E.g., 03/05/2024
E.g., 03/05/2024
EU Membership Highlights Poland's Migration Challenges

EU Membership Highlights Poland's Migration Challenges

For more than a century, Poland has been one of the largest sending areas in Central and Eastern Europe and a vast reservoir of labor for many countries in Western Europe and North America. Poland's geographical and political location predestined it to struggle amidst the interplay between the West and the East, in both historical and cultural perspectives as well as economic and social contexts.

In the second half of the 1990s, researchers predicted that Poland would gradually shift from being a major migrant-sending country to a country of transit migration and net immigration.

But the country's accession to the European Union in May 2004, coupled with unrestricted entry to EU Member States the United Kingdom and Ireland, caused one of the biggest emigration flows in Poland's postwar history, and the country became one of the largest exporters of labor within the enlarged European Union. In addition to a decreasing birth rate, migration accounted for a real reduction in Poland's population over the past decade.

Immigrants from outside the European Union generally do not view Poland as an attractive destination because the Polish economy did not need large numbers of new workers until its own people began leaving.

In fact, many migrants from Eastern Europe and Asia still consider Poland a transit country or a gateway to the West, usually crossing the eastern Polish border from Ukraine or Belarus. Moreover, the government has made immigration to Poland difficult, largely to meet the requirements for EU accession and for the Schengen zone, an area of free movement within the European Union.

A few months after the global economic crisis became visible in world economies, a considerable slowdown started in Poland. Annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth dropped from 4.9 percent in 2008 to 1.8 percent in 2009.

However, Poland is the only member of the European Union that has not fallen into a recession and that has continued to grow economically. According to the Polish Ministry of Economy, Poland weathered the economic storm because of relatively high domestic demand and because foreign trade makes up a small share of Poland's GDP.


About the Authors
Krystyna Iglicka
Krystyna Iglicka, an economist and social demographer, is a professor at the Lazarski School of Commerce and Law. She is an expert in migration policy at the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw and the author of Poland's Post-War Dynamic of Migration (2001). She has published 10 academic books and nearly 40 research papers/articles in academic journals, including International Migration, International Migration Review and the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, as well as numerous policy-oriented reports and analyses.
Full bio available here.
Email: iglicka [at] csm [dot] home [dot] pl

Magdalena Ziolek-Skrzypczak
Magdalena Ziolek-Skrzypczak is a PhD candidate at the America Institute of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. She cooperates with the Centre for Migration Studies in Poznan and the Center for International Relations in Warsaw. Her research interests focus on integration of immigrant youth; U.S., EU, and local integration policies; and the NGO sector's role in managing migration. In 2010, she launched the Integration Network for Immigrant Youth (www.integration-network.eu), a platform for communication and exchange of best practices among European practitioners, policymakers, and researchers in the integration field.
CV available here.
Email: magdalena [dot] ziolek [at] gmail [dot] com.


Although the unemployment rate increased from 9.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 to 11.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009, Poland's economic conditions, as well as changed conditions abroad, may have influenced some Polish nationals living in the United Kingdom and Ireland to go home during the recession, a question explored later.

This updated profile looks at Poland's immigration history, immigration to Poland, refugees and asylum seekers, emigration trends since joining the European Union, Polish abroad, return migration, Polish immigration policy, illegal migration, integration policy, and issues Poland will need to consider in the future.

Historical Background

From 1945 until the collapse of communism in 1989, Poland's migration policy, like that of other Soviet Bloc countries, reflected isolationist principles. Polish citizens could not easily leave the country because of the restrictive passport and exit-visa policies. Under these circumstances, Poland, which might otherwise have been fertile ground for Western European labor recruitment in the 1950s and 1960s, was simply not a country open to labor agreements.

The state, when it did grant permission to leave the country temporarily, always set a time limit on the stay abroad. Those who wanted to use such an opportunity to find a better life elsewhere knew they would not be able to return home once they left, making the decision very difficult. In all, an estimated 6 million people left Poland in the postwar period.

Germany was the primary destination country for communist-era Polish migrants. Although they entered the country illegally, it was fairly easy for them to stay because any document confirming German (Aussiedler) ancestry was accepted. Germany's lenient policy for those claiming German ethnicity lasted until 1991. Since then, the procedure for obtaining Aussiedler status has become stricter, and there are several new requirements applicants must fulfill.

In a distant second place was the United States, the destination of just over 10 percent of all postwar emigrants. An estimate based on official Polish statistics suggests their numbers were between 120,000 and 150,000. The United States easily granted them, and others who escaped communist regimes in Europe, refugee status.

During this period, in which the Polish government pushed to become an ethnically homogenous country, the government focused on two issues. The first related to improved settlement conditions for Polish citizens who had repatriated from the former Soviet Union.

The second was an effort to eliminate what the government called "hostile and temporary elements." By hostile element, communist authorities meant anyone who was of ethnic German descent. After World War II, there were thousands of people, especially in the western part of Poland, who identified themselves as Poles but had German names or did not speak fluent Polish.

