Polish leader returns from Africa with 16 refugees

June 17, 2011 - 5:44 AM

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's foreign minister returned from a trip to Tunisia Friday with 16 Christian refugees who had found their lives upturned by turmoil in North Africa.

Poland described the move as a gesture of symbolic support for Christian minorities in Africa and as a show of support for Tunisia, which has been overwhelmed by refugees fleeing the violence in neighboring Libya.

But it's also a call to the rest of Europe to "take in more refugees and have more open borders" — a policy Warsaw is pushing as it prepares to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1, according to Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

The Foreign Ministry described the six adults and 10 children who landed in Warsaw in the early hours on Friday as political refugees from Eritrea and Nigeria. It said they had found refuge first in Libya and then Tunisia. One of the African women told the TVN24 station that she had spent six years in Libya before being forced to flee the civil war there.

After their arrival in Warsaw, they were immediately taken to a refugee center outside the capital.

TVN24 also broadcast images of Sikorski speaking to the refugees and shaking their hands, apparently before the flight. He bent down and shook the hand of a young boy who addressed him with a "hello" in English.

"Hello — very nice in English," Sikorski told him. "In Polish you say 'czesc.' Czesc — you have to learn it."

Sikorski also told the refugees that he was moved by their plight, recalling how he himself fled his homeland during a harsh communist-era crackdown in the 1980s.

"I am moved because I myself was once a fugitive," Sikorski told them. "I found a safe haven — and now you will find one."

Poland has been attempting to raise its profile as a major political player, both in Europe and in North Africa.

Sikorski traveled to Benghazi, Libya, several weeks ago to meet with the Libyan rebels. And Polish delegations have made three visits to Tunisia in past months to share the experiences of Poland's own democratic transition with leaders there. One trip was led by legendary Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, who led the struggled that toppled communist rule.

Poland is also a deeply Roman Catholic nation, and Polish leaders have expressed concern in recent months for violence targeting at Christians in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

One of the men on the plane said that he knew one thing about Poland — that it was the homeland of the late Pope John Paul II.