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Political Clash, Or Just Low on Cash? An Examination of the Bases for Vietnamese Immigration to Poland

 

Robert Krzysztoń, one of the most prominent activists involved with Vietnamese immigrants in Poland, strolls with us through the Vietnamese section of the Stadion Dzisięciolecia, the largest bazaar in Europe and home to a panoply of cheap clothing, food and appliances. “I would say that about 65% of the Vietnamese migrants are political refugees”, he tells. He periodically points out workers nestled behind piles of t-shirts, antiquated knick-knacks, or dragging enormous piles of merchandise through the market: “This person over here is a wage-slave” or, “That man standing over there was in a Vietnamese concentration camp for several years before he escaped to Poland.” After walking through the Stadium with Mr. Krzysztoń, it is hard not to believe that most of the Vietnamese immigrants are political refugees.

But this interpretation of Vietnamese immigrants as political refugees has not found acceptance among all commentators. Dr. Teresa Halik, a researcher from the Adam Mickiewicz University and Polish Academy of Sciences, for instance, argues that the goal of Vietnamese in Vietnam is to get “a good motorbike, DVDs, children studying in school… Policy, politics, regime, communist… they are not interested in this.” They mostly come here, she claims, not to escape political oppression in their motherland, but to improve their economic lot; as she writes with Prof. Ewa Nowicka-Rusek in her book, ”The Vietnamese in Poland. Integration or isolation?”, they come not just to earn bread - they come to earn “bread with butter.”   

This debate strikes at the heart of Vietnamese immigration to Poland. And it is the fundamental question before any other: why do the Vietnamese come to Poland? Is it because they must flee political oppression in Vietnam, or do they simply want to earn more money and improve their quality of life? This question has serious political implications. In order to tailor an appropriate state policy for the Vietnamese immigrants, it is first necessary to understand the demographics of the immigrants and their reasons for coming to Poland.

Overview of Immigration Trends

This debate, which is fundamental to understanding Vietnamese immigration to Poland, has found fecund soil in the ambiguities that surround irregular immigrants. As Amnesty International writes in their report, “Living in the Shadows: A Primer on the Human Rights of Migrants,” because irregular migrants are “often stripped of identity documents and fearful of contact with authorities, [they]… are difficult to identify and trace.”  Indeed, since the community is constantly fearful of harassment from police, detention or expulsion from the country, they tend to lead more secretive and insular lifestyles. 

Historically, the migration began in the 1950’s when a pact between Poland and Vietnam, both communist nations, led to the relocation of students, scholars, engineers and other people of skill. This link was already secured when communist Poland collapsed, and the historical connection remained as the foundation for Vietnamese migration throughout the 1990’s. Indeed, after 1989 there has been mass migration of Vietnamese to Poland, increasing drastically during the second half of the decade. In contrast to the “education migrants”, the representatives of this later wave did not speak or learn Polish and were generally less educated, mainly occupied in small trade or gastronomy.

When asking how many Vietnamese live in Poland, the common refrain is, “Nobody knows.” Estimates range anywhere from twenty to forty thousand. But the number of irregular Vietnamese immigrants in Poland is perhaps even more contentious. While some put it at only ten to fifteen percent, others, such as Mr. Krzysztoń, a researcher at the Paderewski Institute, a centre-right think tank, estimate it to be around half. These irregular immigrants generally come from Vietnam to Russia or the Ukraine, from where they are trafficked across the border into Poland. If the irregular immigrant does not have family or friends to help her upon arrival, she is often forced to work as cheap labor in order to pay the traffickers fee (whether it is legitimate or not). 

For Bread With Butter

In defining the reasons for this surge in migration after 1989, many have taken the position that it is primarily driven by economic concerns. This is often reflected in the attitude of the Polish state institutions, which tend to downplay the argument for refugee status. For instance, Anna Luboińska-Rutkiewicz, the head of the Refugee Council in Poland, is highly skeptical of any claim to refugee status from entering Vietnamese. Regarding a case over whether to grant six well known political dissidents refugee status in 2005, she proclaimed: “For me they are the poor from the Stadion Dziesięciolecia, that use every possibility to legalize their stay”. 

