Islamic hordes, Asian invasions, social jihad. How do Polish media write about refugees?

Łukasz Bertram and Michał Jędrzejek · 25 November 2015

Thousands of refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East reaching Europe in the last few weeks, camping on EU borders and train stations, have become lead stories in the Polish media, causing all sorts of emotional consternation. The number of arrivals, their nationality and religious beliefs, along with EU policies with regards to their presence here, have been presented in two conflicting ways. The first of these, much more dominant in the media titles monitored by the Public Debate Observatory team, can be termed as a tale of “clash of civilisations”, presenting a new cultural war between European and Islamic worlds. It is sometimes also supported by suggestions that Polish independence is being infringed upon through the meddling by other EU states, especially by Germany, ordering Poland to take in more refugees. The second narration is focused on the moral obligation to care for the “Other”, along with a criticism of the Polish dislike of foreigners and lack of solidarity with the victims of international conflicts.

Both sides repeatedly use key words and powerful metaphors meant to arouse the imagination and the emotions of readers, along with certain cliches and simplifications. In our analysis, we will pay more attention to the first, “clash of civilisations” narration, both due to the greater frequency with which it is used, as well as its willingness to stereotype, and often blatantly lie, about topics such as Islam and the Arab world.

War, disease, catastrophe

In the weeklies Wprost, wSieci and Do Rzeczy, along with the online portals fronda.pl and niezalezna.pl, we regularly witness the use of military metaphor when dealing with the subject of migration. Refugees are “invaders”, “colonisers”, “conquerers”, “a civilian army” or “an Islamic battering ram”. They are engaging in an “invasion”, “assault”, “attack”, “incursion”, “penetration” and “terror”. We are witnessing a “frontal assault against civilisations”, while local disturbances tend to be referred to as “wars”. Journalists make reference to various historical analogies. Tomasz Wróblewski from Wprost magazine references, among others, the fall of the Roman Empire: “This human mass is moving in from distant countries: Indonesia, Afghanistan, Chad, Ethiopia. Just like the conquistadors, puritans and colonisers, and before them the Goths, the Hun and the Slavs, they are drawn by the riches to be found in these new lands and the helplessness of their occupants” (“A helpless civilisation”, Wprost magazine, no. 36/2015, 31st August-6th September, p. 4).

Marzena Nykiel in the weekly wSieci makes reference to Jan III Sobieski’s victories and, concerned, highlights differences between the 17th and the 21st centuries: “On the 12th of August 1683, the allied forces of Poland, Austria and Germany vanquished the Turkish army which had besieged Vienna. Today, Austrians and Germans are welcoming in the ‘civilian armies’ of young Muslims with cheering and song” (“Politicians readying Poland for the turban”, wSieci magazine, no. 37/2015, 14-20th September, pp. 18–21).

In the same issue of wSieci, Wojciech Wencel compares new migrants to the Red Army: “Not that long ago, Berlin was marched on by the Soviets, while today it is the Muslims who are coming” (wSieci magazine,  no. 37/2015, 14-20th September, p. 69). Krystyna Pawłowicz, a Justice and Law (PiS) party MP, in an interview published on the fronda.pl website, said: “Muslims have declared all out war against the Cross by putting Europeans in the position of ‘either us or them’, life or death”. The same website also calls for Poland and its people to be true to its special mission – the defence of a Christian Europe; “We do after all have to say it, loud and clear: we have always defended Europe from barbarians and today we intend to do the same”.

This clash of civilisations can take place almost anywhere, including in the number of children being born. Tomasz Terlikowski warns us when writing for fronda.pl: “If we don’t take matters into our own hands (and that’s not all), Muslims will defeat us. And this won’t be thanks to terrorism, but through the wombs of their women”.

