Background information Capital: Warsaw
Offical language: Polish
Area: 312.685 km2
(for comparison, Germany: 357,027 km2)
Population (2006): 38.157.055 (Eurostat)
Population density: 122 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (2005): 0,0% (World Bank)
Labour force participation rate (2006): 63,4% (OECD)
Foreign population as a percentage of the total (2005): 1.8% (703,000 persons) (UN Population Division)
Percentage of foreign employees among gainfully
employed (2003):
0,15% (ILO)
Unemployment rate: 14.0% (2006); 18.0% (2005); 19.3% (2004) (OECD)
Religions (2001):

Aussiedler (ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states). Another large wave began in 1968, when up to 25,000 Polish Jews left the country. Polish citizens were allowed to travel relatively freely until the late 1970s, but in 1981 most western countries imposed visa restrictions. As a result of these restrictions primarily people from ethnic minority groups continued to migrate on the basis of agreements and international treaties.

During the suppression of the Solidarność movement1 and the imposition of martial law at the beginning of the 1980s another 250,000 Polish citizens emigrated.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the nature of migration to and from Poland has been in flux. As a result of its negative migration balance (see below), Poland is still regarded mainly as a country of emigration. Because of its geographic location between Eastern and Western Europe, however, it increasingly serves as a transit country for migrants. There are also numerous immigrants from Vietnam and Armenia living in the country. In addition to this, Poland seems to be developing into a destination country, primarily for migrants from neighbouring countries on its eastern border (Ukraine, Belarus, Russia), and from other parts of the former Soviet Union. This is predominantly due to the fact that, compared with other Central and Eastern European countries, Poland has been experiencing a period of comparatively rapid economic growth since the 1990s, first as a country associated with the European Union (EU), then as a candidate for accession, and now as a new EU member state.

The Emigration/Immigration Balance

Between 1980 and 1989, an estimated 1.1 to 1.3 million Polish citizens were considered long-term emigrants (residing in a foreign country for at least a year), not taking into account the several hundred thousands of ethnic Germans (Aussiedler) who do not appear in the official statistics. Although the number of immigrants to Poland has increased since the beginning of the 1990s (see figure 2), the migration balance has continued to remain negative. In 2006 emigration from Poland increased sharply. Whereas between 1990 and 2005 the number of emigrants was approximately 20,000 to 25,000 people per year, this number rose in 2006 to nearly 47,000 people (migration balance 2006: -36,100 people). This corresponds to an increase of 111% compared with the previous year. This high increase is based primarily on the migration of Polish workers to the United Kingdom, one of the countries that immediately opened its labour market to citizens of the accession countries.2 According to data in the Labour Force Survey carried out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in the third quarter of 2006 about 438,000 Polish citizens spent more than two months abroad. Compared with the corresponding quarter in the previous year this represents an increase of 128,000 people. If we consider not only Polish citizens but also people of Polish descent, according to Polish state estimates, the Polish diaspora (the so-called Polonia) comprises between 15 and 18 million people worldwide.

Political and Legal Developments

34 Poland was also required to align its asylum policy with that of the EU and to introduce visas for citizens of neighbour states to the east as of October 1, 2003. In the first year following the introduction of mandatory visas, 1.1 million visas were issued in the Polish consulates in Ukraine (600,000), Belarus (300,000) and Russia (200,000, primarily in Kaliningrad). In the west Ukrainian city of Lviv alone between 800 and 1,000 visas were issued daily. In 2005, the number of visas issued to citizens of neighbouring eastern states rose by 5.4% to 1.3 million, of which 240,000 visas were issued by the Polish consulate in Lviv (18%).

