Poland's ruling party has put hardline opposition to immigration at the centre of its brand – but it now turns out a top official may have corruptly facilitated hundreds of thousands of visa applications from Asia and Africa.
The stridently anti-immigration Polish government has come under fire for allegations of granting hundreds of thousands of working visas in exchange for bribes.
With less than a month to go to crucial parliamentary elections that could see the populist ruling party PiS ejected from power, Poland's anti-corruption body has launched a probe into the affair.
The still-developing scandal began at the end of August when the country's foreign ministry was searched by the local anti-corruption body. Soon afterward, Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk was fired for not collaborating with the investigation.
Wawrzyk was officially forced out of his job for "lack of sufficient co-operation" with the investigation, but it is now being reported in Polish media that he is suspected of helping to create the scheme and pressuring consuls to issue visas to people of his choosing.
Last week, he was reportedly hospitalised with life-threatening injuries after an apparent suicide attempt.
It soon emerged that under a cash-for-visa scheme, would-be immigrants in a developing African nation were able to "buy stamped visas" from intermediaries by simply making a cash payment and "writing a name".
In other developing countries, a €4,500 payment was enough to secure a visa from a Polish consulate via an intermediary company.
Among the Polish consulates now being investigated are outposts in countries from Taiwan and the Philippines to Tanzania and Nigeria.
Polish outlet Onet, which has exposed much of the scandal, reported that last year, a group of applicants from India posing as Bollywood filmmakers were granted work visas in connection with a non-existent movie project titled "Asati". Later, another, larger group were granted visas via the same route on the basis they were making a film named "Milton in Malta".
With the details of the scheme still emerging, other EU states – many of which Poland and its allies have blamed for mismanaging an influx of refugees into the Schengen area – have expressed their alarm at the suspiciously high volume of immigrants entering the zone with Polish visas.
The German government has asked Poland for a "rapid and complete clarification" of the situation, summoning the Polish ambassador and demanding that Warsaw clarify "the date and number of visas issued, as well as the nationalities of the beneficiaries".
However, the government is particularly vulnerable to criticism from domestic political opponents, given the scandal has exploded just a month before crucial parliamentary elections.
The PiS party, which has governed since 2015, is campaigning hard on an anti-immigrant agenda. Polls show that PiS is currently the most popular party, but it is likely to fall short of an outright majority in parliament – raising the prospect that the Poland might finally swing away from a right-wing populism that has repeatedly set it at odds with Brussels and other EU countries.
Since it came to power, the party has been accused of eroding fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as steadily undermining the independence of the judiciary and media.
Now, the opposition contesting the election is capitalising on the immigration scandal. Donald Tusk, the relatively liberal former prime minister hoping to return to power, has accused the government of knowingly bringing a vast number of illegal migrants to the European continent, contrary to its insistence that it is keeping them away.
Tusk claimed last week that as many as 250,000 visas granted by Polish consulates and embassies may now be under suspicion, though the government claims the figure is in fact in the low hundreds.
So intense is the drama around the scandal that one MP from the opposition Civic Coalition was briefly detained by police this week after using a megaphone to interrupt a campaign speech by the sitting president, Mateusz Morawiecki, shouting information about the visa scandal before officers moved her away from the event.
Tusk has shared a video of the incident.
Along with socially conservative positions on abortion and LGBT rights as well as steady tubthumping about the supposed threat of Russian influence in Polish politics, PiS has long banked on its success in constructing a fence along the Belarusian border. The barrier is in part intended to keep out illegal "Muslim" immigrants.
"Do you know who in Europe brings in the most Muslim immigrants? The government that frightens them. The PiS government," Tusk said in a video released on X, formerly known as Twitter.