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Immigrants in Poland - Legal Status and Immigration Policy in Progress

K. Iglicka, P. Kaźmierkiewicz, A. Wainer

There has not yet been a single and comprehensive debate on the policy on the entry and residence of foreign nationals in Poland. Instead, there have been several debates in various fora, dealing with different aspects of the debate. The EU accession process has been the main driving force behind policy development. Although immigration to Poland is increasing, the debate continues to be either couched in technical issues associated with transposing EU legislation or it is seen as part of broader, disparate policies (such as employment).


In the first half of the 1990s, Poland’s policies on managing migration flows concentrated on the issues of entry, covering four basic areas: (1) establishing border controls on all frontiers, (2) entry into the pan-European system of controlling transit migration (entering into readmission agreements with the Schengen and neighbouring states), (3) constructing a rudimentary legal and institutional asylum framework, and (4) facilitating cross-border traffic with the neighbours (maintaining non-visa regimes with all European states, including the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)). Those four areas could be placed within a broader context of two complementary, though at times conflicting, discourses that emerged at the time, border control and human rights, leading to the polarisation of the emerging stakeholders in the process.

In the pre-accession period, discourse on the national migration policy failed to stir a broad political or media debate. Indeed, the status of foreigners in Poland was the object of few controversies, which meant  that domestic issues did not  have a major impact on the debate. Instead, amendments focused on accession requirements.

 Integration debate. General trend.

The integration debate is also limited in Poland. The main reason is that it targets very few people. Following the citizenship criteria we can distinguish between immigrants with regular or irregular status, and refugees. Irregular immigrants are rarely subject to integration measures; and legal immigration is not recruitment-driven, therefore no legal provisions have been dedicated to them. Refugees are the only group of foreigners with established rights, and they are the key recipients of integration programmes. Of the major groups in Poland, there are few who qualify for integration programmes: The largest group of foreigners in Poland are citizens from Ukraine. However, they are not permanent residents. Instead, they engage in shuttle migration, coming and going according to their visa validity period (maximum of 90 days). Ukrainians come to Poland as petty traders or illegal workers, and a most are not in need of any integration programs. The Vietnamese are also numerous, estimated at around 20-30,000 people,35 of different status (regular and irregular). They live mainly in big cities, mostly in Warsaw, where they have established networks and are often involved in market trade.

There are also significant numbers of Armenians, who came to Poland after the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. There are large numbers of Chechens too, most of whom have either been granted formal refugee status, or the ‘tolerated stay’ status. Several thousands of them live in Poland, representing the largest single group under protection, but the majority perceive Poland as a temporary stop on their way west.

Repatriates are another large group – most of whom come from the former states of the USSR. They receive Polish citizenship when they enter Poland. Repatriates are eligible to take part in an integration scheme.


Main categories of foreigners in integration debate.

 Legal immigrants.

Because of small numbers,36 legal immigrants are not a group that receive any particular attention from policy makers or the public. Their existence continues without any real objections and their status is not a widely discussed issue in the context of new laws or regulations. Legal immigrants are the group least dependent on the State policies, which means they receive no support, and they do not suffer much everyday discrimination. Legal immigrants take care of their own integration themselves, in both the economic and the cultural sense. However, they encounter serious legal and bureaucratic obstacles due to regulations on access to housing, social services or employment, where a wide range of permits are needed.

It must be remembered that legalisation of stay concerns only particular individuals, educated or determined enough not to choose the easier irregular status. Their success in Poland depends on personal contacts and their ability to adapt skills. In Poland, immigrants do not live in ghettos (Weinar), they are in constant communication with the rest of society, the broader society is therefore forced to acknowledge their presence and make at least a minimal effort towards acceptance. It is also important to note that most have committed to a future in Poland, and as such, they will probably pursue Polish citizenship, and ultimately gain equal status and political rights. At the moment, this group of immigrants tend to assimilate rather than integrate, but the situation may change if their numbers grow in the future. The only section of this group that attracts the attention of policy makers are foreign students. There are over 8,000 foreign students in Polish universities (Kępińska). The debate on student integration has been connected to the debate on economic migration. While discussing the Aliens Act of 2003, the idea of pro-student immigration policy was rejected. Some MPs and social actors, such as the Helsinki Foundation, argued that students, especially graduates, possess a certain capital that could be of use to Poland.