In addition to Ms. Luboińska-Rutkiewicz’s and Dr. Halik’s arguments for economic migration, this perspective has been advocated by Le Thiet Hung, the president of the Solidarity and Friendship Association, an organization that assists Vietnamese immigrants but has also been criticized for being overly sympathetic to the communist regime in Vietnam. In his opinion, Vietnamese “mostly come [to Poland] for economical reasons.” He attributes the recent decrease in emigration to the “improving Vietnamese economy” and claims that many Vietnamese who come to Poland find that “they have a much harder time than they expected”. 

When asked about political refugees and the legitimacy of their claims, he demurs, “This organization doesn’t like politics. We like to avoid talking about politics.” Ngo Van Tuong, a journalist for “Dan Chim Viet”, one of the most popular online oppositional Vietnamese newspapers in the world, assertively argues that the Vietnamese community is almost entirely inactive in politics. As he said over a plate of vegetable chicken stir-fry and a half liter of beer, “Most of the people just want to have a peaceful life and to keep out of politics.” Due to fear of possible repercussions, most Vietnamese keep quiet about politics. Among both the Vietnamese in Vietnam and in Poland, those who actively oppose communist rule comprise “a very small group”.

This is certainly the impression one forms when meeting Tran Quoc Anh, a 23-year-old fashion designer who came to Poland when he was eight. He describes himself as “cosmopolitan”, sipping a pina colada and smoking a cigarette. When asked about his political views and how they apply to the Vietnamese community, he brushes it aside, claiming, “I don’t see it from a political perspective. Political systems are just one stage.” 

He is part of the larger movement of young Vietnamese immigrants who are losing a connection to Vietnamese culture and traditions. “I don’t have a single Vietnamese friend,” Quoc Anh confides, and then later admits that he can’t read Vietnamese. He is, as Dr. Halik eloquently coins it, a “child of the world”; he is neither enmeshed within the Vietnamese or Polish communities, but rather has a broader, worldlier perspective. Indeed, he says that he dreams of moving to London and starting a fashion business. This new generation is largely apolitical, and much more concerned with personal success and enjoyment than with refugees or political criticism. “The mentality is different. In Vietnam, working hard and family are the most important values. And in Europe, individualism is much more important,” he adds.

Danger, Opposition and Political Violence 

Like Tran Quoc Anh, Ton Van Anh, who came to Poland in the beginning of the 1990’s with her parents, is a member of this younger Vietnamese generation, but unlike Quoc Anh, she is deeply enmeshed within Poland’s Vietnamese community, and she is extremely political. She works as a journalist for Radio Free Asia and in the Paderewski Institute.

She has also been prominent in the media. Newspapers often quote her as an expert, and she and her partner Robert Krzysztoń have even been featured in “Olivia”, a popular magazine for women, in which the two activists were described as a romantic dissident couple that has “been united by struggle” .

One of Van Anh’s main campaigns is to raise awareness of the terrible conditions concerning human rights in Vietnam, as well as of the legitimacy of Vietnamese refugee status. As she says in Anna Gajewska’s documentary, “Warsawers”, which focuses on Vietnamese migrants in Warsaw, “It is important to know what Vietnam looks like, to know that it’s a communist country with concentration camps and torture. If you understand this, you won’t perceive the Vietnamese as tourists or season workers.”

It is hard to deny that Vietnam often infringes upon the basic human rights of its citizens. As Amnesty International’s 2007 Report on Vietnam reveals, “Political dissidents, including those using the Internet to talk about human rights, democracy and political change, were harassed, threatened and imprisoned under national security legislation.”  Political prisoners are common, and dissidents can be harshly punished. For many, the only hope of a free and safe life lies outside of Vietnam.

Van Anh and Robert Krzysztoń introduced us to Nguyen Lam, a social activist and poet. He is also one of the six Vietnamese dissidents who applied for refugee status in 2005, catching the attention of the media and culminating in a letter of support signed by 150 Polish intellectuals, artists and entrepreneurs, such as Professor Henryk Samsonowicz, Agnieszka Holland and Helena Łuczywo.

