Like most of Poland, Linin is very white and very Catholic.
The small town is tucked into huge swaths of apple and pear orchards, broken only by the Vistula River and highway 801 to Warsaw. Comprised of a school, a few shops, and a church, Linin seems like the picture of rural Polish life. Most of the 1,000 residents work on farms. Walking down the winding roads, one is more likely to encounter a tractor than a car.
But two kilometers from what qualifies as the town center, amid a forest of pines, sits one of Poland’s few refugee camps.
“The European Refugee Crisis” can evoke starkly different images. Some think of Omran Daqneesh, the young Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance whose picture called the world’s attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Others equate “refugee” with the threat of radical Islam. After the terrorist attacks in France and southern Germany, many speak of the crisis in terms of European security and border control.
The false dichotomy between safety and humanity distorts many of the problems refugees face in Europe, including issues relating to education, integration, and mental health. Heated rhetoric can propagate misleadingly simple narratives that alternately downplay or escalate the refugee crisis, complicating refugees’ integration into European society.
At first, the camp in Linin seems like a balm to the overcrowded and overextended refugee camps in Greece. Its 300 refugees live in apartments, not tents. The camp has a preschool, playground, sewing room, and a cafeteria. Refugees can visit doctors, including psychiatrists, eat good food, and bathe in clean washrooms. A lawyer arrives each Monday to help with asylum cases. Refugees in Linin enjoy free access to dental care, a service not offered to Polish citizens.
But there are no Syrian refugees at Camp Linin. No Afghans, Iraqis, or Pakistanis either. Most of Linin’s refugees are Chechen, along with some Tajiks and a few Azerbaijanis and Ukrainians. Almost all arrived to Poland by hopping on a train in Belarus and entering at the border in Terespol.
Poland’s ultra-conservative government refuses to accept refugees from the Middle East. “We rarely get any Syrians,” said the director of Camp Linin, Jan Węgrzyn, speaking via a translator in an interview with The Politic. “[The] Law and Justice [party] won’t accept them through relocation, and most of the refugees would rather go elsewhere anyways.”
Europe’s “relocation” project, introduced last September, hoped to offer hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Greece the opportunity to relocate to other European countries that could host them. But Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party won’t recognize the plan or accept any Syrian refugees under the project.
Refugees who manage to smuggle themselves into central Europe aim for Germany, in order to avoid discrimination in Poland. Chechens are almost all devout Muslims, but they are fair-skinned and share a history of Soviet oppression that elicits some sympathy from the Poles.
Notorious European camps – like “the Jungle” in Calais and the Moria camp on Lesbos – bear little resemblance to Linin. There is no organized legal assistance for refugees in Moria, no apartment-style housing for those in Calais. Most of these refugees have fled from the Levant region, and their asylum claims usually cite oppression from the Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban. In Linin, refugees often cite discrimination because of their Muslim faith.
Despite Poland’s conservative refugee policies, the country also shares many of the same problems as refugees in other European countries. Even with diminished levels of diversity, ethnic tensions still inflame Camp Linin. A generally nationalistic attitude among the Chechens leads to them asserting dominance in the camp.
“Chechen Force” is spray-painted in huge block letters along one wall. In early summer, a brawl erupted after some Chechens bristled at a group of Ukrainian women, who dressed in a way they deemed sacrilegious. Fights often start among the adolescents, who then ask their older brothers to protect them; tensions soon flare between families and spread throughout the camp.
Omar, a Tajik boy, led The Politic to his “army base” in the woody area of Camp Linin. With pride, he described a fight between his friends and older Chechen kids who had come to invade the camp. “There was blood here and here,” he said, swinging a stick and pointing at spots in the underbrush.
Many of the fathers encourage fighting at the camp. For decades, their families struggled with intense poverty in the rural mountains of Chechnya, where they resisted oppression from the secular USSR. Aggression, fierce nationalism, and Islam became pillars of their identity.
Not surprisingly, some Chechens can be convinced by a radical Imam to leave their home and join the Islamic State. “Thirteen of my friends in Grozny left to fight in Syria,” said Abu, a Chechen asylum-seeker in his early twenties. “I was the only one who stayed.”
Back in Linin, these refugees cling to their cultural identity. The lack of diversity among refugees creates a pattern of ethnic tension throughout camps in Poland.
Camp Linin also faces tremendous problems with mental health and education.
That Camp Linin has a psychiatrist is an anomaly; refugees usually have no access to mental health resources. But the psychiatrist admits her work is not comprehensive enough. She only has the capacity to help those who come to her, and so many of the refugees, especially the children, are unwilling to admit their psychiatric issues.
Children are guaranteed access to education, but the local primary school in Linin is not equipped to facilitate greater numbers of students, particularly those who don’t speak Polish.
Many of the older children don’t go to school at all. They can make a few zlotys an hour (one U.S. dollar is 3.84 zlotys) working illegally in the local apple orchards and often skip class to provide some money for their families.
The Camp Linin situation infuriates locals. Their children bear the brunt of an overwhelmed education system. The government makes little effort to improve relations between Polish locals and the refugees, and many Linin Poles perceive the Chechens as violent and crude.
These problems with education and integration create a vicious cycle for refugees. Issues of language, schooling, and assimilation are vital to consider, but typical narratives about the current refugee crisis abstract them out of sight.
These drawbacks plague a camp in Linin that appears exemplary on the surface. In a refugee crisis that continues unabated in Europe and around the world, perhaps it is time to move the discourse beyond the lazy and superficial. In an increasingly connected world, maybe some lessons can be drawn from this remote camp deep in the Polish pines.
Correction: October 13, 2016:
An earlier version of this article’s conclusion included edits that misrepresented the author and his views. Linin – not its refugees – is very white and very Catholic. Most refugees at Camp Linin are Muslim. We apologize for the error.