Poland has earmarked funds to bring in tens of thousands of ethnic Poles now living in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, its finance minister said Tuesday.

The long-neglected issue was raised recently amid a heated debate over the European Union's plan to share 120,000 refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia among its 28 members.

Poland has said it will host 7,000 of them. Critics of the refugee program, however, say Poland's first obligation is toward the ethnic Poles who Soviet dictator Josef Stalin expelled by hundreds of thousands from their homes, and to their descendants.

Most of the expulsions took place during World War II, when Soviet authorities forcefully sent Poles from areas overtaken by the Red Army to Siberia or the bare steppes of Kazakhstan. The families were not allowed to return for decades under communism, both in the Soviet Union and Poland, until the 1990s.

Finance Minister Mateusz Szczurek said Tuesday the Cabinet has put aside funds for the repatriations — and the Interior Ministry said it would be 30 million zlotys ($8 million) in 2016 alone. The money — for housing, Polish language lessons and professional training — would go to local governments to encourage them to take in the arrivals.

Under the EU refugee program, funds for people from Syria and Eritrea will come from the bloc.

Democratic Poland started the ethnic repatriation program in the late 1990s but the reluctance of local governments has been a chief obstacle. So far, some 5,000 ethnic Poles have been brought to Poland from Kazakhstan, Georgia and Uzbekistan, according to the Interior Ministry. Another 180 were evacuated from war-torn eastern Ukraine in February.

But tens of thousands more are waiting. There are at least 34,000 ethnic Poles in Kazakhstan alone, according to estimates.