Economic success makes Poland destination for immigrants

By Paul Henley
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, A Vietnamese immigrant sells clothes in a shop in Warsaw

Poland is Europe's least multicultural society, but could be on the cusp of becoming a destination for a new wave of migrants.

"When I first came here, I used to be scared to go out, always looking around in case the police caught me. I lived in constant fear."

Qui's story of being an illegal immigrant will be familiar to millions all over Europe. But he has come to a country that is hardly known as a magnet for migrants - Poland.

He is from Vietnam and part of one of Poland's biggest ethnic minorities. (The link began when both countries had communism in common.)

Qui works in the clothes trade in Warsaw. And these days, he has his own market stall, a family, an apartment in a concrete high-rise block on the outskirts of Warsaw… and peace of mind.

He is legal, having benefitted from an amnesty organised, earlier this year, by a government newly-aware that its economy needs people like him.

He says it feels like a huge weight has been lifted off his shoulders.

Qui and his wife Thiem met in Poland and they are proud of their new status and of their host country.

"Our son has a Polish name", they say, "because we live in Poland, we love Poland and we feel tied to it". They talk of his future university education there.

Changing capital

Venture a kilometre or two outside the historic centre of Warsaw and you do not have to look very hard to see how profoundly the capital is changing.

Image caption, Paul Norris and his family emigrated from the UK

Bakalarska Market is a vast clothes, electrical and food retail centre run almost exclusively by non-Poles.

Music and voices from Vietnam, Bulgaria, Turkey, Nigeria, China, Ukraine and Belarus are proof of a nascent ethnic mix that would have been unimaginable until recently.

In the last two years, the number of applications for work permits in Poland has doubled.

Eurostat figures show only 0.1% of people in Poland were born abroad, the lowest figure in the European Union.

Before World War II, a quarter of Poland's population was Jewish, German or Ukrainian. But by 1947, virtually all those people had either been murdered or banished.

Stripped of their sovereignty as part of the Soviet bloc, Poles were left with their blood ties and their Catholicism to give them a sense of nationhood. And communism - as well as an entirely understandable persecution complex - helped keep the country in a kind of ethnic isolation.

But a long list of factors suggests the country's monoculture could soon be a thing of the past.

As most of Europe slows, economically, Poland picks up. It was the only EU member of 27 to avoid recession during the crisis of 2008-2009 and it continues to buck trends.

At the same time, it has labour shortages exacerbated by the emigration of millions of workers.

The man in charge of immigration policy, Rafal Rogala, seems well aware there are changes in store.

"I feel proud", says the Minister for Foreigners, "that Poland is a destination country for economic migrants. We understand them perfectly because, up until now, we have been the economic migrants.

"Buried deep within us is this gene of openness toward foreigners. We understand the need to improve your fate and build a life elsewhere. Now it is a question of education, of getting our people used to the idea that we are a destination country for lots of foreigners who will want to live and work here".

Economic circumstances

Mr Rogala admits that immigration might not be a matter of choice, given the economic circumstances.

He has reservations shared by western European politicians whose countries have already lived through an influx. And the British model is not one he is keen to copy.

In no way is he suggesting, he says, "that we want to become a multicultural society. Both Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy admitted that multi-culturalism had not passed the test".

The other end of Poland's new immigration spectrum is every bit as surprising as that represented by the family from Vietnam.

In Wroclaw, Poland's fourth city, 300km (200 miles) south-west of the capital, hundreds of expatriates from the world's richest nations came together for the Christmas party of the city's chamber of commerce.

American bankers networked with German PR officials and Danish software executives, all of whom have recently made Poland their home.

Image caption, Vietnamese families make up one of Poland's biggest ethnic minorities

They compared large suburban homes, golf club membership, theatre visits and gourmet meals out.

Paul Norris arrived in Wroclaw from Surrey in England four months ago with his French wife, Catherine, and their two children. He is relishing his role as head of a fast-growing IT team at Credit Suisse's base there.

Emilie, 10, and Louis, 8, are enjoying Polish lessons at their international school.

Catherine might wrestle with the nuances of Polish life, but she, too, is glad they have made the move.

"I have met lots of really nice Polish people," she says.

"To start with, I thought they could be quite rude in shops, not particularly tolerant of foreigners. But I think they are quite private people and you have to understand them a little bit better.

"I have been reading about Polish history and they have been part of so many empires, people wanting bits of them. So it's no wonder the older people are as they are, a little defensive."

The family are discussing how long they will stay in Poland. They do not rule out the long-term.

Professor Krystyna Iglicka is an economist at the Lazarski School of Commerce and Law in Warsaw and advisor to the government on immigration.

"We need hard-working immigrants", she says, "eager to contribute to this nation. Ironically, we need exactly the same people you [the UK] got from us in the year 2004."

Just as western Europe got the ubiquitous "Polish plumber", she says, Poland got the Ukrainian nanny and the Belarusian builder.

And she hopes they are the front-runners of many more.

Thanks to its economic success, the face of Poland might never be the same again.

Hear the full report on BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents. You can listen via the Radio 4 website or via the Crossing Continents podcast.

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