They also identified students as a group that integrate easily (...).

 Irregular immigrants.

It is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 600,000 irregular migrants in Poland. Their presence is widely discussed, however, the discussions take place in a different contexts. Expulsion, deportation and imprisonment are debated more frequently than integration. This should not come as a surprise – illegal immigration is found everywhere in the world – and there is often more concern about legalisation than integration schemes. The Polish experience with shuttle migration from the neighbouring countries indicates that the people coming to the country either stick to the shuttle-migration rhythm, or end up in a prolonged state of illegality. Only very few try to obtain some legal recognition. This is despite that fact that their irregular status deprives them of formal access to social services, although they do have access to emergency medical services. Their children are also able to enrol in public schools as the Polish constitution guarantees the right to universal basic education to all persons residing in the national territory, and schools verify residence status only occasionally.


Refugees are the most prominent group of foreigners, not for their numbers (there were 8,079 applications in 2004, 305 were recognised refugees, and 832 people granted tolerated stay) (Data Office for Repatriates and Foreigners, but for their presence in the public and political discourse. The refugee question is framed as a humanitarian and a solidarity issue, and the tone of the debate is set by international organisations. Refugee status is based on international legal provisions, adopted by Poland, which means that the refugees enjoy internationally recognised rights. The Polish State and the international community guarantee these rights, giving refugees two avenues of appeal. Refugees are the only immigrant group whose individual needs were recognised in the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion. As the only foreign group, refugees can participate in an integration programme. The Polish law guarantees that refugees have free access to accommodation, employment, health services and education. The new Act on Social Welfare provides Polish language classes, vocational training, and cash benefits for specific purposes, such as rent, food and clothes etc.



The last group, repatriates, number around 8,000 (2005). Repatriation concerns people of Polish origin who have been migrating to Poland from the states of the former Soviet Union since the beginning of the 1990s. The process of their return was not regulated until 1997 and they were treated like any other foreigners coming to Poland. This group is protected by the separate Repatriation Act of 2000, which is designed to recognise their special status. This Act grants them access to the only fully developed integration policy that includes not only the State, but also the society. They generally enjoy a high degree of acceptance, partially thanks to their Polish origins, partially because of the manner in which they immigrate: repatriation is a community issue, it is decided upon and organised by a community willing to host a repatriate. Such framing of the programme helps to rule out most discriminatory practices. At the same time, a lot of Polish citizens fail to recognise repatriation as a significant issue. However, they do not regard the newcomers as compatriots because of language barriers (their Russian accent or insufficient knowledge of the Polish language).


 The fear among experts and practitioners is that the Polish society is not ready for a confrontation with settling communities of immigrants. Some warn that Poles should be educated about the ideas and standards of integration before the actual massive inflows occur. At the same time it should be noted that there are no pressing needs in Poland to address racism or xenophobia. The EUMC report51 published on 15 March 2005 revealed that Poland is one of the least xenophobic countries in Europe. Against the relatively low-key official discourse on integration, efforts of non-government organisations to assist foreigners, in particular refugees, in coping with the Polish realities take on special significance. The UNHCR has worked with other groups in civil-society to raise the awareness of the society’s obligation to host persons in need of protection. Chechens represent the largest ethnic group among protected

persons (although regularly denied refugee status) and they have therefore become the object of media attention. Despite the cultural gap, the Polish public has been generally sympathetic towards that group, which was helped by the relatively broad coverage of the Chechen conflict in the national media. Nonetheless, the recent security concerns following the London attacks could undermine this positive climate.



K. Iglicka, P. Kaźmierkiewicz, A. Wainer, Poland [w:] Jan Niessen, Yongmi Schibel and Cressida Thompson (eds.), Current Immigration Debates in Europe: A Publication of the European Migration Dialog, Brussels/Warsaw 2005




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