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  • Writer's pictureZofia Stemplowska

On Admitting Refugees

The countries to the west of Ukraine have opened their borders to Ukrainian refugees. They have done so even when, like in the case of Moldova, they are poor and threatened by Russia. On the latest UNHCR estimates, Poland now has the 2nd largest refugee population in the world (after Turkey).

All Ukrainians arriving since the 24th of February into Poland, if they are arriving directly from Ukraine, are entitled to free public transport to their destinations, a one-off payment, access to a social security number and the same unemployment insurance and benefits as the Poles, access to schooling and, if they can find a place, to free nurseries. They are also meant to get the same access to health services as the Poles (though subsidies for medication are taking longer to work out). There has been a mass and grassroot led movement to help the refugees, with people acting selflessly and volunteering their time, money, labour and homes.

At the same time, the Polish border with Belarus remains closed. Here, the Polish government continues to refuse entry to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of arrivals from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It also prevents Polish NGOs from offering help. Having claimed that those who try to enter Poland are ‘tourists’, it does not make a good faith effort to find out if they are refugees or not. These actions constitute a violation of the sprit, if not the letter, of the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. And, since Russia and Belarus encouraged the migrants and refugees to arrive at that border, Belarus is also forcefully preventing them from turning back. They are therefore trapped and left in the uninhabited lands of the Primeval Forest, where the Belarus-Polish border lies. There are at least 19 recorded deaths. This is bound to be an underestimate.

This differential border opening is hard to explain without reference to racism. True, even the most anti-immigration government of a democratic country could not keep a border such as the one with Ukraine closed, no matter how much it wished to: it would not be possible without lethal force when millions of people are trying to cross it and the border stretches for 500 kilometres. But, in any case, there was clear support in Polish society for welcoming Ukrainians. Some of that support was from those who had wished to see the border with Belarus opened and stood ready to help, but much of it was new. By contrast, the closing of the Belarus border was met with indifference if not acclamation from many Polish citizens. There was a lot of willingness to believe the worst about those at that border.

That said, without data or the perspective of time it is also possible to underplay how much xenophobia the Ukrainians are encountering. Ukrainians have suffered xenophobic attacks in Poland in the past and generating or amplifying online grievances against the Ukrainians seems to have been added to the portfolio of Russia’s disinformation strategy. I have already heard in person a Polish citizen complain that the Ukrainians are being treated ‘better than the Poles’. A Polish friend mentioned that when encountering such voices on Facebook she shares a cartoon: In it, a Ukrainian mother explains to her child: ‘Yes, we came to Poland for the free tram rides.’ But we do also have data that show that over the last five years Polish attitudes to Ukrainians have improved.[1] It’s hard to know whether decreased xenophobia against the Ukrainians in particular is a sign of less or more racism in general, but it is certainly good news if you are a Ukrainian in Poland. Even as the strain on daily life grows for everyone, there are signs that there will be some resilience among Poles not to believe the worst about the Ukrainian refugees.

[W]hat matters, morally, is not whether you are the only party who can help those in dire need but whether you are the only one that will help.

In what follows, I want to reject a popular argument that is sometimes mentioned to justify differential border opening. While there are some good reasons, as I will argue, for Poles to show some partiality towards the Ukrainians, this should not be at the expense of leaving in dire need those whom Poland could still help.

One popular argument for the differential treatment at the border goes like this: Ukrainians are being attacked in their own country. Given the territorial borders of Ukraine, they have nowhere to run but the West. To close those borders would therefore mean to trap Ukrainians in a war zone. In contrast, the refugees from further afield – Syria and Afghanistan for example – chose to come to the Polish border. Not letting them into Poland does not mean that the Polish government is forcing them back to their home countries, where it is dangerous. After all, these refugees can choose to go to a border with another country. Those other countries will have at least as much obligation as Poland, if not more, to let them in.

One obvious reason why this argument cannot work is that the refugees on the Belarus border are in fact trapped in a danger zone. Unless Poland opens the border, they have nowhere safe to go. True, Belarus could and should let them settle in Belarus. But by the same logic Russia should let Ukrainians live in Ukraine without being attacked. So if Poland is obliged to help Ukrainians because they are trapped by Russia then it is obliged to help those lured in and trapped by Belarus too.

What if Belarus would let the refugees travel back to their countries of origin: to Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and elsewhere? Would it mean that Poland may keep its border shut to them? No, it would not, because they too are people who are fleeing because their homes are not safe places. People in Poland may more readily believe that those at the Belarus border are not in danger at home, because they are less aware of what is happening further afield than of what is happening in Ukraine. But there is plenty of conclusive evidence available to those who look that Syria and Afghanistan are not safe places.

But what about the point that the refugees in the Belarus border could go elsewhere? Does this fact allow Poland to distinguish between Ukrainian and Syrian refugees? I don’t think so. After all, the Ukrainians too could try to cross different borders by land or by trying to board various flights. Of course, a difference could be drawn in the volume of people who might realistically try to cross a given border. The Polish border is more readily accessible to Ukrainians than it is to many other refugees but the other refugees have already made it to the border.