Ultimately, however, the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 not only transformed Poland's political and economic structure, it also changed the country's ethnic makeup and disrupted established emigration trends.

Immigration to Poland

Poland has a small immigrant population. There were about 92,574 residence-card holders (0.24 percent of the whole population) at the end of 2009, according to Poland's Office for Foreigners. Residence-card holders include those who have a temporary residence permit, a settlement permit, and those who have been granted protection; EU citizens and refugee applicants do not have residence cards.

The most recent estimate from the Polish Central Statistical Office (CSO) that includes all foreigners was about 200,000 as of December 2006 (60,000 of them in Poland for more than one year).

Most non-EU immigrants (both legal and illegal) come from Poland's Eastern European neighbors and Asia: Ukraine, Belarus, Vietnam, and Armenia. Russian and Moldovan nationals belong to the stable core as well.

From 2004 to 2009, Ukrainians consistently received the most temporary residence permits (see Table 1) and the most settlement permits (see Table 2).

The number of Chinese citizens receiving temporary residence permits has grown in just the past few years, making them the fourth-largest group — and surpassing Russians and Armenians — in this category in 2009.

After Poland joined the European Union, the number of settlement permits decreased while the number of temporary permits rose by more than 5,000 between 2004 and 2009.

Since the settlement permit can be acquired only after at least five years of legal and uninterrupted residence in Poland (or at least two years if married to a Polish citizen for at least three years), it appears fewer foreigners decided to stay in Poland. This provides evidence for two trends: migrants prefer to move back and forth between their home countries and Poland, and Poland continues to be a transit country for destinations in the European Union.


Table 1. Total and Top Six Nationalities Granted Temporary Residence Permits, 2004 to 2009
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Total 25,425 22,625 22,376 23,240 28,865 30,567
Ukraine 8,518 8,304 7,733 7,381 8,307 8,489
Belarus 2,008 1829 1,647 1,992 2,380 2,452
Vietnam 1,875 1704 1,496 1,496 2,580 2,389
China 415 606 383 672 1,205 1,963
Russia 1,605 1,495 1,393 1,265 1,468 1,366
Armenia 1,793 1,418 1,199 1,273 1,452 1,287
Top six total 16,214 15,356 13,851 14,079 17,392 17,946
Top six as a percentage of all permits 64% 68% 62% 61% 61% 59%
Note: Country order by 2009 figures.
Source: Office for Foreigners data, 2009.


Table 2. Total and Top Five Nationalities Granted Settlement Permits, 2004 to 2009
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
TOTAL 5,094 4,064 3,255 3,124 3,625 2,938
Ukraine 1,905 1,654 1,438 1,609 1,685 1,280
Belarus 472 645 602 567 640 638
Russia 527 376 286 224 255 146
Vietnam 486 216 138 125 162 121
Armenia 226 148 110 91 116 88
Top five total 3,616 3,039 2,574 2,616 2,858 2,166
Top five as a percentage of all permits 71% 75% 79% 84% 79% 74%
Source: Office for Foreigners data, 2009.

In the 1990s, as the gap between emigration and immigration was narrowing, Poland became a destination for citizens from neighboring countries with a similar cultural background: mainly Ukraine but also Belarus and Russia; all three were part of the former Soviet Union.


Thanks to a 1979 agreement between the Polish People's Republic and the Soviet Union, Soviet and Polish citizens could travel without visas. However, larger-scale movement to Poland began only after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, with 8 million to 9 million border crossings per year in the second half of the 1990s.

In 2000, Poland introduced visa requirements for non-EU nationals to meet requirements for its own EU membership. Since 2003 — also due to Poland's EU membership — people from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia have needed a tourist visa to enter Poland.

However, citizens of these countries often work illegally in a shadow economy, mostly in agriculture, construction, and household sectors. The temporary character of their jobs often discourages these workers from applying for labor permits.

Migrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as Armenia, come to Poland because of co-ethnic communities that have existed in Poland for centuries.

In the case of Armenia, migration occurred in three waves. The first dates back to the late Middle Ages, when Armenians settled in Poland's eastern marshlands. The second took place after World War II, when about 99 percent of those from the Polish eastern territories annexed by the former Soviet Union (today Ukraine) were repatriated. The third wave started in the 1990s. As a result of a political crisis in the region, Armenians either applied for asylum in Poland or stayed there illegally.

The settlement of Vietnamese immigrants date back to the 1970s, when Poland and Vietnam established political and economic ties and set up formal student and worker exchanges.

Chinese labor migration has increased due to a couple of factors. First, because of its market potential, Poland became an interesting investment area for Chinese companies, mostly in the telecommunication and construction sectors. Second, Poland's EU funds for modernization and investment have attracted Chinese businesses, which have opened local branches or formed joint ventures with Polish partners.

