequency of discriminatory violence against minorities on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity and nationality. According to official data, the number of reported hate crimes based on race and xenophobia appears to have increased substantially, with 120 recorded incidents of targeted physical violence in 2016, compared to 54 in 2015. While some of this increase may be attributed to the steps that Poland has taken to improve victims and witness reporting of hate crime incidents to police, there is no doubt that increasing hostility both at an official level and among many Poles has driven this rise. Typically, those most often targeted are Muslim, Roma, of Middle Eastern origin or black.
In particular, the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe has intensified xenophobic attitudes towards Muslims, especially given the limited efforts of Polish authorities to curb Islamophobic sentiment, with some politicians actively engaging in hate speech against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers. This hostility has not only threatened newly arrived Muslims, many of them fleeing conflict, but also placed the country’s long established Muslim population, such as its Tatar minority, in an increasingly precarious situation. This is underpinned by increasing misconceptions of the demographic share of Muslims in Poland, with a 2016 IPSOS survey finding that Polish respondents believed that Muslims made up around 7 per cent of the country – despite in reality making up just 0.1 per cent of the population. These fears have been exacerbated by the flow of millions of refugees into Europe, many of them Muslim, though in reality Poland itself has not seen a large influx.
These perceptions have contributed to widespread prejudice towards Muslims, particularly migrants, with research published by Chatham House in early 2017 finding that 71 per cent of respondents surveyed in Poland agreed that migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been expressed not only in individual criminal acts, from verbal harassment to desecration of mosques, but also in increasingly prominent large-scale anti-Muslim demonstrations, including a mass rally in Kraków in September 2015. In November 2017, the official Independence Day celebrations were overshadowed by the largest far-right demonstration in years, with an estimated 60,000 people attending. Many demonstrators shouted racist chants and brandished banners with xenophobic slogans expressing fascist and anti-refugee sentiments.
Poland has long-standing issues with anti-Semitism, and with the rise of right-wing nationalism, anti-Semitic incidents are ongoing. Poland once had the largest Jewish population in the world, though only 10 per cent survived the Holocaust under Nazi occupation during the World War II, with many survivors subsequently leaving the country in the wake of further anti-Semitic violence. Recent incidents targeting Jewish communities have included hate speech in the media as well as attacks against Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. There have also been xenophobic incidents at sporting events, including anti-Semitic banners.
In early 2018, the Polish parliament approved a bill making it illegal to refer to Polish state complicity during the Holocaust. An amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, the bill read, ‘whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years’. The Polish Jewish community issued an open letter shortly after the bill’s adoption, stating that threats towards the community had increased considerably since the government had proposed the law change. Following an international outcry, the legislation was subsequently amended in July 2018 and the criminal penalty removed. However, the rest of the bill remains in place and has been widely seen as a reflection of growing nationalism and anti-Semitic sentiment in the country.
Although support for minority languages has increased in recent years there are still ongoing concerns regarding levels of provision. While the official language in Poland is Polish, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has recommended that more support be allocated to minority language teaching in the education system. More support is also needed within broadcast media for all minority languages.
Updated July 2018
The Republic of Poland is bounded to the north by the Baltic Sea and the enclave of Kaliningrad (Russian Federation), to the north-east by Lithuania, to the east by Belarus, to the south-east by Ukraine, to the west by Germany and to the south by Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The creation of a unified Polish state was consolidated in CE 966 by the Piast dynasty’s acceptance of Christianity. With that dynasty’s demise in the fourteenth century, the Polish throne passed to the Duke of Lithuania, Władysław II Jagiełło. The rule of the Jagiellonian dynasty, considered the ‘golden age’ of Poland, lasted until the end of the sixteenth century. The Union of Lublin in 1569 united the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland into the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. After the death of the last Jagiellonian king in 1572 no dynasty maintained itself for long. The participation of the entire nobility in royal elections frequently led to contested elections and civil wars.
Three successive partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) by Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary resulted in its disappearance from the map of Europe. During this period the occupying powers subjected the population to intense processes of Russification and Germanization. Poland regained independence in 1918. At that time ethnic minorities constituted some 34.5 per cent of the country’s population. Estimates suggest that within its borders lived some 5,000,000 Ukrainians (16 per cent), 3,000,000 Jews (9 per cent), 2,000,000 Belarusians (6 per cent) and 800,000 Germans (2.5 per cent). Russians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Roma and other minority groups constituted about 300,000 (1 per cent).
