Poland: Immigration or Stagnation

shutterstock 258293045An alarming survey recently conducted by the Polish Association of Human Resource Management (PSZK), found that 46 per cent of students in educational institutions are thinking about leaving the country. This is in line with other surveys, many of which often throw up even higher numbers. What made this survey unique was that reasons including improved work-life balance, better impression of employers abroad and quicker professional development were given, as well as the usual higher wages argument.


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It is little wonder that young Poles are looking to leave the country for work. With European Union membership since 2004 and the advent of budget airlines, Poles can easily live and work all over Europe with few barriers. The current estimates of Poles living in the other 27 EU states range from 1.3 to 2 million. The fluid nature of much of this migration makes accurate estimates extremely difficult. In the eight years since EU enlargement in 2004, when Poland joined, 2.4 million Poles emigrated, according to the Public Opinion Research Centre, 2012. This includes re-migrants and seasonal workers. With extensive communities of Poles now residing all over Europe, finding work, accommodation and slotting into a community is relatively easy for new arrivals. In addition, Polish reputation for hard work means many foreign employers often target them for positions.


Population crisis?


Despite this, Poland's own economy is driving forward. It was the only EU country to avoid recession during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Its central bank is predicting a 3.4-3.6 per cent GDP growth a year between 2015-2017, with Citigroup analysts recently predicting that it could be as high as 3.9 per cent in 2015 alone. Yet, Poland's population is still leaving en masse and the concerns of a demographic crisis down the line are increasingly becoming a mainstream political issue.


Poland's population is currently 38.48 million, 50,000 less than two years ago. Alarming predictions for 2050 put the figure as low as 33 million. By then, one-third of Poles will be over 65 and the county's median age will rise from 38 today to 52. With the country's chequered history, emigration has always been part of the national psyche and in more recent times, this has increased thanks to EU accession. The UK, Ireland, France and Germany now have very large Polish populations, with every Western European nation having sizeable communities. The overwhelming majority of these are young and would be valuable taxpayers to the Polish economy. The 2011 national census showed that 70 per cent of those leaving post-2004 were under 40. There is increasing concern that not only are many Poles going abroad to work, but many are also having children and settling there, without any plans to return.


Hence, Poland is fighting a population decline on two fronts. A very low fertility rate means population replenishment is simply not happening quickly enough. The fertility rate in Poland is 1.29, far below the EU average and only higher than Portugal. It is actually one of the lowest in the world. Relatively generous benefits, crèche facilities and better healthcare in Western Europe lead to many Polish expats failing to see the advantages of returning to raise their children. One only has to observe the number of children accompanying parents on the Ryanair flights in and out of the country to see that they are not being raised in Poland. There is a new generation of multilingual Polish children growing up in Western Europe, which might be favourable for other economies, but certainly is less beneficial for Poland.


Philippe Legrain, a former adviser to European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, says that, “France has a higher birth rate thanks to pro-family policies, not least affordable child care, so public policy can have an impact.” However, Poland's tackling of this issue has not been attractive enough to make a significant impact. Many accuse the government of merely tinkering around the edges.


The presidential election earlier in the year saw an unorthodox candidate, former rock singer Pawel Kukiz, stunning the nation by taking over one-fifth of the vote in the first round. Emigration became a big issue in the campaign with his phrase “extermination of the nation” bringing uncomfortable comparisons of the demographic issue to the country's history as a victim of warring superpowers. Whether this was his intention or not, his colourful use of language was a gauge for the nature of the debate.


Culture shock


In the 1990s, during the “Celtic Tiger” boom years in Ireland, the government advertised to its diaspora in the UK suggesting that they return to benefit from the country’s new found wealth. Whilst some did return, Ireland also began to take in a huge number of migrants. The face of the country transformed dramatically over a very short period of time. As it happened, many of the newcomers were Poles, and they very quickly became the country's largest ethnic minority.


Today, even in Poland's relatively multicultural capital Warsaw, it is clear to see that the country is a very homogeneous place. Eurostat statistics from 2013 showed that only 0.2 per cent of Poland's population are citizens of another state, the lowest figure in the EU. Whilst the true number is almost certainly a lot higher, it is nowhere near the EU average of 4.1 per cent.


