In Poland there are 13 national and ethnic minorities recognised by law. They constitute between 3 and 4% of the Polish population. The representatives of national minorities are: Germans, Ukrainians, Ormians, Belarussians, Russians, Latvians, Slovaks, Jews and Czechs. In Poland, there are also representatives of four ethnic minorities: Karaims, Łemkowie, Roma and Tatars. In addition, some areas of Pomorskie Voivoideship are inhabited by the Kashubian community, speaking the regional language. Polish law defines in detail the rights of national and ethnic minorities.
Article 35 of the Polish Constitution ensures that national and ethnic minorities retain freedom to practice their own traditions and customs, and to use their national language.
The National and Ethnic Minorities and Regional Languages Act was adopted by the Polish Parliament on 6th January 2005. This is the first legal document that gives a precise definition of national and ethnic minorities in Poland. This Act describes “national minorities” as those groups who identify themselves with an established country / nation i.e., Germans, Ukrainians, Jews etc. It also defines “ethnic minorities” as those who do not have their own country – those who are state-less such as the Roma people. Other points of the legal definition are common for both types of minorities.
This Act is perceived as controversial by many experts, politicians and social activists. Some of its items provoked a discussion about the situation of new minorities e.g. the Vietnamese. The National and Ethnic Minorities and Regional Languages Act emphasises that a foreign community can only be recognised as a national and ethnic minority if its ancestors had lived in Poland for at least a hundred years. Currently, the Vietnamese are a significant and continually increasing community in major Polish cities. They do not, however, enjoy equal rights with other, officially acknowledged minorities. The law has been criticised for not including such communities.
The only minority group with parliamentary representation are the Germans (two deputies in the Lower Chamber). Other communities have their representatives in local governments. In a few communes in various regions of the country, German and Lithuanian obtained a status of “auxiliary languages” and public information is published both in Polish and German or Lithuanian.
Other examples of locally supported activities are: the protection of cultural monuments representing minorities, inventory and restoration of Jewish cemeteries and the conservation of icons and polychrome in Orthodox churches located in Sanok and Komańcza. The 2005 National and Ethnic Minorities and Regional Languages Act foresees concentration of all these issues, including cultural matters, within the competence of a Minister responsible for religious, national and ethnic minority affairs.
Until the law changed in 2005, the competences in the implementation of state policy towards national and ethnic minorities were dispersed between the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Ministry of National Education, the Ministry of the Interior and Administration. The Ministry of the Interior and Administration coordinated all the activities. The National and Ethnic Minorities and Regional Languages Act finally regulated the competence and responsibilities of the state administration towards national and ethnic minorities, pointing out that the authority competent in matters covered by the Act is the Ministry of Interior and Administration, the Department of Denominations and National and Ethnic Minorities.