In addition to bringing its laws into alignment with EU standards, the Aliens Act, which was amended in 2003, contained a legalisation programme (abolicjaKarta Polaka. Ethnic Poles originating from states of the former Soviet Union, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, the Republic of Moldova, the (entire) Russian Federation and Ukraine who are awarded the Karta will enjoy certain advantages when staying in Poland. They will be entitled to take up any legal occupation (including being self-employed) without a work permit. The document will also take the place of an entry visa, facilitating frequent border crossings. Moreover, those in possession of the Karta will receive free access to educational institutions, the health system in emergencies and to state museums as well as reduced price rail travel within Poland. The document will be valid for ten years and may be extended. In order to acquire the Karta applicants have to prove that they are of Polish descent, have basic Polish language skills, and that they have cultivated an attachment to Poland and Polish culture. Unlike a visa issued under the Repatriation Act, the Karta Polaka will not entitle its holder to settle in Poland, nor will the holder acquire Polish citizenship. 

The Immigrant Population

Residence permits
Since the reforms concerning the residence of EU citizens, five categories of residence permit have been in place. In 2005 there were a total of 42,380 applications for residence permits, of which 38,512 (91%) were approved: 22,626 renewable temporary permits were issued to third-country nationals for a stay of longer than three months, and 3,589 settlement permits were awarded. In addition, 2,183 temporary residence permits for stays of three to twelve months were awarded to EU citizens in 2005, as were 10,077 EU residence permits for stays of more than one year and 37 long-term settlement permits.

Due to the introduction of new residence permit categories, it is no longer possible to make a longer-term comparison between current data and permits that were issued previously. In the period between January and August 2006, 27.3% of the total number of residence permits issued were granted to EU citizens, primarily German (13.5%), while 38% of residence permits went to citizens of states of the former Soviet Union, in particular Ukrainians (25%). The largest percentage of residence permits granted to non-European states went to the Vietnamese (approx. 6%).
6 came into force that should make gaining access to the labour market easier for specific groups, including holders of statutory temporary suspensions of deportation, foreign spouses of Poles, recognised refugees, and, pursuant to a further reform in force since autumn 2005, asylum applicants whose papers could not be processed within a year.

Ethnic Poles
Karta Polaka in March 2008, this group will be extended to include people from neighbouring states such as Ukraine and Belarus.

Between 19977 and 2005, 3,392 visas were issued to ethnic Polish repatriates, by means of which a total of 4,966 people (repatriates and their family members) entered Poland. Excluding the years 2001 and 2002 (immediately after the Repatriation Law came into force) the number of visas issued each year has scarcely exceeded 300. The majority of repatriates entering Poland since 1997 come from Kazakhstan.

One reason for the low number of ethnic migrants lies in the stipulation that applicants provide proof of accommodation and a source of maintenance in Poland or that they have been invited by a Polish commune which agrees to meet these conditions. Due to a shortage of council housing, high unemployment and the fear of overly high costs, many communes do not feel that they are in a position to adequately support the settlement of a repatriate. Conversely, potential repatriates often find those communes that actually do issue an invitation unattractive.8 

While the older generation of Polish repatriates has maintained the Polish language and culture as far as possible, members of the younger generation are displaying difficulties in mastering the Polish language, preferring the Russian language and culture instead. This has led to considerable integration problems that are only exacerbated by an insufficient and poorly executed integration policy.9


Integration Policy


Refuge and Asylum

According to the 1997 law, applications for asylum have to be filed upon entry into Poland. However, the Polish Supreme Administrative Court (Naczelny Sąd Administracyjny) has declared that the practice among the Polish Border Police of periodically denying entry to refugees is not legal.11 Thus, applications for recognition as a refugee or to gain asylum can once again be filed anywhere in the country.

Between 1992 and 2006, around 59,000 asylum applications were filed (of these, nearly three quarters were filed between 2000 and 2006). Of a total of 7,088 applicants in 2006 (including family members), 90% came from the Russian Federation (6,393 people), almost all from Chechnya. Only 422 people were recognized as refugees (6%); another 2,045, however, were granted the temporary suspension of deportation first introduced in 2003 (28.9%). A total of 91% of those recognized as refugees and 98% of those granted a suspension of deporation were Chechens. Compared with the previous year, the number of applications for asylum did rise slightly (+ 3.3%), but it was still far below the high point reached in 2004.

