We talk to Rafał Cekiera, PhD, whose research interests focus on the sociology of migration, religion and culture.
Violetta Kulik: Migration of people has been occurring since the beginning of our species, and there can be many reasons for it. What is migration?
Rafał Cekiera, PhD: There are many definitions of migration, which corresponds to the plurality of its types. We intuitively understand that migration is a change of residence of individuals or groups. However, even such a general term raises questions, for example, how much time does one have to spent abroad in order to be considered a migrant. Of course, the context of international mobility is also of great importance. Temporary economic migration, for example, from Poland to the Netherlands, is one thing, while an attempt to improve one’s own fate – often in dramatic circumstances – by inhabitants of Africa or the Middle East, are quite another. You correctly emphasised that human migrations are inscribed in the history of our species. However, many researchers point out that the scale and scope of the current migration phenomena are unprecedented. This is influenced by many factors, among which the ease of travel and the digital revolution certainly occupy an important place. We must also remember about forced migrants, who migrated not because of their own decisions, but because of the dramatic circumstances in which they found themselves. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, currently 103 million people in the world have been forced to leave their homes and seek safe haven. Since these kinds of statistics have been kept, the number has never been so thrillingly high.
Violetta Kulik: What kind of support can immigrants in our country hope for?
Rafał Cekiera, PhD: In Poland, migration issues have recently become one of the absolutely key issues affecting many spheres of our lives. Accustomed to one migration direction for a long time – from Poland to the West – we have been experiencing a new situation for some time. Our country is becoming an attractive place for immigrants looking for opportunities to improve their living conditions or foreign students looking for a good education. All this requires the development of a responsible migration and integration policy. This task is still ahead of us. It is about creating such mechanisms that will be beneficial both for immigrants and for the host community. We benefit from the presence of immigrants in our country in many ways. I will just mention one purely economic indicator – according to NBP data, immigrants from Ukraine alone in 2020 contributed to the growth of Polish GDP by approximately 0.5 p.p. annually. Another issue that we must not forget is also the case of treatment of people who try to cross the Polish-Belarusan border. We should not get used to it and normalise this kind of practice. Understandable and obvious defense of borders does not have to be associated with inhumane treatment of people exploited by authoritarian regimes.
Violetta Kulik: Recently, we have been dealing with two unprecedented events that have left a significant mark on the situation of foreigners in Poland. First of them was the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic, the second was the war in Ukraine. How did these events influence migration to Poland and integration processes?
Rafał Cekiera, PhD: Based on the estimates of the Central Statistical Office in Poland (GUS), we can assume that at the end of February 2020 – just before the outbreak of the pandemic – there were about 2.2 million foreigners in Poland, of which about 1.4 million were citizens of Ukraine. The pandemic has brought us a huge sense of uncertainty. The resulting perturbations experienced by people living outside their own countries were twice as strong. They resulted not only from the psychologically burdensome fact of being far from relatives, but also from the measurable realities of living in the countries of residence. The pandemic regime, which inhibited mobility, had a particularly strong impact on industries such as transport, tourism, hotel and gastronomy – i.e. sectors where immigrants often find employment. For many foreign employees, the remote form was also problematic – the housing conditions and the available technological infrastructure were often a significant barrier to its performance. A separate issue, however, is the wartime terror that forced so many refugees (especially women refugees) to leave their homes and seek safe havens abroad. We became not only direct witnesses of the refugee drama, but also were able to react to it in a very specific way.
Violetta Kulik: Cas this reaction of Poles to the situation of refugees from Ukraine affect our relations?
Rafał Cekiera, PhD: It seems important to me to remember this fantastic, spontaneous outbursts of solidarity between Poles and Ukrainians after the outbreak of war, because it can actually change us. It was an important experience on many levels: it has broken various barriers, allowed people to discover that the helping one can unexpectedly become the one in need, and that helping in general gives a lot of fun. Let’s remember ourselves like that. I believe that this will motivate us, that even unfavourable attitudes towards others will soften: because we already know that this foreigner can really bring a lot of richness into our lives. Many great things are happening in our relations with Ukrainians who stay in Poland. Probably many of us could cite examples of such intercultural meetings, from which we also benefit.
Violetta Kulik: What is the most important thing to remember in integration processes?
