WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s conservative governing party was hoping to make migration a key campaign theme ahead of the country’s national election. But not like this, with arrests, dismissals and an attempted suicide among its own ranks.
The Law and Justice party is being rocked by reports that Polish consulates issued visas in Africa and Asia in exchange for bribes, opening the door for migrants to enter the European Union — which some hoped to use as a way into the United States.
Details about the corruption scandal are coming to light a month ahead of the country’s parliamentary election Oct. 15, leaving Law and Justice struggling to control the damage.
A former deputy foreign minister who was dismissed amid reports of his involvement in the scheme was hospitalized after an apparent suicide attempt.
Law and Justice has been the election frontrunner in a field of several parties, and it's not clear if the affair will dent its support. But opposition politicians have seized on the “visa affair,” accusing the government of corruption and hypocrisy, given its strong anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Critics say the governing party raised the specter of immigration to frighten Poles and then offered promises of keeping them secure, while a corrupt cell operating within the diplomatic corps opened a channel for migrants to enter the EU.
“This is the biggest scandal we have faced in the 21st century. Corruption at the highest levels of government, bringing a direct threat to all of us. And it’s because of people whose mouths are full of phrases about security,” Senate Speaker Tomasz Grodzki, an opposition politician, said in a televised address to the nation Friday evening.
Poland has opened its door to Ukrainian refugees, who are primarily white and Christian, but governing party officials have long made clear that they consider Muslims and others from different religions or ethnicities to be a threat to the nation’s traditionally Catholic cultural identity and security.
Media reports allege Poland’s consular sections issued about 250,000 visas to migrants from Asia and Africa since 2021 in return for bribes of several thousand dollars each. Poland is a member of the EU’s visa-free zone known as Schengen, and once those migrants arrived in Poland they could cross Europe's borders freely.
Szymon Holownia, who leads a center-right opposition party, said the governing party “jeopardized the safety of millions of Poles by conducting the disgusting, commercial practice of selling visas."
Government officials acknowledge some wrongdoing occurred.
The Foreign Ministry announced Friday it had dismissed an official "in connection with the ongoing findings regarding irregularities in the visa issuance process.” It said the official was Jakub Osajda, the director of the ministry’s office of legal and compliance management. It also announced an extraordinary audit of its consular department and all consular posts.
That followed the Aug. 31 dismissal of Piotr Wawrzyk, the deputy foreign minister in charge of consular matters, as the first reports of the scandal appeared in the media. Wawrzyk was hospitalized after a suicide attempt, Polish media reported Friday.
The state prosecutor's office said Thursday it charged seven people suspected of corrupt activities in accelerating visa procedures, with three of them under temporary arrest.
The prosecutor general, Zbigniew Ziobro, said authorities were working to bring the wrongdoers to justice and insisted the scale of the affair was smaller than what the media and opposition claim, with just 268 visas given out in the scheme.
He said Wawrzyk had written a farewell letter saying he wanted to die because he couldn't bear the hatred against him in the media. “He feels like a man hounded by this hate, because he feels like an honest man,” Ziobro said.
Wawrzyk had been responsible for preparing a regulation making it easier for foreign workers from countries including Iran, Pakistan and United Arab Emirates to enter Poland.
According to the Onet news portal, Wawrzyk personally insisted that temporary work visas be issued to groups of people from India who posed as crews working for the Indian movie industry, popularly known as Bollywood. Onet said the Indians paid $25,000 to $40,000 for the visas, hoping to use them to reach the U.S. through Mexico. It reported that U.S. officials had alerted Poland to the matter.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a briefing Thursday that he could not confirm the reports, adding, "I wouldn’t want to speak to private conversations between our two governments.”
The governing party fought back with new election videos on social media seeking to link the leading opposition leader, Donald Tusk, to widespread migration to Europe in his past roles. Tusk was the Polish prime minister from 2007 to 2014, and was president of the European Council, an EU body, from 2014 to 2019.
The government also is holding a referendum along with the election with questions on migration. One question asks voters whether they support accepting “thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa” as part of an EU relocation plan.
Law and Justice ran on a strong anti-migrant message when it won power in 2015, a crisis year for Europe when more than a million refugees and migrants fled from Syria and elsewhere. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said then that migrants brought diseases to Europe, as well as “parasites and protozoa" — remarks that were heavily criticized.
The party has refused to accept any of the migrants and refugees who have arrived in the EU in past years. It also built a tall steel wall on its border with Belarus to keep migrants out after large numbers began arriving there in 2021.
Ziobro, the prosecutor general who is also justice minister, has recently compared acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland's new film, “Green Border,” to Nazi propaganda due to its critical depiction of the behavior of Polish security forces at the border with Belarus. Holland has threatened legal action against him.