And there is a more substantive point here: The fact that Poland is one of many countries that could be just as easily reached from the Middle East and elsewhere cannot get Poland off the hook for not admitting those who made it. This is because what matters, morally, is not whether you are the only party who can help those in dire need but whether you are the only one that will help. When a person is drowning, for example, it is no defence to say that you failed to rescue her because there were other people on the beach who also failed. It matters if you could have rescued.

[A] prohibition on Poland not to push back non-Ukrainian refugees is compatible with thinking that there are also legitimate reasons for some partiality that Poland can extend to the Ukrainians.

Given the relatively small numbers of refugees by the Belarus border, I have been assuming that Poland does not have to choose between admitting Ukrainians and the others in dire need. But it is also the case that Poland is unlikely to be able to admit all refugees who could travel to the Polish border. So if Poland had to choose, would it be justified in admitting those whom it can uniquely, or almost uniquely, help versus the others? Yes, if it had evidence that in doing so it made it more likely that more people would get admitted somewhere overall. But if it turned out that unless Poland acts some people do not get admitted anywhere then pointing out that it helped those who were neighbours is not an adequate answer to people whom no one will help at all.

Moreover, the argument that a border cannot be opened or else too many people will arrive and it will become impossible to admit them all, while familiar, is puzzling. It suggests that the closing of the border now is motivated by concern for those whom a country may be unable to admit later on. By analogy, a country that may be unable to create conditions for employment for University graduates should stop creating such conditions already.

Having said all that, a prohibition on Poland not to push back non-Ukrainian refugees is compatible with thinking that there are also legitimate reasons for some partiality that Poland can extend to the Ukrainians. First, there are family links. Before this war, there were over a million Ukrainians in Poland already. They and quite a few Poles, given the intertwined history of the region, have relatives in Ukraine.

Second, Poles and Ukrainians share hundred years of history. This history contains joint achievements that can be celebrated and places such as Lviv, in Ukraine, that are culturally important to Poland. But it is also a history of class and nationalist oppression by Poles towards Ukrainians and a history of mass killings on both sides. Helping Ukrainians now allows Poland to respond to some of that history of injustice. By imperfect analogy, Germany (and Poland and other European countries) would be permitted, in my view, to show partiality to Jewish refugees.

In fact, for those who know some of the Polish-Ukrainian history it is hard not to celebrate this display of solidarity even as it is so painfully denied to others. This is because it is testament to the fact that even a recent history of trauma need not prevent current generations from working together. In the 1940s, after their Jewish co-citizens have already experienced the worst of all fates, there was a massacre of tens of thousands of Catholic Poles and their defenders by the Ukrainians followed by revenge massacres by the Poles. The fact that this joint history is not an insurmountable obstacle now – despite this grievance being very consciously taught in Polis schools by a nationalist-populist government – is a fact that inspires hope.

It’s up to all of us to determine whether this act of solidarity with the Ukrainian refugees transforms into a movement to open borders to all refugees or to never open them again.

Third, helping Ukrainians allows Poland to struggle against a threat that it can permissibly struggle against. The invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February was re-traumatising for Poles given their raw memory of Poland being invaded in September 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union and left to fight alone. But I don’t mean to appeal to the fact that Poles are now metaphorically fighting against the previous invasion by trying to make sure that Ukraine is not abandoned. Rather, there are two concrete ways in which this invasion is an immediate threat to Poland that it can permissibly resist on its own behalf by helping Ukrainian refugees: helping them can strengthen the resolve and capacity of Ukraine to resist the Russian invasion.

First, were Russia to be victorious in its wholesale annexation of a democratic and sovereign country by the Polish border, it would destabilise the region even further. How confident could Poland or the Baltic States be in such a case that NATO would defend them were they next? It might turn out that their membership of NATO was conditional on not being attacked.

Second, while the current Polish government is not the best advert for embracing the spirit of democracy, Russia’s aggression is an aggression against the democratic aspirations of the region that used to be behind the iron curtain and whose pursuit of EU membership has triggered abuse from Russia. In fact, this act of aggression is all the more painful as it has been meted out against a country that has had roadblock after roadblock thrown against it on the road to democracy and yet has managed to cultivate a civic form of democratic citizenship in which even the Russian speakers overwhelmingly identify as Ukrainian.[2] In time Ukraine stood – and, hopefully, will stand again - to model democracy to its neighbours that, like Poland, embrace the ethnic and less pluralist versions.

Further afield, non-EU countries should open their borders to Ukrainians too. They should open them to all those fleeing war. It’s up to all of us to determine whether this act of solidarity with the Ukrainian refugees transforms into a movement to open borders to all refugees or to never open them again.


[1] Michał Bilewicz ‘Ukraińcy dokonali wyboru i są gotowi oddać za to życie’, Krytyka Polityczna, 12 March 2022, ( The text is in Polish; the pertinent part mentions that currently 14% of Poles would not want a Ukrainian as a family member while in 2017 that figure was about a third of respondents. [2] Michał Bilewicz, ‘What do Ukraine’s Russian speakers want?’, The Washington Post, 8 March 2022.

Zofia Stemplowska is Professor of Political Theory and Asa Briggs Fellow of Worcester College, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on domestic, global and historical justice. She is currently working on a monograph on commemoration.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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