Fostering Social Diversity and Equality in Poland

17 July 2015

Written by Sarah Fowkes.

Issues surrounding cultural diversity, integration of migrants, and social equality have long been contentious and highly politicised issues for the majority of European countries. As issues of diversity and integration are discussed in the media, in the public, and in government, we are reminded of the disturbing trend of discriminatory practices and prejudice-laden narratives which surround these issues. A number of human rights organisations and charities work hard to tackle this damaging negative discourse and to confront prejudices, but as is evident in the current efforts to reform EU migration policy, progress is slow and hard-won.

The Foundation for Social Diversity

Non-profit organisations working on these issues in Poland are however facing a different set of challenges. We may not think of Poland as a significant host country for migrants, or as one of the European countries struggling to address social equality and migrant integration, however these assumptions only reflect the lack of awareness which persists over such issues. It is exactly this lack of awareness or consideration regarding the diversity of Polish society which is limiting governmental efforts in the field of social integration and social diversity. Those working to challenge this status quo in Poland are therefore not tasked with dismantling a damaging discourse surrounding these issues, but rather with bringing these issues to debate at all and to advocate for them to be a real part of the government’s agenda. One polish non-profit organisation striving for such change is the Foundation for Social Diversity (FSD). I recently spoke with the organisation’s director Katarzyna Kubin about the work FSD does and the challenges it faces in achieving its goals.

Founded in 2007 and based in Warsaw, FSD was borne of the determination of Anna Grudzińska and Katarzyna Kubin to address the conservative social policies being pursued by the government at the time, which contradicted the values of equality and social diversity that the FSD came to stand for. Both Katarzyna and Anna have a background in human rights, promoting social diversity and anti-discrimination work, and both also have a personal migration background. After gaining insight into the refugee reception scheme in Poland they felt compelled to respond to the distressing neglect of human rights and social equality. “After that experience, we decided to set up FSD as a systemic response not only to issues surrounding refugee and migrant rights in Poland, but also to issues of social diversity and equality more broadly.” This expansive approach which Katarzyna describes goes beyond looking at issues of legalisation of non-Polish citizens, and encompasses advocacy, education and research on issues affecting all citizens, with the stated mission of creating, “an open, diverse society” in Poland.

Migrants in Poland

Poland has a history of migration from former Soviet states on its border, and is host to migrants and refugees from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Vietnam amongst other countries, who together represent less than 1% of the population. It follows that relatively few Polish citizens have direct contact and experiences of interaction with migrants living in Poland, and the social integration of migrants is not a priority issue for either Polish citizens or political parties. In the absence of public pressure to articulate a strong position on issues of multiculturalism and migration, the issues remain inadequately or inappropriately addressed by government. This is visible in Poland’s most recent MIPEXX Index (a measure of the opportunities a country gives migrants to integrate and participate in society) which scores just 13% on political participation, 29% on access to education, and 36% on anti-discrimination. Paradoxically the systemic lack of consideration for these issues has meant that when migrant communities have taken action, they have had some success. For example in 2010 a petition signed by leading NGOs working in the field of migration, accompanied by a public protest by 50 picketers in front of parliament, led to an amnesty policy being passed, which would allow undocumented migrants to legalise their status. Although the amnesty was introduced with little controversy, this remains a rare example of how lack of awareness and attention can be beneficial. As Katarzyna explained, “far more pain and damage than good is caused by the absence of meaningful governmental support for change”, which makes the role of non-profits such as FSD crucial.

The FSD is working to achieve its goal through three key areas, namely advocacy and research, education, and direct support. Not only therefore is the organisation a point of contact for migrants and their families who need assistance or support in a variety of every-day issues related to life in Poland (from learning the Polish language to advice on the educational system for migrant children), but also serves as an important bridge between migrant communities and other parts of society and institutions in Poland.

The FSD is also supporting schools, particularly those with larger populations of children with a migrant background. On teaching migrant children Polish as a foreign language, Katarzyna said, “We are essentially advocating a complete overhaul of the current system of teaching Polish as a second language in schools. At the moment it is based on additional classes, but it is clear that this approach is not effective, neither for the schools, nor for the children”. Both a change in the system and in the teaching methods and tools are necessary if children who are not native Polish speakers are to fully realise and benefit from their right to access to education.

I spoke with Katarzyna about another ongoing project of FSD, namely their Migrant Narratives series, a number of documentaries which each focus on the experience of an individual who has come to Poland from abroad, and which seek to invoke discussion about broader societal issues of social diversity amongst the public. “The series was created as a way to bring the experiences of migrants to the general public”. The documentaries also serve a broader purpose of raising awareness in that they lend themselves to discussions of a number of societal issues. FSD has found that they are a popular tool for teachers who use the films to raise issues of equality or multiculturalism with their students. The films tell a variety of compelling individual experiences, such as the story of Aslan, a Chechen refugee who works in a school in Coniewo.

An uncertain future

Unfortunately the success of many FSD projects in schools and their research inevitably depends to some degree on the availability of funding. In order to be able to continue the work they do, the FSD, and other non-profits working on similar issues in Poland, are currently dependent on EU support. The long-term funding offered by the EU Fund for Refugees and the Fund for the Integration of Third Country Nationals have been important sources of support for the FSD, but these schemes are currently in their final months and the exact terms upon which their replacement funding schemes will be distributed across the member states is still being clarified. Katarzyna lamented the fact that in the years of cooperation with non-profits such as FSD, the government had ostensibly learnt no real lessons with regard to what social integration is, and how funding needs to be framed in order for it initiatives supporting integration to be effective.

Ultimately the situation can only significantly improve if the government accompanies its general strategy with an effective operational tool. The government has a responsibility to recognise the significance of these issues. One way of doing this is to support non-profits through adequate funding and effective policy, which at the moment is not happening. This however is not a problem unique to Poland; regrettably all too often we see issues of human rights, and particularly migrant rights, promoted and defended only by non-governmental and non-profit organisations, with governments far too willing and able to neglect their responsibility to act.

 

The Foundation for Social Diversity official website

YouTube link to the Migrant Narratives documentaries

Photo courtesy of FSD

As part of its role as a partner in the European project EVS4ALL, over the coming issues Europe & Me will profile some of the other organisations participating in it. This article is the first in this series.