On 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and thus precipitated World War II. The German invasion was followed on 17 September by a Soviet invasion of eastern Poland under previously agreed terms of the German–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. This fourth partition of Poland lasted until June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union and German troops overran the entire territory of Poland. During their occupation of Poland, the Nazis methodically exterminated a large part of the population by massacres and starvation and in extermination camps such as Auschwitz (Oświęcim) and Majdanek. The worst fate was reserved for Polish Jews – about 3 million perished in concentration camps. Only an estimated 100,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. Many of these emigrated to Israel, the United States, or elsewhere after the war.
At the end of World War II in 1945, the borders of Poland were moved some 500 kilometres westwards. As a result of the loss of substantial territories in the east, 489,000 of the 600,000 Ukrainians on Polish soil were moved by the new Polish authorities to the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1946, along with an estimated 36,000 Belarusians. The extension of Polish territory to the west resulted in the dispossession and expulsion of about 3,200,000 Germans between 1945 and 1949. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of these dispossessed Germans died from exposure, hunger or other consequences of their expulsion.
As a result of the movements of peoples in the aftermath of the war, Poland became one of the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous countries in Europe. The new communist authorities feared resistance from the Ukrainian minority, and in 1947, with assistance from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, forcibly redistributed around 200,000 Ukrainians and Lemkos throughout the country, and in particular to areas in north-west Poland from which ethnic Germans were being expelled.
In the 1980s, the Catholic Church and trade union movement presented a growing challenge to the communist regime, which was eventually overthrown in the wave of revolutions that swept Central and Eastern Europe in 1989-1990.
In May 2004 Poland joined the European Union. After joining the EU, Poland introduced a range of minority-focussed legislation to support Roma, Jews and other minorities in the country. However, despite this progressive agenda, there has been a backlash in recent years with the rise of an increasingly exclusionary political nationalism. This has most clearly been seen in the development of anti-Muslim sentiment across the country.
In 2010 there was the first major anti-Muslim protest concerning the building of a mosque. Since then, Poland’s political slide towards right-wing nationalism has become increasingly evident, particularly in the build-up to the 2015 elections, subsequently won by the conservative Law and Justice party. This campaign saw anti-Muslim rhetoric move from the margins to the mainstream in public discourse through various political actors, with animosity particularly oriented towards refugees and asylum seekers in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis.
There have, however, historically existed small Muslim minorities in Poland. During the Soviet era Muslim minorities were reduced in number due to borders being redrawn, though some also emigrated at this time. Despite fears of a rise in Muslim immigration in Poland, especially from 2015 onwards, numbers have remained small at just 0.1 percent of the population.
In the post-communist period Poland became a functioning democracy, with a president and bicameral parliament. The president appoints a prime minister, subject to approval by the lower house of parliament, the Sejm. The electoral law requires that parties reach a five per cent threshold to attain membership in the Sejm and Senate, but there is an exception for recognized national minorities.
During the 1990s Poland entered into bilateral agreements with its neighbours on the protection of Germans, Belarusians and Ukrainians in Poland. In the lead up to its EU accession in May 2004, Poland made efforts to support national minorities and their cultures, including through legislative provisions in such fields as the educational and electoral systems, and through the August 2003 adoption of the Programme for the Roma Community. Efforts have also been made to solve the issues linked to monuments and cemeteries affecting many national minorities, including Germans, Jews, Karaites, Lemkos and Ukrainians. National minorities, including the Armenians, Belarusians, Russians, Slovaks and Ukrainians, have made demands for the establishment and support for cultural centres, museums and libraries.
Notwithstanding the range of minorities within the country, Poland remains one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous states within the EU. Poland has taken some positive measures such as the implementation of EU equality directives in 2010 with the Anti-Discrimination Act, primarily concerned with employment discrimination, as well as the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012. However, there are ongoing concerns regarding racism and discrimination towards minorities in Poland such as Roma, Jews and those of African and Asian descent.
Following its accession to the EU, Poland implemented the Programme for the Roma Community from 2004-2013 with a focus on education, health, housing, culture and employment. However, there are still ongoing issues with poor standards of housing, and high levels of unemployment and drop-outs from schooling amongst the Roma community.
Poland passed the Act on National and Ethnic Minorities and on the Regional Languages in 2005. This Act provides support for minority languages in areas heavily populated by specified national and ethnic minorities, and as of 2011 place names in minority languages had been introduced in 740 localities alongside the Polish equivalent. The Act also has provisions for education, culture and freedom of religion for minorities. This includes formal protections for hate speech against minority religions.
The Council for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was set up in 2013 to improve reporting and coordination between relevant government agencies in Poland. However, this Council was abolished by the directive of the Prime Minister in 2016.
Updated July 2018
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Organization of Ukrainian Youth ‘Plast’
Polish Union of Jewish Students (Polska Unia Studentów Żydowskich)
Socio-Cultural Association of Czechs and Slovaks
Union of Ukrainians in Poland
Association of Roma in Poland