At the same time, Polish companies are interested in employing Chinese workers, who are willing to work for less money than Polish workers.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

After Poland ratified the United Nation's 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, in September 1991, the country amended the 1963 Aliens Act to formally establish a system for granting refugee status. Until that time, Poland had only granted asylum to people for a limited set of reasons, and most of those who received asylum were communists from Greece and Chile escaping Greece's junta regime and Pinochet's regime in Chile, respectively.

Poland has experienced a steadily increasing number of refugee applications from various countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa since the late 1990s, from just over 3,400 in 1998 to over 10,500 in 2009 (see Figure 1). Over the last decade, the majority of applications came from Russians, most of them from the war-torn region of Chechnya.


Since 2009, Georgians have led asylum applications with 41 percent of the total. However none of the Georgians has been granted a refugee status so far.

From 1992 through 2009, 3,113 applicants received refugee status (3.5 percent of all applications). More than half of those approved came from Russia (mostly from Chechnya). Large numbers of recognized refugees also came from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Iraq.

It is worth noting that Poland started granting additional forms of humanitarian protection. The "tolerated status" (which came into force in 2003) was granted to 9,184 individuals and "subsidiary-protection status" (which came into force in 2008) to 3,390 asylum seekers by the end of 2009.

Subsidiary-protection status is for those who do not fulfill the requirements for becoming a refugee but who would be endangered upon return to their countries. Tolerated status is granted in some cases when the person has been rejected for refugee or subsidiary-protection status.

All those granted humanitarian protection have a right to work and start their own business in Poland. They have access to health insurance and free education, and they can eventually apply for permanent residence. Both refugees and people with subsidiary-protection status have access to integration programs and social assistance. Only a few of these benefits, such as shelter, meals, and financial aid in critical situations, are also granted to those with tolerated status.

In accordance with the 1959 European agreement on the Abolition of Visas for Refugees, refugees in Poland are issued a travel document, a so-called Geneva passport. The document enables them to travel without a visa to other states that have signed the agreement.

Emigration since EU Accession

When Poland officially became a member of the European Union in May 2004, only three EU Member States immediately opened their labor markets to nationals of Poland and the seven other Eastern European accession states: the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Sweden. By the end of 2006, Polish citizens could also freely work in Finland, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain (see sidebar for complete list of countries and dates).


Start of Free Labor Migration for Polish Citizens in EU-15
Austria: May 2011
Belgium: May 2009
Denmark: May 2009
Finland: May 2006
France: July 2008
Germany: May 2011
Greece: May 2006
Ireland: May 2004
Italy: July 2006
Luxembourg: November 2007
Netherlands: May 2007
Portugal: May 2006
Spain: May 2006
Sweden: May 2004
United Kingdom: May 2004

With economies across Western Europe booming in the mid-2000s and Polish young adults struggling to find satisfactory opportunities at home, the stage was set for a new wave of Polish labor emigration.

Permanent emigration, meaning those who leave for at least one year, peaked two years after Poland's accession to the European Union. Twice as many Polish citizens left the country in 2006 as in 2005, according to CSO (see Table 3).

Many went to the United Kingdom and Ireland, where booming economies meant jobs in the construction and hospitality sectors. Within Europe, Norway and the Netherlands also became population destinations as their economies grew and barriers to immigration fell.

Yet not all Polish migration to European destinations has been permanent. Some Poles have gone from one country to another or returned home.

An April 2008 report from the Institute for Public Policy Research in London found that half of the 1 million migrants from new EU Member States (not just Poland) who had arrived in the United Kingdom since 2004 had left the country. It is important to note that the data span a period of multiple years. In other words, the 1 million migrants were not all present at the same time, and their departure did not take place in one year.

These outbound flows partly mask the significant increase in permanent immigration to Poland since its accession. However, even with the drop in emigration in 2009 — largely due to the global economic crisis — Polish emigration flows remain larger than inflows (see Table 3).


Table 3. Annual Emigration and Immigration in Poland, 2004 to 2009 (in thousands)
Year Emigration Immigration*
2004 18.9 9.5
2005 22.2 9.4
2006 46.9 10.8
2007 35.5 15.0
2008 30.1 16.0
2009 18.6 17.4
Note: * Immigration including other EU countries.
Source: Central Statistical Office, Concise Statistical Yearbook of Poland 2010. Available online.


Since Poland joined the European Union, the top destination for its emigrants has shifted from Germany, whose labor market does not open to citizens of Poland (and seven other Eastern European countries that joined in 2004) until May 2011, to the United Kingdom (see Figure 2). In addition, the United States has dropped from second to fifth place.


Not surprisingly, the largest group among long-term emigrants in 2008 was young workers (see Figure 3). Nearly 1 million Poles between ages 20 and 29 left the country that year, showing both the high mobility of this generation and the lack of early-career opportunities.

Due to the recession in the United Kingdom and Ireland, flows to those countries from Poland have decreased in the past two years according to various data.