Before he came to Poland, he was first imprisoned in Vietnam when he refused to shoot Chinese civilians during his military service. He was released after one year but was arrested again after a botched attempt to escape Vietnam by boat. This time, he served four years in a “re-education camp”. In 2003, he eventually escaped Vietnam and made it to Poland by furtively crossing the border, and has been applying – unsuccessfully – for refugee status ever since.

When asked whether he was optimistic about receiving refugee status, he replies, “I believe I will obtain the refugee status eventually because everything I say is true and I deserve it.” But Poland has historically been quite intractable in accepting refugees from Vietnam. Why did he choose to come here, rather than a country like Singapore or Germany? “I came to Poland,” he emphasizes, “because I knew it was a new centre of the Vietnamese opposition in Europe”.

In fact, in the recent years, Poland has become a primary front of communist opposition. Dam Chim Viet, one of the most prominent Vietnamese oppositional Internet portals in the world is based in Poland. Furthermore, in 2006 the Polish Parliament allowed the Vietnamese opposition to meet in its building, and the Association for Democracy in Vietnam has been steadily growing in Poland.

“They Have No Policy At All”

But as experts debate the reasons for immigration, the state has remained relatively aloof and has failed to structure a viable immigration policy. According to Mr. Krzysztoń, the biggest flaw in Poland’s position toward Vietnamese immigration is that, “they have no policy at all”.

The government’s record on accepting refugees and asylum seekers is abysmal. Despite the fact that Poland acceded to the Geneva Convention, only one Vietnamese national was granted refugee status in the last eleven years.  Similarly, the number of Vietnamese seeking asylum has dropped dramatically: in 2001, 197 seekers out of a pool of 4,529 applicants were Vietnamese, and in 2006, only 27 seekers out of an increased applicant pool of 7,088 were Vietnamese nationals.  This cannot exclusively be explained by a decrease of Vietnamese immigration to Poland as a whole. Apparently, the extremely low chances of being granted the status causes potential Vietnamese applicants to refrain from such a step. Furthermore, many Vietnamese migrants are worried that it would have dire consequences for those family members still living in Vietnam.

In 2003, Poland attempted to meliorate the problem of “illegal” immigrants with the Regularization Act. This Act offered those irregular immigrants who had arrived before 1997 a one-year permit of stay. While the Act had great potential, it failed to attract a large number of Vietnamese immigrants. According to Robert Krzysztoń, potential applicants likely failed to recognize the benefits, and there was a dearth of promotion and public education. Furthermore, with costs around 300 PLN (or approximately 100USD) for each document, it was simply too expensive for many potential applicants. 

“It could have been organised much better”, says Father Edward Osiecki, a Catholic priest who works extensively with the Vietnamese community. Many of the Vietnamese, regardless of their religion, call him “Tata” (Daddy), and none of the people interviewed gives him anything but accolades. It is evident he is very busy – during a 50 minute interview, he answered the phone four times, was interrupted by his assistant three times and had to refill his fax machine with additional paper. 

Another way of legalizing an immigrant’s stay is the controversial “tolerated stay” policy: “For irregular migrants, it is possible to legalize their stay in Poland – but at very high costs,” Father Osiecki explains. The tolerated stay status, though, may only be granted to the irregular migrants that have been caught by the police or border guards. The voivode (the head of the administrative district with authority over the migrant) then expels all those with documentation, but because no country will accept those without documentation, the captive immigrant is placed in a Polish deportation centre for one year. 

Only after they endure this and are placed back on the streets - still without proper documents - are they eligible to apply for “tolerated stay”. The border guard must on request of the immigrant inform the voivode that its “initial decision is not executable” and tolerated stay can be granted through a temporary suspension of the initial decision. The Vietnamese embassy can stop this process at any time by simply issuing papers to the detained immigrant but, according to Father Osiecki, the embassy “only does so in the case of dissidents to be sent to so-called “re-education camps”, mental hospitals or house arrest. The embassy is generally interested in the stay of those people if they are not involved in political activity.” As of now, Father Osiecki claims that there are 495 of these applications pending.

