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Refugees are welcome in Poland. That’s the message of theatre productions, school events, and pro-refugee rallies taking place this week in Warsaw and elsewhere in the country. These events, organized by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), aim to counter the prevalent view – present in much of the national media and public debate – that Poland is unwilling to play its part in helping solve Europe’s refugee crisis.

Protestors hold signs during their "Refugees welcome" demonstration in front of the Mikolaj Kopernik (Nicolaus Copernicus) monument in Warsaw, Poland September 12, 2015.

Despite NGO efforts, anti-refugee protests in recent weeks in Warsaw and other cities have drawn thousands of people, heavily outnumbering the counter rallies of those supportive of Poland taking refugees. Leading politicians have spoken out against Poland receiving refugees, in some cases using inflammatory language. Jaroslav Kaczynski, a leading figure in the opposition Law and Justice Party, said this week that migrants were bringing infectious diseases to Europe, despite a lack of evidence linking migration with the spread of such diseases.

Less than one percent of Poland’s population are foreigners,  the lowest share of any European Union member country. At a human rights seminar on refugees this week in the northern Polish city of Torun, some Polish participants expressed concerns about possible security threats posed by refugees and their impact on Polish society. Others argued that as a leading EU member, Poland must show more European solidarity.

The Polish government last month joined most other EU members in endorsing a program to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers located in Greece and Italy, in addition to the 40,000 asylum seekers that countries previously agreed to take in. Poland is committed to receiving around 6,500 asylum seekers, including 900 Syrians to be resettled directly from Lebanon.

This is an important start, but it is vital the government goes further by making the case to the public that receiving and supporting those fleeing persecution is not only Poland’s legal obligation, but also an integral part of what it means to be European.

Poland has experience with taking in refugees. For instance, it received 80,000 in the 1990s from Chechnya. Poland’s national human rights ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, last week presented the government with a ‘road map’ for how the country should manage this time. It includes more elaborate integration programs, better housing and social welfare provisions, public education initiatives, and support for torture victims.

A commitment by the government to take such steps would be a positive signal – and not just to the organizers of this week’s refugee solidary events.

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