In the United Kingdom, the Home Office tracks the number of approved applications to the Worker Registration Scheme, set up in 2004 specifically for new EU Member State nationals working in the country. According to the most recent report, the number of new approved applicants from Poland fell to 10,150 in the first quarter of 2010 from 35,800 in the first quarter of 2007.

The UK Department for Work and Pensions tracks National Insurance Number allocations to adult overseas nationals. In 2008-2009, 134,000 numbers were allocated to Polish citizens, a 36.2 percent decrease from the previous year.

The Irish Department of Social Protection issues Personal Public Service (PPS) numbers, which allow individuals to access government services. In 2008, 42,554 Polish nationals received PPS numbers, 47 percent fewer than the 79,816 issued in 2007. Just 13,794 Polish citizens received PPS numbers in 2009.


Polish Citizens Abroad

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has estimated the size of the Polish diaspora at 15 to 16 million; the diaspora includes those living outside the country who have either Polish citizenship or Polish ancestry. According to the EU statistical agency Eurostat, 1.5 million Polish immigrants were living in other EU countries as of January 2009.

Here we examine the largest Polish populations abroad: the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

United States

The U.S. Census Bureau's 2008 American Community Survey (ACS) estimated a population of 478,569 Polish foreign born, almost half of whom (48.8 percent) entered before 1990. The states with the largest Polish populations were Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Florida.

Polish-born women outnumbered men (55.9 percent to 44.1 percent), and the Polish born had a much higher median age (49.1) than the U.S. population overall (36.9).

In terms of holding a college degree, adult Polish immigrants (29.7 percent) in 2008 were about as educated as their native-born counterparts (27.8 percent).

Polish immigrants in the civilian labor force reported working in various sectors. The largest shares were in manufacturing (17.2 percent); educational services, health care, and social assistance (16.7 percent); construction (14.4 percent); and professional, scientific, management, administrative, and waste management services (13.2 percent).

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's 2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics reported that 119,271 Poles obtained lawful permanent resident status in the United States between 2000 and 2009, with 8,754 in 2009 alone, 65 percent of them as immediate family members of U.S. citizens.


According to the Central Register on Foreigners of the German Federal Statistical Office, 398,513 Polish citizens were registered in Germany at the end of December 2009; 3.8 percent of them were born in Germany. Polish citizens made up 6 percent of all foreign citizens in Germany and were the third largest group after citizens of Turkey and Italy.

Polish immigrants' median age was 37.3 and the average stay was 9.7 years. Only one-third (about 130,000) had lived in Germany for less than four years.

Beyond nationality, about 1.3 million people reported having a "migration background" from Poland in 2008, according to Germany's Microcensus 2008; migration background includes those who were born abroad and migrated to Germany as well as those born in Germany to immigrant parents or grandparents. This group was concentrated in western and southern Germany, particularly the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (477,000 or 37 percent).

Those with a Polish migration background worked mainly in industry (256,000) and in trade, transport, hotel, and restaurants (157,000). Of this migration-background group, 129,000 (10 percent) were higher education graduates and 74,000 (6 percent) reported being unemployed.

United Kingdom

About 520,000 Polish foreign born were in the United Kingdom in December 2009 according to the Annual Population Survey of the UK Office for National Statistics. This made Poland the second largest source country after India. About 20 percent of the Polish foreign born lived in London, where the population was the fourth largest of all foreign-born groups.

An estimated 83.8 percent of Poles ages 16 to 64 were employed compared to 70.5 percent for all working-age adults in the United Kingdom, and the Polish-born had a lower unemployment rate in 2009 (5.0 percent) than that for the country overall (7.8 percent).

Surveys and administrative data suggest that Polish migrants in the United Kingdom are highly educated and perform work in the low-skilled sector below their qualifications.


The most recent data come on Ireland's foreign population come from Ireland's 2006 census, which reported 63,276 Polish nationals, a number that likely increased dramatically after the census. Almost 90 percent arrived in 2004 or later. Polish immigrants were scattered across Ireland, but Dublin and its suburbs were the most popular destination with 29 percent of the population.

The average age of Polish citizens was 27.5 years. Among those age 15 and older, 85 percent had at least finished their full-time education (meaning they had a high school degree) and 84 percent were employed.

Over half of employed males worked in construction and manufacturing, and half of employed females worked in shops, hotels, and restaurants. The predominant occupations included sales assistants (7 percent), building laborers (6 percent), cleaners and domestics (5 percent), and carpenters and joiners (4 percent).


After Poland joined the European Union, remittances more than doubled from US$4.7 billion in 2004 to US$10.7 billion in 2008 before dropping to an estimated US$8.5 billion in 2009, according to the World Bank.

Data from the National Bank of Poland show that the sources of remittances have shifted over the same period. In 2004, Germany accounted for 35 percent of remittances, and the United Kingdom and Ireland combined made up 34 percent.

