Thursday, April 25, 2024

What’s next after eight years of record labor immigration in Poland?

Couple in front of Warsaw railway station during winter (Photo: iStock – IPGGutenbergUKLtd)

The European Union has just adopted its Migration Pact, which involves forcibly relocating illegal immigrants seeking asylum to other EU member states. EU countries that are asked to take in asylum-seekers who have landed in, say, Italy, will have to pay a financial penalty for each such migrant refused. The new Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, said during the election campaign that he would fight illegal immigration more than the previous government, but he did not block this new relocation mechanism. This is about illegal immigration, however. What about legal labor immigration, which broke records under the Law and Justice (PiS) government of Mateusz Morawiecki? In view of the demographic collapse that Poland is experiencing at a time of long-term strong economic growth, can this legal immigration be limited, as the new Polish prime minister also called for during the election campaign?


Olivier Bault


At the same time that the previous Polish authorities were strongly and vociferously rejecting the new EU migrant relocation mechanism that has been called “compulsory solidarity,” government policymakers were reluctant to answer questions about the issuance of record numbers of work visas for people from other continents, including from many Muslim countries. For several years now, Poland has been issuing more work visas than any other country in the European Union, and this has now become a known fact not only in Poland, but elsewhere in Europe. Over the past three years, this Central European country of 38 million people has welcomed nearly two million non-EU workers.

It seems, however, that some of those non-EU nationals have merely used Poland as a gateway to the border-free Schengen Area and then moved on to the West, where wages and social benefits are much higher. This is confirmed by the fact that at the end of 2022, Poland’s Social Insurance Institution (ZUS), had only slightly more than one million non-EU workers registered, including 746,000 Ukrainians. The truth is that in 2022, most of the first residence permits issued by Poland were granted to Belarusians and Ukrainians, peoples who are rather close to Poles ethnically, culturally, and linguistically. In third place were Turks with nearly 20,000 first residence permits, followed by Indians, Georgians, Moldovans, Uzbeks, Filipinos, Azeris, etc. In total, Poland issued about 33,000 visas to citizens of Muslim countries in 2022.

As for this immigration from Muslim countries, much higher numbers have been spread on social media, and these figures were taken up prior to Poland’s October 15 elections by important opposition politicians, including Civic Platform (PO) leader Donald Tusk, who is now prime minister again after having previously headed his country from 2007 to 2014. But these numbers were about the work permits issued to foreigners by Polish labor offices. Obtaining such a permit is necessary in order to apply for a work visa, but it does not guarantee that an applicant will be granted one.

Last summer, a so-called “visa scandal” erupted in Poland. It concerned fraudulent, corrupt procedures in the issuance of visas by Polish consulates in Africa and Asia, including the sale of places in the visa queue by middlemen. This issue was artificially inflated by opposition politicians and the media, who spoke of “hundreds of thousands” of visas, and it had a negative impact on Law and Justice’s election results on October 15, according to some surveys. The alleged fraudulent practices rather involved only a fraction of the visas issued, but the investigation is still ongoing after the dismissal of Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk in late August. Even more than the suspicion of corruption practices, what was most damaging to the ruling camp was that, when they discussed this affair, the media constantly talked about the high level of labor immigration under Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. This, in turn, was often pointed out as a sign of hypocrisy in matters of immigration.

The discussion that ensued exposed the conflicting priorities facing the countries of Central Europe. They need further dynamic economic development to catch up with the richer countries of Western Europe, and at the same time they have been experiencing a decline in births and their populations are aging. It is important to remember that such labor immigration was the first stage of today’s uncontrolled immigration in Western Europe just a few decades ago. In the case of Poland, the numbers, while still modest in terms of immigration from other continents, should be put in context: a decade ago, the number of Muslims living in Poland was estimated at around 15,000-30,000, including several thousand Polish Tatars, whose presence in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has been attested to since the 14th century. Hence, last year alone more citizens of Muslim countries were allowed to enter Poland than the total number of Muslims it had only ten years ago, after more than a thousand years of its existence.

In large cities, and especially in the capital, residents have noticed for several years now that more and more people with darker complexions than the average Slav are appearing on the streets. It is more common to see women wearing Muslim headscarves or small groups of young men who look like citizens of South or Central Asian countries. Of course, the number in Warsaw remains very far from the proportions seen in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, or London (where white Englishmen are already a minority). Poland even had its own Cologne, in a sense, when the daily Rzeczpospolita revealed in May 2022, based on police data, that there had been numerous rapes in Uber and Bolt cabs in Warsaw. After the revelation that there had been a slew of sexual assaults, these companies changed their procedures in Poland and even launched a special service that allows women to order rides in cars driven by women. This was very unusual for Poland, which is one of the EU countries with the lowest number of rapes per 100,000 inhabitants. Either way, it is nevertheless true that people from Central and South Asia as well as the Caucasus have practically monopolized the market for drivers of Uber taxis and motorcycle food deliveries in the Polish capital. And as far as the “Polish Cologne affair” is concerned, there was talk of 20 investigations into 18 cases of sexual assault, including 12 rapes or attempted rapes. The alleged perpetrators were drivers of Georgian, Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, and Algerian nationality. In comparison, the police registered 79 rapes in the Warsaw area in the entire year of 2021. Cologne, a German city of similar size that saw mass sexual assaults by “refugees” from North Africa and the Middle East during New Year’s Eve on December 31, 2015, reported 309 rapes in 2022 alone.

