Poland's demographic time-bomb

By bne IntelliNews July 11, 2012

Bogdan Turek in Warsaw -

Poland's population is declining year by year and demographic experts say the number will dwindle from 37m to 31m by 2050 unless it creates incentives for foreigners to settle. That will be hard for a country not known for its welcoming attitude to immigrants.

"The decreasing population trend of the Polish nation cannot be resolved only by incentives to have more children," says Krystyna Iglicka, an expert on immigration problems at Warsaw's Lazarski University. "We should focus on immigrants."

Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, who are culturally close to Poles, would be the best bet, but existing bureaucratic barriers and lack of legal protections for foreign-born residents scare them away. This can be seen in the statistics, which show that the number of "mixed" marriages has dropped by 10% and number of children born to such couples fell by one sixth over the last two years.

Iglicka says immigrants from the east do not want to settle in Poland, primarily because of discrimination against them on the labour market. "Polish managers have usually two kinds of offers: house cleaning, or work in so-called social agencies - or brothels - despite the fact that many of the women are graduates of higher establishments and speak Polish," Iglicka says. "Poland is a difficult country for immigrants, and the stay here often turns into economic degradation."

Demographic experts warn that Poland will be short of some 5m-6m workers by 2060, for which formulating a decent immigration policy, with incentives to settle in Poland, could be a remedy. "A quick system should be introduced for recognizing foreign diplomas," says Miroslaw Biernacki, an expert in the Institute of Public Affairs. "The complicated recognition procedures of diplomas deter engineers or doctors from coming come to Poland."

Yet even ethnic brothers such as the roughly 70,000 Poles who were deported to Kazakhstan under Stalin during World War II don't appear particularly welcome in their homeland. The Polish statistical office GUS says that only 5,200 have resettled to Poland in the last 10 years. Svetlana Kot, who married a Pole and got Polish citizenship, says her mother is still stuck in Kazakhstan. "She knows how difficult it is to prove that that she has Polish roots, so she decided to stay for the next five years to reach retirement age and get a pension in Kazakhstan," she says. "Then, after coming back to Poland, she will not be a financial burden for her family."

The media recently highlighted the case of Olech Zych, a 50-year-old monk of Polish descent who was born in Ukraine and whose mother was Polish and father Ukrainian. The authorities rejected his application to get Polish citizenship because the birth certificate of his mother did not specify her nationality, although she had another official document issued by Ukrainian authorities saying she was Polish. The monk had to leave Poland to avoid deportation. "There is little time left to change Polish immigration policy," Biernacki says. "Foreigners are simply discouraged from settling in Poland."

The number of naturalization documents issued since 2005 is low. Only 6,937 people, chiefly Ukrainians and Belarusians, got Polish citizenship from 2005 to 2009. In 2010, 2,019 naturalization documents were issued and in 2011, a total of 2,375.

Back home

Still, there are some encouraging signs. In 2011, John Abraham Godson, a Nigerian who has lived in Poland for almost half his life and is a Polish citizen, become the first black man to become a member of parliament in Poland. Godson's success has been hailed as a landmark in a country where there are just 4,000 black people.

The huge outflow of people from Poland when it joined the EU has also abated and even reversed as the economic crisis in Western Europe deepens.

GUS, the statistical office, estimates that over 1.7m Poles left Poland in the six years after Poland joined the EU in 2004, most to the UK and Ireland. Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary-General, said in June that her organisation has noted significant re-flows of migrants back into Poland from places hard hit by the crisis. Once a magnet for migrant workers particularly Poles, Ireland has witnessed a dramatic reversal in migration trends, with around 34,000 people emigrating in 2010 as well as in 2011 - equal to 1% of its national population.

One new trend among Poles is not to emigrate far away from home, but only to settle across the Polish-German border. There are about 460,000 Poles living in Germany now. The German Institute of Public Affairs says that some 4,500 Polish families bought houses or apartments in the Maklemburg region near the Polish city of Szczecin. "The number of settlers doubled in the last seven years and is growing," it notes.

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