By 2007, Germany accounted for just 13 percent and the United Kingdom and Ireland made up 34 percent each (see Figure 4). Since the recession, Germany's share has grown to 24 percent and that of the United Kingdom and Ireland have shrunk considerably.

It appears likely that the economic situation of Polish migrants in the United Kingdom and Ireland has caused them to reduce the amount of money they send to Poland and the frequency of their remittances.


Figure 4. Remittances from Polish Workers by Country of Residence: 2004, 2007, and 2009
Source: National Bank of Poland, Department of Statistics.

Return Migration: Truth or Myth?

Although the global recession has influenced Polish emigration flows, it is difficult to estimate its exact impact on Poles' decisions to come home. The subject has captured international headlines since the start of the recession, as Poles in the United Kingdom and Ireland make up a significant portion of migrants in both countries.

Since there are no comprehensive EU data on return migration in the Member States, existing estimates can be made from Polish and UK data.

The most recent Polish CSO data show that 2.21 million Poles have migrated for work as of 2008, of whom 650,000 were in the United Kingdom. In 2007, the figures were 2.27 million and 690,000, respectively, and in 2006, 1.95 million and 580,000. The share of Poles in the United Kingdom has remained constant at about 29 percent to 30 percent.

The CSO data also confirm that the number of registered Poles abroad decreased by 60,000 in all Polish emigration countries in 2008 compared to 2007. The only drops were registered in Britain (-40,000) and Ireland (-20,000) whereas the number in Norway, the Netherlands, and Denmark increased (see Table 4).


Table 4. Emigration from Poland for Temporary Stay, 2004 to End of 2008*
Country of Stay Number of emigrants (in thousands)
Year 2002** 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
TOTAL 786 1,000 1,450 1,950 2,270 2,210
Europe 461 770 1,200 1,610 1,925 1,887
of which:            
European Union 451 750 1,170 1,550 1,860 1,820
(27 countries)***
of which:            
Austria 11 15 25 34 39 40
Belgium 14 13 21 28 31 33
Cyprus - - - - 4 4
Denmark - - - - 17 19
Finland 0.3 0.4 0.7 3 4 4
France 21 30 44 49 55 56
Greece 10 13 17 20 20 20
Spain 14 26 37 44 80 83
Ireland 2 15 76 120 200 180
Netherlands 10 23 43 55 98 108
Germany 294 385 430 450 490 490
Portugal 0.3 0.5 0.6 1 1 1
Czech Republic - - - - 8 10
Sweden 6 11 17 25 27 29
United Kingdom 24 150 340 580 690 650
Italy 39 59 70 85 87 88
Countries outside the European Union 10 20 30 60 65 67
of which: Norway - - - - 36 38
Source: Central Statistical Office, 2009.
* For 2002 to 2006: more than two months. For 2007 to 2008: more than three months
** After taking into account the number of emigrants with an unknown country of temporary stay, the number of emigrants staying in the European countries amounted to 547,000, of which 535,000 were in EU countries
*** Until 2006: 25 countries.

UK data from the quarterly Labor Force Survey (LFS) tell a similar story although they show a more recent decrease in population. The number of Polish immigrants grew steadily from 2005 until early 2008, when growth leveled off (see Figure 5).

Between the second and fourth quarters of 2009, the Polish immigrant population fell from about 541,000 to about 484,000, a statistically significant drop of about 57,000 people. Since then, the Polish immigrant population has begun growing. LFS data showed a statistically significant increase in the second quarter of 2010, when the population was about 537,000.


There is some consistency between Polish and British surveys of Polish migrant workers about the intent of return. Generally, Poles are less certain about their future plans and do not want to make radical decisions; they are trying to find out where they have better opportunities. In this recent recession, decent conditions in Poland, despite high unemployment rates there, could have proven better than unemployment abroad for some individuals.

Making Immigration Policy after 1989

After communism collapsed, the Polish government realized it had extremely limited experience with immigration and lacked the legal foundations and policies to deal with people intent on entering the country. The government also lacked money to fund the structures necessary for handling asylum and migration-related procedures and paperwork.

Along with other Central European countries, Poland witnessed several new trends in a short period of time. These included

  • the massive short-term mobility of citizens from the former Soviet Union;
  • labor migration to both Eastern and Western Europe;
  • permanent migration into Poland, mainly from other Eastern European countries;
  • the formation of new immigrant communities of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Armenian origin;
  • inflows of asylum seekers;
  • lower levels of emigration;
  • the return of Polish citizens living abroad

Several experts concurrently pointed to various public security threats and called for a coordinated state response. These opinions, prevalent among the public and with policy experts, sent a clear message to Poland's politicians that a "law and order" approach to policymaking was expected.

In 1989, the only law dealing with migration was the Aliens Act of 1963, which was enacted when few foreigners entered Poland. The act defined the conditions of entry into the country, internal movement, and departure.