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Regarding the issue of legal labor immigration, in comparison to other EU countries, as one can read on the Eurostat website (which in December 2023, for some reason, did not yet have data for Poland in 2022), “In 2021, Poland issued a third of all first residence permits granted in the EU to non-EU citizens (967,300, or 33% of total permits issued in the EU), followed by Spain (371,800, or 13%) and France (285,200, or 10%). The largest relative increase in the total number of permits issued in 2021 when compared with 2020 was recorded in Italy: +159% (from 105,700 in 2020 to 274,100 in 2021). Italy was followed by Finland (+132%; from 24,800 to 57,300) and Poland (+62%; from 598,000 to 967,300). (…) Poland topped the list of employment-related first residence permits with 790,100 such permits issued in 2021, making up 27% of all first permits issued in the EU. France issued the most education-related permits (90,600 permits, or 3%). The EU countries with the highest number of permits issued for family reasons in 2021 were Spain (159,200, or 5%), Italy (120,500, or 4%), and France (93,300, or 3%). Poland was also the top country in the EU issuing residence permits for other reasons, with 120,500 permits (4%) issued in 2021.”

This trend has been going on for several years now. “You have cheated the Poles!” cried nationalist leader Robert Winnicki when he accused PiS from the parliamentary rostrum in the spring of 2018. “We will not accept immigrants, you said. Meanwhile, for two and a half years hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and tens of thousands of Asians have come to Poland. Your voivods [regional governors, ed.] have greenlighted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and tens of thousands of Asians. At the same time, 20,000 Poles have left for the [British] Islands alone.”

And here is the crux of the problem. After Poland joined the EU in 2004, over a million mostly young Poles left Poland in search of better wages out of a population of some 38 million. Many Polish companies in industry, construction, and trade would simply have to close down for lack of manpower were it not for foreign workers, especially Ukrainians. On the other hand, as trade unions and part of the opposition have rightly pointed out, if it were not for mass labor immigration, salaries in Poland would go up faster and more Poles would return from abroad. The return to Ukraine of tens of thousands of men who had been working in Poland at the start of the Russian invasion in 2022 has not been offset in the construction and industrial sectors by the arrival of several million refugees, mostly women with children. In addition, some of these Ukrainian refugees later went further west, especially to Germany, in search of better working conditions and/or social benefits. In July of this year, Radio RMF24 was informed by the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs that there were officially 1.2 million Ukrainian citizens in Poland, mostly women, children, and men over 60.

Even those Polish politicians who in 2015 had agreed to the forced relocation of migrants from other EU countries (which was eventually rejected by PiS after they won the elections that year) did not miss the opportunity to use the immigration issue – excluding the question of the presence of refugees from Ukraine, which no one disputes – to hit PiS in a similar way as they had earlier attacked them on the issue of so-called “migrants,” i.e. illegal immigrants. This is not surprising, as surveys show that Poles are mostly opposed to immigration – both illegal and legal. According to a survey published in September of this year, 90% of Poles oppose immigration from Muslim countries. Following the announcement by the Polish Foreign Ministry at the beginning of this year that they would simplify and accelerate visa procedures for nationals of a number of countries, Donald Tusk published a video on Twitter during the riots caused by immigrant communities in France in early summer in which he said: “We are watching the scenes of violent riots in France with horror, and right now Kaczyński is preparing a decision that will bring to Poland even more citizens from countries such as, quote: Saudi Arabia, India, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Qatar, the Emirates, Nigeria, and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Kaczyński already brought more than 130,000 citizens from such countries last year, 50 times more than in 2015.” Further, the former president of the European Council urged his fellow countrymen to vote for the left-liberal opposition in the upcoming elections, as “Poles must regain control of their country and its borders.” In fact, such immigrants were, as already mentioned above, 33,000 in 2022, not 130,000. Nevertheless, the video has been viewed by more than 5.7 million people.

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Adding spice to the situation is the fact that in November of this year, the European Parliament, in an unprecedented move and against the opinion of its own rapporteur, stripped the immunity of four MEPs who were sitting on the Law and Justice (PiS) benches for sharing a 2018 PiS election spot on social media, where a link was suggested between the presence of so-called refugees from Muslim countries and riots, terrorist threats, and crime in Western European countries. Turning its own rhetoric against PiS, Donald Tusk has done exactly the same thing this year, not only releasing existing election propaganda but creating his own materials that, if the European Parliament’s new criteria were applied, would have to be considered hate speech.

