Young Poles in Times of Dramatic Change: Refugees, Identity and Social Engagement
Young people have experienced profound changes in the way Polish national identity is expressed in public since the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) gained far-reaching control of Polish politics in 2015. This report examines young people’s political attitudes in conjunction with their views on the arrival of over two million refugees from Ukraine in 2022, and their views on those refugees who have been trying to get into the EU through the Polish- Belarusian border since 2021. Views on both events allow us to better understand young people’s sense of Polishness. Moreover, opinions on national history are central to understandings of identity, as are young people’s perceptions of Poland’s place in Europe.
The fears and uncertainties young Poles express are analysed in an original online survey conducted in March 2022 among 2 002 respondents aged 16–34, combined with insights from focus group discussions conducted in May 2022 among a set of young participants and participants aged 65 and older in the cities of Gdańsk and Lublin. Such a combination of methodologies allows unique insights into the reasoning behind the patterns that a survey can identify.
The key findings are as follows:
- Nearly half of young people state that Poland should let in as many refugees from Ukraine as necessary. The presence of Ukrainians in Poland since the start of the war in Ukraine in 2014 and the resulting personal contacts are an important factor in the welcoming attitude to and support for the Ukrainian refugees who have arrived since February 2022.
- There is also overall approval for the political support for Ukraine, in particular when it comes to supplying humanitarian assistance. In addition, nearly 15 % of respondents support the deployment of Polish soldiers to Ukraine.
- The welcoming attitude vis-à-vis Ukrainian refugees stands in stark contrast to the support for the pushbacks of the mostly Muslim refugees who have tried to enter Poland via Belarus since 2021. The relative ethnic and religious homogeneity of Poland that resulted from World War II feeds into fear of others, particularly Muslims. There is, moreover, rather low support for granting those refugees the right to apply for asylum, with only 9 % of young people stating that these people should definitely have the right to apply.
- Gender is crucial when it comes to understanding the different views on the refugees coming from Ukraine and the Middle East. Women are more likely to want to see refugees from Ukraine return as soon as it becomes possible to Ukraine, whereas men are more likely to support a hard line on refugees at the border with Belarus.
- Despite the current government’s involvement in memory politics, the common Polish-Ukrainian history is practically unknown to young Poles, and even when it is known it is considered largely irrelevant. Ukraine and Belarus are for young Poles a different ‘Eastern Europe’ than the Central Europe they feel part of.
- The informal help that Polish people, including the younger generation, have offered to refugees from Ukraine is hard to quantify. Many offered accommodation in their own homes, transportation, or help in settling in, but few would consider this ‘humanitarian aid’ in the early phase of the war.
- Resentment and fear are among the key emotions driving the opinions and sentiments of many young people when they talk about their attitudes towards refugees and related changes in Polish society and politics. Young Poles, and particularly young women, are significantly more concerned about welfare issues such as access to childcare, healthcare, and the situation on the job market than people of their grandparents’ generation. These fears and uncertainties underpin assessments of politics and attitudes towards ethnic and social diversity in Poland.