It is worth mentioning that in spite of the obvious difficulties that Vietnamese immigrants face with the Polish authorities, many of them view Poland positively. “Discrimination is really not a major problem for the Vietnamese” says Ngo Van Thuong. This assessment is also reflected in various opinion polls and surveys. Aleksandra Grzymała-Kazłowska writes, “The Vietnamese in general are surprisingly well perceived by Poles. […] the popular representations of the Vietnamese are predominantly positive. […] in the perception of Vietnamese the most prevalent are positive characteristics such as: ‘hard-working’, ‘calm’ and ‘kind’. […] ‘Hard-working’ is the most frequent characteristic, often accompanied by such traits as ‘diligent’, ‘persistent’ and ‘meticulous’.”  

Future Policy

Commentators and policymakers who examine the causes of Vietnamese immigration often oversimplify the situation. Those who emphasize immigration of refugees, at the expense of those who come for economic reasons, as well as those who argue the opposite way, simplify the picture. 

Because it is difficult to know the composition of this community through statistics or polls, people must generally derive their knowledge of the irregular Vietnamese community through personal information. But for every Quoc Anh, there is a Lam. There are some migrants who choose to come to Poland to make more money, but there are others who come in order to escape imprisonment, or even death. 

Worse than these two arguments’ simplification, the Polish government has largely ignored the problems of both types of immigrants, failing to construct a coherent policy to deal with the problem. To construct a viable policy, it is important that officials understand the multifaceted aspects of the Vietnamese immigrant community. Only by tailoring the policy to fit both economic immigrants and political refugees is there hope that the diversity of Vietnamese immigrants will be fostered, supported and strengthened.

As Father Osiecki claims, “The Polish have to recognize that a black or yellow Pole is just as good as a white Pole”. Only once this is done can Poland be considered a full and legitimate democracy.

 

References

 

Books:

Halik, Teresa / Nowicka, Ewa, “Wietnamczycy w Polsce. Integracja czy izolacja?”, Warszawa, (2002)

Articles:

Amnesty International Country Report on Viêt Nam 2007 

http://thereport.amnesty.org/eng/Regions/Asia-Pacific/Viet-Nam (June 29 2007, 11:30)

Amnesty International Reports, “Living in the shadows – A Primer on the Human Rights of Migrants” (2006)

Centre of Migration Research, “Recent Trends in International Migration – The 2006 SOPEMI Report for 

Poland” (2006)

Grzymala-Kazlowska, Aleksandra, “The Formation of Ethnic Representations: The Vietnamese in Poland”, 

University of Warsaw (2002)

Grzymała-Kazłowska, Aleksandra / Okólski, Marek, “Influx and Integration of Migrants in Poland in the Early 

XXI Century” (2003)

Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, “In the Public Interest – Information bulletin of the Helsinki 

Foundation for Human Rights” (2006)

Kicinger, Anna “Between Polish Interests and the EU Influence – Polish Migration Policy Development 

1989-2004” (Central European Forum for Migration Research)

UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency, “Refugees and UNHCR in Poland: 2005” (2006)

Other Sources:

http://www.bo.boo.pl/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=74&Itemid=45 

(June 29 2007, 12:00)

“Warsawers” - a documentary by Anna Galińska, Poland, (2006)

Special thanks to Jakub Królikowski from the Arteria Foundation

Interviews:

Ton Van Anh, Radio Free Asia, Paderewski Institute (June 25th and 27th 2007)

Robert Krzysztoń, Paderewski Institute (June 25th and 27th 2007)

Dr. Teresa Halik, Warsaw Unversity and Polish Academy of Sciences (June 26th 2007)

Ngo Van Tuong, “Dan Chim Viet” newspaper (June 26th 2007)

Anna Gajewska, actress and filmmaker, Arteria Fundation (June 27th 2007)

Nguyen Lam, Vietnamese dissident and refugee (June 27th 2007) 

Father Edward Osiecki, Catholic priest, “Migrant” Centre (June 28th 2007)

Tran Quoc Anh, fashion designer (June 28th 2007)

Le Thiet Hung, Solidarity and Friendship Association (June 28th 2007)

 

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