Polish Refugees After Martial Law: Surviving Oppression
In 1981, Polish Communists implemented martial law across the country, turning Poland into a police state for almost a decade. The country’s economy was in ruins, workers were striking, and the Solidarity movement, which was calling for democratization and civil rights, was threatening to undermine the government’s authority and power. Amidst such political turmoil, many Poles decided to flee the country to avoid persecution and protect their families.
This article takes a closer look at the experiences of Polish refugees after martial law was imposed. We explore the reasons why people decided to leave Poland, the challenges they faced while escaping, and how they managed to rebuild their lives in foreign lands. We also provide updated information on the topic using resources from international organizations, governments, and NGOs.
Reasons for leaving
The imposition of martial law in 1981 deeply affected Polish society. Many people were arrested, imprisoned, beaten, and sometimes killed by the authorities. The press was censored, and thousands of opponents of the regime were forced into exile. According to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, around 90,000 people left Poland in the first year of martial law alone.
The decision to leave Poland was often not an easy one. Many people were leaving behind their homes, families, and friends, as well as the language, culture, and traditions that had shaped their identity. However, the prospect of political persecution, hardship, and repression was enough to convince them that they had no choice but to flee.
The challenges of escaping
Leaving Poland in the early 1980s was not an easy feat. The government had closed the borders, and travel restrictions were imposed on everyone. For those who decided to escape, it meant risking their lives.
One of the most common ways of leaving Poland was through smuggling or illegal border crossing. People would often pay smugglers to guide them through the mountains or forests that separated Poland from its neighbors. The journey was often treacherous and could take several days, with people sleeping in the open, walking for miles, or crossing dangerous rivers.
Others decided to escape by sea. They would board small boats and cross the Baltic Sea to reach Sweden or Finland. However, this was also risky, as the boats were often overcrowded, and the weather conditions were unpredictable.
The prospects of rebuilding their lives
After leaving Poland, refugees faced a world of uncertainty. They had to adapt to new cultures, learn new languages, and find ways to rebuild their lives from scratch. Many of them ended up in refugee camps or other temporary shelters, where they received little or no support.
The situation was particularly challenging for families with children. Many refugee children were not able to continue their education or were forced to attend schools where they did not speak the language. This made it difficult for them to integrate into their new host societies.
The help from governments and NGOs
The plight of Polish refugees did not go unnoticed. International organizations, governments, and NGOs stepped in to provide support and assistance to those who had fled Poland. The United Nations, for example, established a special program to help Polish refugees, providing them with food, shelter, and medical assistance.
Many governments, especially those in Western Europe, were also willing to accommodate Polish refugees and provide them with asylum. In Sweden, for example, an estimated 15,000 Polish refugees were granted asylum in the 1980s, while in West Germany, around 32,000 Poles were offered protection.
Many NGOs also played a critical role in providing assistance to Polish refugees. For example, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) set up offices in several countries to provide legal and social support to refugees. The organization also worked closely with governments and community groups to help refugees integrate into their new societies.
The legacy of Polish refugees
The experience of Polish refugees after martial law was imposed left a lasting legacy on Polish society. It showed the world the courage and determination of ordinary Poles to stand up against injustice and oppression. It also highlighted the importance of international solidarity and cooperation in times of crisis.
Many Polish refugees were able to rebuild their lives in foreign lands, making significant contributions to their host societies. They brought with them their talents, skills, and cultural heritage, enriching the social fabric of their new communities. Some even returned to Poland after the fall of communism in 1989, helping to shape the country’s new democratic institutions.
Polish refugees after martial law faced incredible hardship and uncertainty, but they never gave up or lost hope. They persevered through the most difficult of circumstances, demonstrating resilience, courage, and strength. Their stories of escape and survival remain an inspiration to us all, reminding us of the importance of human dignity and the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity.
As a result of , those of Polish descent were no stranger to status. The start of the war is commonly identified by historians with Germany’s invasion of Poland, so by virtue of this, Polish refugees were some of the first refugees to make their exit from their their home country to avoid complications with the control of a larger power. Shortly after the initial incursion of Axis forces into their country, however, Poland was placed under the authority of another military.
This time around, Poland was under the dominion of Communism at the hands of Soviet Russia. Thus, there was no invasion in an traditional sense; Poland was a satellite of the Soviet Union, and so any military intervention made by Soviet troops was, in effect, the Soviet government dealing with its own constituents. Nonetheless, as with the defeat of the in the 1950’s and the halt put to the in the 1960’s, the events surrounding the “state of war” in 1980’s Poland also set the stage for hundreds of thousands more asylum refugees to seek refuge in a land outside their home country.
The origins of the Soviet crackdown on the people of Poland were formed with a growing political movement among the labor unions of the nation, spearheaded by Lech Walesa, a political leader and later human rights activist.
The organization, known as Solidarity, was a broad social and political movement whose primary motivation was to move Poland away from the influences of Soviet Communism. In due time, though, authorities put a swift stop to the development of these anti-Communist leanings within Poland, and instituted a period of martial law in the country under the guise of preventing civil unrest and promoting economic solvency.
Solidarity members and the leaders of other prominent Soviet resistance groups were arrested and detained, communications and travel between Poland and the outside world were suffocated, six-day work weeks and curfews were imposed, and universities and businesses were put under police control. Throughout the military occupation, deaths of protesters were common, as were Warsaw Pact tanks in Polish cities.
As can be imagined, given the fatalities and the dissolution of liberties, refugee status was on the minds of many Poles. When conditions of martial law were lifted and economic conditions failed to improve, many members of the Polish workforce left the country, becoming asylum refugees in the process.
All told, the number of Polish asylum refugees to flee to other countries totaled over 700,000, and many of them sought official refugee status in other countries. Neighboring countries like Austria saw more than a doubling of their national acceptance rate of people falling under refugee status. From their new location, displaced Polish asylum refugees continued their tradition of non-violent protest in the wake of Soviet repression.
Eventually, for their troubles, those who remained true to the cause of Solidarity and those who acknowledged the refugee status of the exiled Polish, especially the Roman Catholic Church, helped to weaken support for Communism in the Eastern Bloc. Upon the recognition of a free, democratic Poland, a major blow to the Iron Curtain was dealt.