Polish president announces support for referendum on refugees

Published 08.06.2017 17:15

Poland's President Andrzej Duda said Thursday that he supports holding a referendum asking Poles if they want to accept refugees — but not until 2019 and only if migration is still a "problem" then.

"The current Polish government doesn't agree with the (EU) quota system. We don't agree with a mandatory redistribution of refugees to Poland," Duda told reporters.

The president, who is closely allied with the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, said "this referendum could be held the day of the 2019 general election... if the issue is still being raised on the international stage, if there are bids to force us... to welcome refugees."

The migrant question was one of the PiS's main talking points during the 2015 electoral campaign and the party went on to win an absolute majority in parliament.

Such a referendum would see Poland following the path of Hungary, where voters were asked last year if they wanted to resettle refugees as part of a European Union program. The vote was declared invalid because of low turnout, but the overwhelming number that cast valid ballots — 98 percent — voted against resettlement.

The Hungarian vote allowed the government to keep the issue on the agenda, while Prime Minister Viktor Orban — who has sealed off Hungary's borders against migrants — said it gave his government political backing when confronting the EU on the matter.

PiS, the nationalist conservative ruling party in Poland, like Orban's Fidesz party, vehemently opposes an EU plan adopted in 2015 to take in 160,000 Syrian, Eritrean and Iraqi asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. This stance puts the two countries at odds with EU leaders.

Last month the EU's executive European Commission warned Hungary and Poland that it would open infringement procedures against them if they continue to refuse to accept some asylum seekers.

Opinion surveys show that the majority of residents in Poland, a country that is very homogeneous in terms of ethnicity and religion, are against welcoming refugees.

Ewa Ostaszewska-Zuk, with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw, said she sees no reason for a referendum because the number of people seeking asylum in Poland is already low and that the vote would serve mainly to promote anti-migrant sentiment.

"Right now the government talks about migrants in only one way: they are a threat to the security, they are dangerous, they are terrorists; we will not take anyone because we are looking after the safely of Poles," said Ostaszewska-Zuk, who heads the foundation's program of legal aid for migrants and refugees.

In case of a vote, she said non-governmental groups would need to give the public more objective information about foreigners, letting them know they don't pose security threats when national authorities carry out effective vetting procedures.

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