Even though a crisis is not imminent in Poland, it is worth looking at where people will come from to fill the inevitable labour shortage when it arrives. The obvious candidate is Ukraine. It is one of Poland's neighbours and its GDP per capita is about a quarter of that of Poland. The countries have historical ties with the western city of Lviv once belonging to Poland. There is also some shared linguistic heritage with many (predominantly older) Ukrainians and Poles both speaking Russian. A smaller number of Ukrainians also speak Polish. Ukraine is also going through a war in the east of the country and an economic collapse that will take years to recover. Poles are genuinely sympathetic to the Ukrainian plight over the situation with Russia and waves of people are already fleeing to Poland, seeking jobs and refuge. The numbers of Ukrainians already arriving/living in Poland’s major cities is very noticeable. Some estimates suggest that the number of unregistered Ukrainians in Poland could be as high as 400,000. Officially, Ukrainians are invited to Poland for temporary or seasonal positions. However, only a small fraction is given residency.


It is safe to say that the Polish society is not very welcoming to the idea of mass immigration. Many Poles look at the effect of immigration on countries such as France and the UK in a very negative way. They hear exaggerated stories of “ghettos” and ethnic tension, and some fear an encroachment of other cultures and identities on their own. Legrain believes that Ukrainian immigration on a large scale would be a good place to start. He states, “If migrants to Poland initially come from places like Ukraine, they will not be that different from resident Polish people, so the cultural shock may be smaller.” Poland's high unemployment rate of 10 per cent also represents another hurdle. Politically it is hard to sell the idea of mass immigration when you have double digit unemployment at home. However, the jobless rate has steadily been declining since the financial crisis and is set to reach single digits this year for the first time since 2009.


An evolution in attitudes


Legrain is very optimistic about Polish views evolving: “Attitudes to diversity may change over time as younger, more globalised Poles come to see its benefits, as migrant communities develop in Poland and as Europe in general becomes more diverse and it comes to be seen as normal.” He goes on to say that, “as Polish society gets richer, more open and more secure, its attitudes are likely to evolve.”


Following the recent inauguration of Poland’s new president, Andrzej Duda, who defeated the Civic Platform's Bronislaw Komorowski earlier in the year, 2015 also marks a general election in Poland to be held in October. The opposition party Law & Justice (PiS) looks set to overthrow Civic Platform. PiS is promising to bring the pension age down from 67 to 65. This could be disastrous for a country with a pension funding crisis on the horizon. In some cases the party is running on populist policies, similar to that of the Conservatives in the UK, that are putting them well ahead of Civic Platform in early polling. This could send shivers down the spines of Europhiles all over Europe. When a country that can attribute one per cent of its annual GDP growth to EU structural funding wants to loosen EU powers, it is a good bell weather as to how popular the EU is in 2015.


Regarding the emigration issue, Legrain does not believe it will continue in such large numbers, as many believe. He states, “migration flows tend to slow long before incomes have actually converged, especially if there is strong growth domestically. So, large-scale Polish emigration may end sooner than people think.” Politically, all the parties are preaching that the solution to a demographic crisis lies in emigration prevention. However, without suggesting tangible or realistic policy solutions, they simply use emigration as a stick to hit each other with. More coherent policies may emerge during the campaign as the election approaches.


Regarding immigration, despite the fact that many Poles recognise the need for younger additions to the workforce, it would be political suicide to support a policy of mass immigration as a solution. There is clear evidence of this as Poland is among the mani opponents of the EU's allocation of migrants policy for those currently entering Italy and Greece. Legrain believes there will be a natural progression of acceptance stating: “Economic self-interest is a powerful motive: if there are jobs that need doing that young Poles with a better education and higher aspirations no longer want to do, allowing migrants in to do them may trump worries about diversity.” 


The number of Poles living abroad probably peaked in 2007 at 1.86 million, before the financial crisis, and whilst this number has not dropped significantly, it suggests that a reversal in the trend is possible. However, with large numbers still expressing an interest in leaving combined with a low fertility rate, Poland may have to officially and socially embrace the idea of immigration in some form, or risk its prosperous economy grinding to a halt.


Thomas Mulhall is an independent Irish writer based in Warsaw, Poland.  He graduated from UCL with a BSc in Project Management and a MSc in Globalisation. He has since lived and travelled extensively throughout China and Eastern Europe. His online magazine, www.NewEuropeInvestor.com keeps abreast of political and economic events in CEE.