Completing this military metaphor are comparisons between the refugee crisis and natural disasters and plagues. We are dealing with a “wave” or “river” of refugees, which is “washing over us”, turning into a real “flood”. The actions of some of Europe’s western political elites are, by some Right-wing journalists, equated with disease, suggesting they are infected with the “multi-kulti virus”, or simply gone “insane”. After all, Europe, by taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, has “decided to commit suicide”. This concept of European suicide – blamed, of course, on the Left – reappears rather often, especially on fronda.pl: “Allowing millions of Muslims to enter the Old Continent is, one could say, only the cherry on the cake of this drive towards self-destruction, the last nail in the coffin the Left has already built for Europe”.

Refugees – crazy, lecherous, repulsive, lazy

What sorts of people are approaching the borders of Europe? Fronda.pl seems to refer to them solely in terms of a radical “alienness”, especially evident in the violence these arrivals are capable of – including, or perhaps most importantly, of the sexual kind. Refugees are, after all, “barbarians”, “wild hordes” or “Asian beasts”. Islam is the biggest danger to European civilisation, a phenomena which causes disgust, the symbol of almost all that is evil. It goes hand in hand with brutality and the desire to conquer all its surroundings through the introduction of Sharia law.

An anonymous author writes for fronda.pl: “Anyone who still has a sliver of courage will admit that they are not happy to see streets filled with Muslims calling out their unholy howling, women wearing the burka, their crescent. Put simply: anything associated with it is repugnant. They are all about superstition, violence, hate, persecution, discrimination. Islam in its Arabic form is the embodiment of everything civilised people fight against”.

Much attention is also paid to information about crime – especially sexual crimes – committed by people who live in refugee camps in Western Europe. It is emphasised that a high percentage of those coming over are young men – supposedly those most likely to commit offences. In informing us of all this, fronda.pl and – less frequently – niezalezna.pl often stress in their headlines the faith and national background of those committing offences, as well as – usually without citing sources – suggesting that this is a phenomena on a mass scale. Their headlines proclaim: “Refugees from Eritrea killing in Sweden. Poland will also take in asylum seekers from this country”, “Muslims gang raped the female manager of a centre for immigrants”, “Germany swamped by a plague of rapes”, “Beautiful Angelina and a Muslim beast on a ministerial panel”, “Refugees rob a shop using tear gas and a machete”.

Refugees and migrants are also presented as lazy, keen to avoid work and to live off of nothing other than state benefits. Migrants “come here for handouts”, perpetrating “welfare Jihad”, on the march “for state benefits”.

Orders from Berlin and Brussels 

A key element used by the Right-wing press and portals of a similar political bent is also their emphasis on how Poland is subject to external pressures, and how the European Commission and Germany are forcing upon it the obligation to solve the refugee crisis. A number of journalists warn about these “orders from Berlin” and stress that “Germany is holding Poland to ransom with refugees”. An unnamed writer from fronda.pl draws our attention to some seemingly symbolic dates: the 17th of August is when the decision was made about how many refugees EU states would take in. Much like in 1939, “Poland’s independence has come under attack”. Father Jacek Jan Pawłowicz, also writing for fronda.pl, criticises the Polish authorities who “behind our backs, do the EU and Germany’s bidding quietly and obediently”. The same portal refers to the agreement by Ewa Kopacz to take in the proposed refugee quota as “treason”, while on niezalezna.pl we read about Poland’s prime minister “capitulating” and submitting to Western rule.

The notion of what constitutes blackmail, and especially “emotional blackmail”, also appears in the context of pressure from European politicians and public opinion, as well as in reference to Polish intellectuals and politicians calling for us to help refugees on humanitarian grounds.

Proof of how the means of conveyance are also becoming radicalised is also in the visual language being used, especially the covers of the weekly wSieci. One of these (no. 37/2015) shows three young Arab men, holding machine guns, staring threateningly at the readers, leaning against a border post barrier with the Polish national crest on it – an image based on a famous photograph showing Wermacht soldiers crossing into Polish territory in 1939. The text states “September 2015. They’re coming! Germans forcing through a suicidal plan. Tusk and Kopacz surrender”. On the next cover (no. 28/2015) the prime minister Ewa Kopacz is shown wearing a burka, wrapped in explosives, aping the look of a suicide bomber, with the words “Ewa Kopacz will bring us hell, on Berlin’s orders”. The portal fronda.pl also published the logo of the Civic Platform (PO) party intertwined with Islamic symbols.

