WARSAW, Poland – Poland's foreign minister returned from a trip to Tunisia on 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 Christians in Africa and as an act of solidarity with Tunisia, which has been overwhelmed by refugees fleeing the violence in neighboring Libya.
"Poland looks after the rights of Christians in the world. This is our gesture of solidarity with persecuted Christians," Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski told the refugees as they prepared to board the plane to Poland a day earlier.
One analyst also described the move as a clear call to the rest of Europe to take in more refugees and have more open borders. Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said that Poland believes "Europe should be more open" and that the government is urging greater openness as it prepares to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1.
The Foreign Ministry described the six adults and 10 children who landed in Warsaw in the early hours of Friday as political refugees from Eritrea and Nigeria who had been in refugee camps in Libya until they fled the civil war there to Tunisia.
After their arrival in Warsaw, they were immediately taken to a refugee center outside the capital.
Ewa Piechota, a spokeswoman for the government Office for Foreigners, said each family was given a furnished room in a freshly renovated building with a free canteen and a kitchen. One of their first questions was whether they could have rice.
The group of 16 includes 12 Eritreans — parents with five children under the ages of 10 and a single mother with four children. There are also four Nigerians — a couple with a small child and a single woman, Piechota told The Associated Press.
TVN24 broadcast images of Foreign Minister Sikorski speaking to the refugees, shaking their hands and greeting them in English before the flight.
"Oh, you speak English — very good," Sikorski told one child. "Hello. In Polish you say 'czesc.' Czesc (pronounced: tsheshtsh) — you have to learn it."
Sikorski also told the refugees that he sympathized with their plight, recalling how he himself was forced into exile in Britain 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. One trip was led by legendary Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, who led the struggle that toppled communist rule.
Sikorski also urged Poles to vacation in Tunisia and Egypt to help revive their economies after the revolutions there — a call that raised some eyebrows in Poland.
He sent a message over Twitter on Wednesday that said: "Countrymen! Let us support the Arab democracies. Let us visit Egypt and Tunisia. The resorts there are safe. Their economies need steroids."
Members of the opposition Law and Justice party criticized him for that, saying he should instead be urging Poles to vacation at home. Party spokesman Adam Hofman said that any French politician who suggested people vacation abroad rather than at the Cote d'Azur would be "lynched by the domestic media."
Poland is a deeply Roman Catholic nation, and Polish leaders have expressed concern in recent months about violence targeting Christians in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
One of the men given asylum said that he knew one thing about Poland — that it was the homeland of the late Pope John Paul II.
Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.