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Growing Visa Scandal Reveals Poland’s Political Class in Denial About Migration

Experts warn pre-election finger-pointing over the issue is killing off any chance of having a rational debate about migration, which the country desperately needs.

An opposition politician was briefly arrested on Tuesday and a European Parliament grouping has called for a plenary session on the matter, in what is fast becoming a major scandal for Poland’s government ahead of the October 15 general election.

The growing “visa scandal”, in which the Polish authorities appear to have illegally facilitated the granting of visas to certain non-EU citizens over the last few years, has been gathering strength over the last three weeks.

The reason is that any proven acts of corruption by politicians of Law and Justice (PiS) in relation to visas would appear to confirm the hypocrisy of the nationalist-populist governing party over the issue of migration. The government has been bragging during the campaign about its efforts to block the entry of migrants from the Middle East and Africa at the Belarusian border, even as they are accused of granting visas to foreigners of such countries in exchange for certain benefits.

The liberal opposition, spearheaded by Donald Tusk, has seized on the scandal as an opportunity to finally score points on the issue of migration, which has traditionally been the preserve of PiS to exploit for electoral gain.

To take advantage of the scandal, the liberal opposition too has had to depict the arrival of Muslim migrants to Poland as a potential threat to the country. Yet migration experts are warning that focusing the debate on “the danger of Muslim migrants”, as both PiS and the liberal opposition are doing, precludes any chance of finally starting a rational discussion about migration in this country – despite the “visa scandal” highlighting again the fact that Poland has already turned into a country of destination for migrants.

“The only thing that’s happening is a battle over who is better at scaremongering about immigrants,” points out Mikolaj Pawlak, a sociologist specialising in migration at Warsaw University.

The affair became public knowledge on September 1 when the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) conducted a check at the Polish Foreign Ministry in relation to concerns about how visas had been granted to non-EU citizens over the last couple of years.

That same day, the deputy foreign minister, Piotr Wawrzyk, under whose remit the visa system falls, was fired by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki without a clear reason given.

Then on September 14, Polish prosecutors announced the arrest of seven individuals over alleged irregularities in the granting of visas. Three people were further detained by the CBA in relation to the scandal. None appeared to be officials, according to Polish media reports.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also announced a general audit at the ministry and consulates awarding visas as well as dissolving contracts with all outsourcing companies handling visa applications for the Polish state since 2011.

Although the government has yet to provide any clear explanations, the steps taken so far indicate something is amiss with the visa-granting system. Most of what is known comes from journalistic investigations, conducted primarily by Gazeta Wyborcza and onet.pl, as well as others.

In one of the investigations, onet.pl showed how Wawrzyk personally intervened with Polish diplomats in India to facilitate visas for specific individuals, who allegedly paid between 25,000 and 40,000 dollars for their visas and claimed to be preparing to film a Bollywood movie in Poland.

Other media reports detailed how other Polish employers and foreign workers had encountered systematic problems with obtaining Polish work visas, because the slots for interviews were blocked as soon as they were published online. These it turned out were being allocated to intermediary companies that charged an estimated 4,000-5,000 dollars for a visa.

The scale of the problem is unknown. The government claims the issue concerns only a few hundred visas, while members of the opposition have suggested the problem could relate to as many as several hundred thousand work visas for citizens of specific Muslim countries granted over the last three years.

Emotions in the public debate are running high, as indicated by news that Wawrzyk ended up in the emergency ward after his dismissal – the reason for which has not so far been disclosed – as well as the brief arrest of opposition MP Kinga Gajewska on Tuesday night after she interrupted a campaign event where Morawiecki was speaking.

Gajewska was shouting out information about the visa scandal when she was forcefully removed by the police, despite Polish law giving immunity from arrest to parliamentarians in such situations. The police later denied knowing she was an MP, though that account appears to be contradicted by a video of the event.

Amid the finger-pointing, the larger picture is being ignored, which is that Polish employers are in desperate need of foreign workers, and the Agriculture Ministry and other institutions in Poland have been calling on the government to do more to facilitate this.

“In fact, the number of foreign workers in Poland started dramatically increasing in 2014, that was a turning point year, as Ukrainians started coming in,” the sociologist Pawlak tells BIRN. “But then we could say there was no time for action. We had elections in 2015 and PiS immediately started playing the anti-immigration card in the elections.”

“Since then, PiS has been afraid of having any rational debate about labour migration,” he adds.

Poland is now one of the main recipients of migration in the EU. According to Eurostat data, in 2022, the country issued around 700,000 residence permits to foreigners, 78 per cent of which went to Ukrainians and Belarusians.

With PiS in power, Poland has not adopted a migration policy, nor has it invested in a proper system to manage labour migration, opening up space for shady practices like those hinted at in today’s scandal.

“The government should actually invest in this system, because if visa procedures are transparent and fast, there is less space for shady business in the migration industry to intervene,” Pawlak points out.

Yet the costs of setting up a proper system to manage labour migration must be admitted honestly to the public, the expert says, together with an explanation of how the costs are later recuperated via benefits to the economy as well as taxes and social contributions paid by migrant workers.

Source : Balkan Insight