Although work on a new Aliens Act began in 1992, it took five years to complete an updated version. Ultimately, the Aliens Act of 1997 enabled the free movement of persons and focused mostly on the conditions for entry, stay, and transit through Poland. It was also mindful, however, of national security, potential EU accession, and human rights issues.

In April 2001, the Polish Parliament passed comprehensive amendments to the Aliens Act to help clear the path toward EU membership. One of the significant changes included establishing the Office for Repatriation and Foreigners. This became the first separate government agency dealing solely with migration issues.

A separate Repatriation Act, which came into force in January 2001, was the first comprehensive document regulating resettlement of people of "Polish ethnicity or descent," including people living in the Asian part of the former Soviet Union. This law made it easier for those who, "due to deportations, exile and other ethnically motivated forms of persecution could not settle in Poland."

The Repatriation Act also clarified the means for acquiring Polish citizenship and outlined types of resettlement assistance. It applies to those who have maintained cultural ties to Poland and have at least one parent, grandparent, or two great-grandparents who are of Polish ancestry.

What proved more difficult was Poland's obligation to implement Schengen requirements, which meant mandating visas from nationals of its eastern neighbors, Ukraine and Belarus, as well as Russia.

Many worried that such visa requirements could weaken cross-border trade, cause the market for exports to the former Soviet Union to collapse, and decrease the income of people dependent on trade-related services.

Consequently, the Polish government waited until October 2003 to make these visas mandatory. Although cross-border mobility initially decreased, numbers returned to pre-visa levels by March 2005 thanks to efforts by Polish consulates and improvements in the visa regime's administration.

Also in 2003, Poland implemented two laws, the Act of Protection of Aliens and the 2003 Aliens Act, which further refined the 2001 changes.

The Act of Protection of Aliens clearly divides asylum from economic migration issues. It includes principles and conditions for extending various forms of protection to foreigners, including refugee status, asylum status, temporary protection status, and tolerated status. Tolerated status was created to cover mainly Chechens whose asylum claims have been rejected but who cannot be sent home.

The 2003 Aliens Act included Poland's first regularization program for unauthorized immigrants. The Office of Repatriation and Foreigners estimated the total unauthorized population at that time at around 45,000 to 50,000.

However, the regularization, which was in force from September 1 to December 31, 2003, largely failed. Only those who had lived continuously in Poland for five years were eligible. In addition, no formal information about the program was written, and the information that was provided did not reach the majority of illegal immigrants. By the end of the program, 2,747 out of 3,512 applications (78 percent) had been approved, with 1,245 Armenians and 1,078 Vietnamese receiving legal status.

Making Policy after 2004: New Policy Concerns

Since mid-2005, policymakers have discussed immigration in terms of social or economic policy, focusing on the following:

  • return migration of Poles who emigrated to Western Europe
  • the need for skilled and unskilled foreign workers in sectors such as agriculture and construction
  • control of the eastern border and free movement for Polish citizens under Schengen

Encouraging Return

A priority for the Polish government was and still is to attract Polish migrants back due to shortages of labor and Poland's aging population. Additionally, it was hoped that return migrants with new capital would make investments and boost the Polish economy. The current government's 2007 campaign platform included encouraging the return of young Polish emigrants.

In November 2008, Prime Minister Donald Tusk started a government campaign entitled "Have you got a PLan to return?" that aims to facilitate smooth returns and showcase employment opportunities.

The campaign includes a guide book and a website for those who have decided to return. These include practical information about necessary paperwork, answers to problems return migrants have to face, and opportunities in the local labor market with lists of local employment agencies and job openings in areas where return migrants might like to settle.

The government has spent about 4 million Polish zloty (about 1 million euros) on the campaign, which was allegedly based on consultations with Polish diaspora organizations. Although very informative, interactive, and constantly updated, the campaign has not been deemed a success. Furthermore, Poland does not have other structural measures to make return more attractive.

Beyond the campaign, the government in 2008 passed the Tax Abolition Act, which allowed Poles who obtained income abroad between 2002 and 2007 to apply for a refund on taxes they already paid. The act also provides relief from double taxation.

Labor Shortages

Massive emigration to Western Europe created serious labor shortages in Poland as those who left came from two basic strata. They were either young, highly skilled graduates from Polish universities who usually left after graduation (the so-called baby boom generation) or low-skilled workers. The latter gave rise to the popular image of the "Polish plumber" — an immigrant eager to take low-paying and low-skilled work that natives were not willing to do.

Because of the shortages, in August 2006, Poland gave workers from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia the right to work in Poland without work permits for three months in a given period of six months. Limited to the agricultural sector initially, the program was expanded in June 2007 to all other sectors.

When Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in January 2007, Poland, along with nine other Member States, opened the labor market for Bulgarian and Romanian workers. However they did not arrive, as the government assumed.