Lack of solidarity among xenophobic Poles

In liberal media channels which called for a caring approach towards the Other, we heard calls for “solidarity”, “Christian mercy”, “moral obligation”, “responsibility”, “empathy” or the term “Other/Different” written with a capital first letter.

A lot of coverage was given to criticisms of the attitudes of Polish politicians and citizens. Journalists accused them of “xenophobia” or “Islamophobia”, suggesting that the reactions coming from the Polish nation aroused feelings of “shame”. Jacek Żakowski, writing for Gazeta Wyborcza, assigned the attitudes of a group of Poles to the whole nation: “We have seen our own terrible reflection in the mirror held up by the refugees. Not only is it xenophobic, racist and islamophobic, but regardless of context it is also egoistical, selfish, cruel, cowardly, aggressive and paranoid. Bad in almost every imaginable way” (“The Polish face”, Gazeta Wyborcza, 7th September 2015, p. 2). Tomasz Lis, writing for the Polish edition of Newsweek, has a similarly critical attitude towards arguments used against Poland taking in refugees: “This pathetic egoism and lack of tolerance masquerade as apparent care for our unity, security and Christian cohesion” (“Shame, Poland, Shame”, Newsweek no 37/2015, 7-13th September, p. 4). Some also claimed that Poland was not yet “mature enough” to be part of the EU and its value systems. Kaja Puto, criticising collective Central European attitudes in the pages of Dziennik Opini, stated that “the countries of Central Europe assault […] refugees with smoke bombs, tear gas and hysterics, as well as that the only way to save Europe is to throw Central Europe the hell out. Central Europe should therefore be ejected from the EU, because it fails to understand what the Union is about”.

The biggest controversy was caused by comparisons made to Polish antisemitic attitudes in the days of WWII. Jan Tomasz Gross, in his article entitled “A East European crisis of shame” in Die Welt (published in Poland on the portal Dziennik Opinii, belonging to Krytyka Polityczna) held that “not that long ago, in post-War times, East European Jews who survived the Holocaust escaped from the antisemitism of their Polish, Hungarian, Slovak or Romanian neighbours. They run away to refugee camps.. where? Germany, of all places. […] Now, the Muslim refugees and survivors of other wars who can’t find peace in Eastern Europe are also seeking shelter in Germany. […] the roots of the brutal attitudes in Eastern Europe can be found in the attitudes dating back to WWII and right after”.

Gross was echoed by Agnieszka Holland who, in her interview with Newsweek Poland, criticised primitive Polish attitudes: “I am reminded here of WWII and the attitudes of a sizeable part of the Polish nation to the Holocaust. I am not talking about those who betrayed Jews, but those who were indifferent, who shut their doors to them. […] The idea that Polish Catholicism is totally inbred is not news. This faux-Christianity which absolves our nationalistic egoism always present when we have to share something with others” (interview with Aleksandra Pawlicka, “Primitive attitudes are in our blood”, Newsweek no 37/2015, 7-13th of September, pp. 22-25).


Examples of radical language used in relation to the refugee crisis in September 2015 can be found in a substantial number of the publications we monitor. Although our reports also include examples taken from Leftist and Centrist titles, the vast majority comes from Right-wing sources, who approach the topic with resistance or even aggression, especially on fronda.pl (which, it is worth noting, publishes huge amounts of content, both in terms of its own journalists’ work, as well as interviews, short features and reposts; the second Rightist portal, niezalezna.pl, publishes less and in a less aggressive tone) as well as the weekly wSieci (which is especially notable for its controversial covers).

This radical and negative discourse around the topic of refugees can be divided into three basic trends: 1) criticisms of the Polish government for giving into Western and German influence and breaching national sovereignty; 2) cultivating the fear of Europe being invaded by wild, criminal, fanatical and terrorist “others”; 3) stigmatising immigrants who allegedly pretend to be refugees, but are only interested in European welfare “handouts”.

Translated from Polish by Marek Kazmierski.