Rafał Cekiera, PhD: Each newcomer – refugee or immigrant, student or employee – is a separate individual, arriving with his or her own baggage of life experiences, expectations and fears. As in every nation: among them there are people of different characters, not devoid of advantages and disadvantages. The sentence attributed to Max Frisch, maliciously commenting on ignoring the fundamental, human dimension of integration policies – “we were calling for manpower and people came” – reminds us of the need to go beyond the narrow perspective of the needs of the host community in the analysis of migration phenomena. Integration is always two-way. They will contribute as much to our society as we give them the opportunity to do so. Effective integration activities also make it possible to clearly communicate the expectations of the host community towards immigrants, regarding the observance of the rules of social life that are important to it. It is also worth bearing in mind that immigrants and refugees are often used instrumentally in current political games, they are often cast as scapegoats, which was also experienced by Poles abroad. Concern for reliable and honest reporting of their situation is important not only for their life, but also for the condition of our community. Research in the Silesian Voivodeship, which I have recently conducted, may inspire cautious optimism in this regard. Most of the surveyed foreigners stated that the inhabitants of the voivodeship have a positive attitude towards them (66.1%). Respondents-foreigners would be ready to recommend Ukrainians to come to the Silesian Voivodeship – both for work (77.5% of foreign employees said so) and for studies (80.3% of students declared so).
Violetta Kulik: Well, in recent days a comprehensive report has been released: “The situation of foreigners in the Silesian Voivodeship – between the pandemic and the war in Ukraine” that you have written. What migration phenomena can mean for the Silesian Voivodeship? What are the results of the research and what does the term “Migrantowo Śląskie” (Silesian MigranTown) mean?
Rafał Cekiera, PhD: Migration is actually important for our region, this is clearly evidenced by the statistics alone. For example: between 2015 and 2021, the number of work permits issued to foreigners increased more than twenty-four times. As for the full number of foreigners in the province, it is difficult to obtain precise data. However, we can undoubtedly assume that in recent years in the Silesian Voivodeship an immigrant population equal in size to its largest cities has appeared. It’s as if we were dealing with a completely new city – which I allowed myself to call “Migrantowo Śląskie”. Yes, it is dispersed, but it is worth being aware of it and remembering it when designing various regional policies. From the point of view of our voivodeship, there is one more issue of paramount importance. According to data from the last Census, over the last 10 years not only have we lost more than 227,000 people, but the Silesian Voivodeship is also characterised by a percentage of people in pre-working age lower than the national average and a percentage of people in post-working age higher than the national average. Newly arrived inhabitants of the voivodship help fill the growing demographic gap in our region. With the support of Europe Direct Śląskie, I decided to take a closer look at their life situation – their motivations for settling in the Silesian Voivodeship, perception of the region, satisfaction with life and plans. If you are interested in the detailed results of the study, I invite you to download and read the entire report, which is available on the europedirect-slaskie.pl website.
Violetta Kulik: A few days ago, your book “Refugees, Migrants and the Catholic Church. Polish migration debate after 2015 in the context of the teaching of the Catholic Church” was published by the “Więź” Publishing House. What prompted you to become interested in this aspect of migration phenomena?
Rafał Cekiera, PhD: Migrations always take place in a specific socio-cultural context, they affect many different areas of social life, they are a touchstone for various (only seemingly distant from migration) phenomena. I found the analysis of Polish reactions to the so-called migration crisis after 2015 extremely interesting. The debate on this topic in our country revolved around imaginary, phantom refugees. With time, the very concept of a refugee changed its meaning, even becoming an insult. On the other hand, for many Poles, the Catholic Church is an important institution that also forms an ethical system. In its doctrine, migrants and refugees occupy a special place. This also finds its actualisation in the teachings of successive popes. Not only Pope Francis, but also John Paul II categorically and firmly demanded the rights of migrants and refugees, strongly stigmatising all forms of their stigmatisation or dehumanisation. In the book, I try to look at these phenomena through the analysis of various documents – from papal encyclicals, through analysis of the press, to memes. The aim was to search for an answer to the question posed in the context of the attitude towards migrants in the text “The siren’s voice of the sea. Homer’s five lessons of honesty” by prof. Tadeusz Sławek: “is our individual and collective life still subject to the laws of meaning that we have set for ourselves in great religious (like Christianity) and political (liberal democracy) stories?”.
Violetta Kulik: Thank you for the interview.
Rafał Cekiera, PhD