In February 2008, the government extended the duration of legal employment of workers without a work permit to six months in a 12-month period and made citizens of Moldova (June 2008) and Georgia (November 2009) eligible for the program.

The workers who benefit from these provisions can enter Poland on the basis of their employers' declarations (not contracts) of intent to employ a given worker for up to six months within one year. Most such declarations come from agriculture and construction, the sectors with the highest demand for seasonal workers.

Polish employers responded immediately.

During the first six months of 2007, the government accepted 23,115 individual declarations from employers, most of them for Ukrainians. In the second half of 2007, approximately 24,500 workers, mainly from Ukraine, were invited to work in Poland.

The government has continued to make it easier for non-EU citizens to work in Poland. As of January 2009, the government has streamlined the process employers need to follow to request a work permit, mainly by reducing the number of required documents.

The number of work permits increased significantly in 2009 to 29,340 compared to 18,022 in 2008, according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy. Most of the recipients were from Ukraine (9,504), China (4,536), Vietnam (2,577), Belarus (1,669), and Turkey (1,422). Most of the work permits were granted in trade, manufacturing, financial intermediation and real estate, construction, hotels, and restaurants.

The Eastern Border

Poland entered the Schengen zone in December 2007, making its eastern frontier — 746 miles or 1,200 kilometers from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south — a significant portion of the European Union's eastern-most border.

To join the Schengen zone, Poland had to ensure a high security level on the border. Modern infrastructure and equipment for the border services had to be implemented.

Since 2004, the European Union has supported Poland, as well as other new Member States, with funds from the Schengen Financial Instrument; Poland received 313 million euros according to the Ministry of Interior and Administration. As of December 2007, Poland had spent 90 percent of the money.

One consequence of joining Schengen has been fewer legal border crossings by Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Russians, who need to pay 35 euros for a Schengen visa to enter Poland. The visa is prohibitively expensive for Ukrainians, for whom 35 euros can be half a month's living expenses, according to the Ukrainian consul general in Warsaw.

Accordingly, migration patterns in Poland from Ukraine have changed. Some "circular migrants" have decided to settle in Poland while others have prolonged their stays in Poland without a valid residence permit or decided to return to their countries of origin.

Recognizing the importance of good relations with its eastern neighbors, Poland has worked to improve cross-border flows with bilateral border agreements.

Since July 1, 2009, residents who live near the Poland-Ukraine border can pay 20 euros and receive a special permit, valid for two years, that allows them to cross the border, travel within 30 kilometers (19 miles) of the border, and stay no more than three months in any half-year period.

Poland signed a similar agreement with Belarus in February 2010 and ratified it in June 2010. It will enter into force once Belarus ratifies it.

Dialogue with Ukraine and Belarus about future visa agreements also takes place within the Eastern Partnership, established in 2008 with pressure from the Polish government and assistance from Sweden. The Eastern Partnership seeks to improve the European Union's political and economic ties with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

New Regulations for Co-Ethnics

In addition to seeking labor from countries to its east, Poland passed a law in September 2007 that makes it easier for those of Polish descent in former Soviet countries to settle in Poland.

The Act of the Polish Chart, which went into effect in April 2008, builds on the notion of "Polish ethnicity" central to the previously mentioned repatriation program, which went into effect in 2001 and was limited to ethnic Poles from Kazakhstan. The earlier program did not succeed mainly because local authorities in Poland were reluctant to invite eligible people (necessary for a repatriation visa) at a time when Poland's economy was struggling.

Today, anyone whose parents, grandparents, or at least two great-grandparents were Polish is eligible to live and work in Poland with a special document called a Polish Card or Polish Chart.

Applicants must meet conditions in addition to Polish ancestry. During an interview with the consul (the authority who conducts the test and grants the chart), they have to pass a Polish language test and correctly answer questions about Polish culture and history.

Chart holders are eligible for a free, long-term Polish residence visa and eventually Polish citizenship. Chart holders also get access to free emergency medical care, reduced fees for public transportation, and free entrance to museums. However, they are not eligible for welfare benefits.

According to the report of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, 44,080 people had applied for a Polish Chart as of April 2010. Most of the applicants were from Ukraine (23,423), Belarus (14,509), Lithuania (2,414), and Russia (1,427).

Illegal Migration

Although it is difficult to assess the scale of illegal migration to Poland, those who are in the country without authorization generally cross the border with fake documents or are brought to Poland by human traffickers and smugglers. Others overstay their visa or enter Poland as tourists but work in the shadow economy.

Poland's Border Guard caught more illegal immigrants in the first month after joining Schengen (600 people from December 2007 to January 2008) than in all of 2007 (423 people). The one constant: 95 percent of those caught were from the Russian republic of Chechnya. Most Chechens come to Poland to seek asylum. In 2009, Poland deported 1,514 foreigners and issued some form of deportation order to 8,527 others.