But will the Tusk government actually regain control of Poland’s borders? One might have some doubts, having heard the statement about ending the push-back policy against migrants crossing the Belarusian border that was made in November by one of Tusk’s key allies in the new governing coalition – that is, the new Speaker of the Sejm, Szymon Hołownia. The experience of other countries in Europe and around the world clearly shows that abandoning such forced returns for those caught at the border can only lead to a very large increase in illegal border crossings. Hołownia’s announcement in itself probably did not go unnoticed in the countries of origin of those migrants who might want to follow the Belarusian route to the EU, which Lukashenko opened up for them in 2021 in order to strike at the European Union, and Poland and Lithuania in particular. Such announcements are used by human traffickers to convince their potential clients that the chance of getting into the EU is very high, and that once they get there, all they have to do to avoid deportation is apply for asylum. It can therefore be feared that even if the new governing coalition decides, despite pressure from employers, to reduce legal labor immigration, it will lose control over illegal immigration, which is much more damaging economically and socially and a much bigger problem for Poland’s EU partners.

Belgian historian David Engels ironically about the signals sent by Speaker Hołownia to people smugglers and migrants across the world


As Poland becomes an increasingly wealthy country, it will attract more and more immigrants – both legal and illegal – from poorer countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Central Asia. According to an estimate by the Warsaw Enterprise Institute (WEI), there are about 3.5-4 million immigrants in Poland at the moment, 60-75% of whom are Ukrainians (including those who work in the shadow economy and whose stay is not registered). Most Poles do not see this as a burden for several reasons, most notably because the vast majority of immigrants come from a country that is culturally and linguistically close and they integrate fairly well into Polish society. This is also the first generation of increased immigration, and as a result there are few second- and third-generation immigrants in Poland (and these, due to their small numbers, are usually perfectly integrated into Polish society).

By comparison, in France, where labor immigration of the kind Poland is experiencing today began on a large scale in the early 1970s, in 2021 the number of immigrants was about seven million, including 2.5 million who already have French citizenship. 47.5% of these immigrants were born in Africa and 13.6% in Asia. If we include the children and grandchildren of immigrants (second- and third-generation immigrants), the number of people from an immigrant background in France is 19 million, i.e. 28% of the country’s total population of nearly 68 million. The percentage rises to nearly 42% among the population aged 0-4, and nearly 30% of France’s youngest residents are no longer of European descent. According to France’s national statistical institute, the INSEE, in 2020 Muslims made up 10% of people between 18 and 59 years old living in France, but roughly one in five babies born in France today is given an explicitly Muslim name. And nearly half a million new immigrants – legal and illegal – arrive in France every year.

In 2022, out of a total population of about 84 million in Germany, 15.3 million were born abroad, with an additional 4.9 million born to two parents who immigrated to Germany (in addition to 3.9 million born to a single immigrant parent). In 2010, Muslims made up 4.1% of Germany’s population. Today, the percentage is 6.6%. According to Pew Research Center projections, if high levels of immigration are maintained along with higher birth rates among Muslim women, the percentage of Muslim women could reach nearly 20% by mid-century.

For countries such as France, Germany, the UK, and other Western European countries, while immigration could be stopped, it is too late to reverse the transformation of national societies into multicultural societies. In the case of Poland, however, it is not too late, and therefore the issue of labor immigration and the regulations and solutions adopted in this area should be the subject of a nationwide debate. Hungary, for example, has decided this year to issue visas for an additional 200,000–300,000 foreign workers on top of the current 100,000 or so that it has, but only under strict conditions: they will have to leave the country after their work visas expire and cannot be granted the right to settle in Hungary, a country of less than ten million. This change came about because Viktor Orbán’s government realizes that new labor migrants will have to come from further abroad than the current ones, about half of whom are from neighboring countries, many being in fact ethnic Hungarians.

Incidentally, the principle of mandatory departure after the expiration of work visas is enforced by rich Arab countries that import a lot of labor from countries such as India and the Philippines. Surprisingly, most European countries have never even thought of applying this very sensible principle. After all, this would make labor migration to Europe a win-win-win situation: immigrants from poorer countries would get the chance to earn good money for a few years and support their families, their countries of origin would not lose their most talented citizens to richer countries, and richer countries would not lose control over immigration, thus preserving their identity and social cohesion while obtaining the workforce needed by their economies.

The question is whether Hungary, being a European Union country, will actually succeed in enforcing the rules for the mandatory return of migrants to their countries of origin after their visas expire. Even if the European Commission, in cooperation with the Court of Justice of the European Union, does not force the Hungarians to extend the stay of such migrants and bring their families with them, who will prevent them from going to other Schengen Area countries – given that, as a rule, no one is guarding the borders between them?