Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Poland: Sub-Saharan Africans and the struggle for acceptance
Poland, a country with a predominantly white population and, until recently, limited immigration, has seen the growth in recent years of a sizeable sub-Saharan African minority. This community, though present for decades, has now become a far more visible part of Polish society – a development that has brought significant opportunities in education and employment, but also some hostility from right-wing groups.
The roots of the contemporary sub-Saharan African population in Poland can be traced back to educational migration under the Communist regime, when the country strongly backed the anti-colonial movements in Africa as part of the larger Soviet strategy in the region. Although Poland until 1989 was a country from which a significant part of the population wanted to emigrate – and many found ways to do so, in spite of semi-closed borders – some African students chose it as their migration destination. Official statistics from this period show that the number of African graduates in the country increased steadily from just over 200 in the 1960s to almost 400 in the 1970s, rising to more than 700 during the 1980s. While most of the students returned to Africa after graduating, many found their second home in Poland, acquired jobs, established families and, in the process, became pioneers of an emerging African community in Poland.
The collapse of Communism in 1989, followed by Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004 and the post-accession agreements, led to the opening of the Polish borders. This produced not only a major wave of Polish emigration, resulting in an estimated 2.5 million Polish citizens now living outside the country, including 1 million in the United Kingdom (UK), but also attracted immigrants into the country. This included a sizeable number of sub-Saharan African citizens – not only students but also tourists, diplomats, business workers, professionals and refugees – who together now constitute a group of some 2,100 people. With Nigeria (34 per cent), South Africa (9 per cent) and Cameroon (8 per cent) as the main sending countries, growth in the last decade has been particularly pronounced, with the number of sub-Saharan Africans more or less doubling since 2010. As a result, the large majority of the community are less than 40 years old, with most coming to Poland as students – very few are registered as refugees.
The largest concentration of Africans in Poland is in the central region, particularly Warsaw, while smaller groups live in Lesser Poland, Łódź and Lower Silesia regions. As in the past, the majority of the African community in Poland is made up of students, with almost 1,200 sub-Saharan African students enrolled in Polish universities in the last year, almost half of whom were women – significantly higher than the proportion of women in the community as a whole. The substantial increase in the number of sub-Saharan African students has been linked not only to the growing internationalization of Polish universities, but also the extension of the Erasmus Programme to countries outside the EU, providing new funding opportunities for African students to come to Poland and other European countries.
Consequently, in a country that for decades has been defined by its ethnic homogeneity, Polish citizens are now coming into regular contact with this emerging minority. African immigrants often find themselves viewed through the perspective of ‘race’ rather than presented as citizens of Poland or another nation, due to their visible difference. This can leave them experiencing positive and welcoming attitudes from some Poles, who value the diversity their presence has brought to the country. In other instances, however, their experiences are shaped by the postcolonial legacy of popular misrepresentations that link Africa and blackness to negative stereotypes.
The ambiguity of Polish attitudes towards African immigrants is evident in the testimonies provided by Cédric, a long-time Polish resident from Nigeria, and Nafissah, a black student with a French-Cameroonian background who came to Poland on the Erasmus+ Programme. ‘It’s not been bad living here,’ Cédric says. ‘I’m like a celebrity among my Polish friends and I very much enjoy the attention I get as a black guy. So yes, I manage to get around without much problems.’ These sentiments are also echoed by Nafissah, who highlighted the constant attention she received in Poland, but who also believes that in many cases it was driven more by curiosity than hostility. ‘I still experience a lot of staring – this, I don’t mind from time to time, as many Polish people have never seen black people before.’
Both of them, like many other Africans in Poland, are seen as a rarity in Polish society – and this can also trigger a range of negative responses, including hate speech, insults and derogatory putdowns. The psychological impacts of this abuse can be substantial. Cédric for example, describes one distressing incident where he was targeted by a gang in public. ‘There was an evening I was going to the cinema with my Polish friends and as we approached the entrance, a group of Polish boys, about five of them, started shouting “Ebola! Ebola! Ebola!” [referring to the recent outbreak of Ebola, a killer virus, in Africa] and pointing at me. I was very upset and didn’t understand why these boys singled me out.’ Another time, as he was walking in the street, the passengers of a passing car pointed at him and called him ‘monkey’.
Nafissah has also had similar experiences of hostility from strangers. ‘One time when I was crossing a road, a man walking towards me gave me a very bad look, as if to ask: “What are you doing here?” I could see the disgust on his face.’ Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. ‘The issue that bothers me most is always on the bus, people stare at me on the bus and no one will sit next to me, with or without extra seats.’
These stories, while rooted in personal experience, also reflect a broader backdrop of Africa’s historic marginalization and its continued representation, in political discourse or the media, as a subordinate continent. This is evident in the ways Poles perceive Africa and project these perceptions onto black residents in Poland. Issues relating to Africa are often politicized, not only by the Polish ultra-right, but also by centrist and left-wing Polish politicians who may use the subject of migration from Africa as a political ploy.
Indeed, the racialization of Africans in contemporary Poland needs to be seen in the wider context of the unprecedented politicization of immigration in the last few years and the new dynamics of othering linked to the development of Polish nationalism. This issue is further exacerbated by the presence of the Polish ultra-right in the country’s parliament since 2015, and the alliance between conservative elements of the Polish Catholic Church and the ruling coalition. As a result, Poland made headlines in November 2017 with the spectacle of some 60,000 people marching under police escort through the streets of Warsaw, calling for a ‘pure’ and ‘white’ Poland.
However, members of the sub-Saharan African community in Poland have refused to back down under pressure from racist groups, but instead actively challenged these misrepresentations of their continent and community. Among other steps, they have established numerous NGOs devoted to this purpose – examples include the organizations Africa Another Way and Foundation for Somalia – as well as increasing their engagement in Polish politics. In the former National Assembly there were two black members of parliament of sub-Saharan African origin, with one still in place in the current government. In more subtle but important ways, Africans also challenge social perceptions through everyday interactions with other Polish residents. Although the number of Africans in the country is still small, they have become more visible in larger cities. As a result, they have begun to play an increasingly prominent role in the country’s economy, as many sub-Saharan African students after finishing their studies will then work for international companies in Poland.
Konrad Pędziwiatr and Bolaji Balogun