According to the most recent report on unauthorized immigrants in Poland (Undocumented Migration: Counting the Uncountable), no studies estimate the country's total number of unauthorized immigrants. However, Ukrainian citizens dominate the population of unauthorized migrant workers, according to the report.

Vietnamese are the only group researchers have studied in any depth. The Migration Policy Unit at the Ministry of Interior and Administration claims that probably one in two Vietnamese living in Poland is an irregular immigrant, which translates to 12,000 to 22,000 people.

Poland's strict approach to migration policy is evident in its amnesty programs, which have had requirements that most of those illegally residing in Poland could not meet.

After its 2003 amnesty, which as mentioned earlier required continuous residence of five years, the government held another amnesty from July 2007 until January 2008 whose requirements were even stricter. For example, the applicant had to present a legal entitlement to occupy their place of accommodation and proof of their financial stability.

While 3,500 people applied for the first amnesty, just 2,028 immigrants submitted applications for the second one. Vietnamese composed the majority of these applicants (1,125), followed by Armenians (577), Ukrainians (115), Russians (43), Chinese (42), and Mongolians (35). As of July 2008, only 554 foreigners had succeeded in regularizing their status; 172 received negative decisions.

The European Union's European Pact on Immigration and Asylum from 2008 has pushed Poland to combat illegal employment. Since January 2009, border guards, in addition to Poland's National Labor Inspection, can check the legality of foreigners' employment. Of the 1,617 firms inspected in 2009, 12.5 percent employed foreigners illegally, and 6.8 percent of all foreigners checked did not have permission to work in Poland, according to the Report of Polish National Contact Point to the European Migration Network.

Integration Policy

Poland still lags other EU countries in implementing comprehensive integration policies. In fact, Poland has not defined integration in any legal document to date. Until recently, integration focused only on those with refugee status and returning Polish emigrants, known as repatriates.

Under the Act on Repatriation, repatriates are entitled to reimbursement of the cost of transportation, education in Poland for minor children, a settlement and maintenance grant, and a free course in the Polish language; the government will also reimburse their Polish employer for bonuses, social insurance, equipment, and vocational training.

Poland's first integration programs, in the early 1990s, targeted refugees from the former Yugoslavia. It was only in 1996 that the concept of integration of refugees was introduced into the Polish legislation. Since then it has been within the competence of local governors (voivodes) to coordinate the measures for integration of refugees in their voivodships.

The main unit responsible for immigrant integration management at the national level is the Department of Social Assistance and Integration in the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy. The unit determines the whole area of social assistance. Therefore, immigrant integration is only a small part of its many activities.

Integration programs are restricted to those who are granted international protection. The Individual Integration Program, which the County Centers of Family Support runs, does not exceed one calendar year.

During that year, participants receive cash benefits for living expenses and Polish-language classes. The money also covers contributions to health insurance and the costs of specialized guidance services, finding accommodation, and social work activities. As of May 2008, these provisions have been extended to those with subsidiary-protection status.

Because the County Centers of Family Support is understaffed, some question how well the agency can serve immigrants. However, County Centers have started collaborating and partnering with some integration-oriented nonprofits to expand their capacity. Also, the European Union's European Refugee Fund supports many of County Centers' integration measures.

The government has shown strong support for civil-society and nongovernmental organizations that aim to help immigrants, such as Polish Humanitarian Action and the Polish Red Cross, which have done integration work for many years. In addition, since 2008, money from the European Union's European Fund for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals has made a recent boom in new programs and integration measures possible.

Policymakers have recently become slightly more interested in integrating groups beyond refugees. In 2007, the Ministry of the Interior and Administration established a Working Group on the Integration of Foreigners as part of the Interministerial Committee, established in the same year. The results of its work as well as those of NGOs have yet to be seen.

Looking Ahead

Poland has little choice but to actively join the discussion on common EU migration policy. However, it seems that it might be a very difficult task to create a common labor migration policy. In contrast to older Member States, Poland has supported immediately allowing labor migration from new Member States, a position that benefits its citizens and labor market (although few Romanians and Bulgarians have come since their accession in 2007).

The Polish government has embraced EU cooperation in security issues. FRONTEX, the EU agency tasked with coordinating border security, is based in Warsaw. The Polish government has also supported further harmonizing asylum systems.

As for Poland's policies, it seems unlikely the government will renew its failed attempt to encourage returns. Rather, the government may need to prepare for more labor emigration as Germany and Austria open their labor markets to Polish workers in May 2011.

It might be argued that the government should shift its attention toward potential immigrants from non-EU countries.

Indeed, Poland lags its western neighbors in regulating and developing services for immigrants. The government's lack of interest in immigrants might well stem from Poland's isolation during the communist era and the perception that Poland is ethnically and culturally homogenous.

That said, the government has taken some steps toward reform.

In February 2009, the Interministerial Committee for Migration, an advisory body to the prime minister, appointed a working group for developing Poland's migration strategy, which is intended to lay the foundation for migration and integration policy.

The results are expected in late 2010.


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