Insufficient integration measures are a major problem in Polish asylum and refugee policy. Hence, according to information from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Warsaw, many refugees and asylum applicants decide to journey on to other EU states. Therefore, Poland is mainly a transit country.

Since May 1, 2004, a law on the social integration of refugees has been in force.12 The so-called individual integration programme that is contained in the law provides financial support to refugees and their family members for the period of one year. Between EUR 100 and EUR 270 are granted monthly for language courses and accommodation, according to need. However, Polish NGOs have criticised this amount as being far too low. The main problems related to integration remain the search for accommodation and access to the labour market.


The legal basis for citizenship is provided by the Polish Constitution and related supplementary laws. According to article 34, paragraph 1 of the Constitution of April 2, 1997, Polish citizenship is acquired at birth if at least one of the parents already possesses citizenship (ius sanguinis). Naturalisation is possible after a minimum of five years of legal residency in Poland. Although it is not stipulated in national law, multiple citizenships are tolerated in practice.13

Between 2002 and 2005, 7,623 people were naturalised. Some 2,866 people were naturalised in 2005 alone, a considerable increase compared with the previous year (2004: 1,937 naturalisations). This increase can be attributed primarily to the processing of a backlog of applications. Most of the people who were naturalised in the period between 2002 and 2005 came from Ukraine, Belarus, the Russian Federation, Israel, Lithuania and Germany.14

Irregular Migration

Since the 1990s, Poland has developed into a transit country for irregular migration from east to west. Between 1996 and September 2006, 43,283 people were seized at the Polish border. Some 18,688 (43.2%) of these people were trying to enter Poland illegally and 24,595 (56.8%) were attempting to travel through Poland illegally to an adjacent country. The destination country of those departing or transiting illegally was most often Germany (in 64% of cases from January to September 2006, and in 67% of cases in 2005). Based on readmission agreements, the Polish authorities deported 52,419 foreigners home to neighbouring countries between 1998 and 2006, predominantly to Ukraine (2006: 76.8%)


Current Developments and Future Challenges

Brain drain
During the accession negotiations between Poland and the EU one issue became the topic of particularly intense discussions: the so-called brain drain (i.e. the emigration of professionals in certain fields, e.g. the medical profession, or highly qualified workers in general, in this case from Poland to Western European countries). Simultaneously, by introducing measures restricting the free movement of workers during the transition period, the majority of the old 15 EU member states made sure that their labour markets would initially be closed to employees from the new member states. Such measures seemed likely to counteract the brain drain phenomenon.

In the case of labour migration between Poland and Germany (along with the United Kingdom one of the most important destination countries for labour from Poland), movement is affected theoretically at least by the new German Immigration Act in addition to existing bilateral regulations, like those concerning seasonal workers. The new law allows highly qualified persons to access the German labour market and to obtain permanent residency status. It also allows foreign students who have successfully completed their studies to remain in Germany for another year in order to look for a job. Nonetheless, so far the brain drain issue has played a lesser role in connection with Germany. Highly qualified professionals from Poland are more likely to go to the US and Canada.

More recent data from the Labour Force Survey conducted by the International Labour Organisation ILO, however, indicates that emigration among highly qualified Poles has increased since Poland joined the EU. In 2005, 10% of emigrants held a university degree (2004: 5%), 29% a high school diploma (2004: 19%) and 20% had professional training (2004: 16%).17 Whether these highly qualified migrants remain abroad permanently, thereby contributing to the brain drain, is not clear. Although short-term labour migration continues to dominate, the data show that long-term migration has gained importance and is increasing further. The highest increases were recorded in the numbers emigrating to Ireland and the United Kingdom. Estimates indicate that between 500,000 and one million Poles have migrated to the United Kingdom since Poland joined the EU, many of them as circular migrants. Very recently, however, many Poles have returned to their home country.

Relations with neighbouring countries to the east
The consequences of Poland's accession to the EU for relations with its neighbours to the east, especially Ukraine, were also debated publicly in the course of membership negotiations. In particular, concerns were expressed in the border regions of eastern Poland about possible negative consequences resulting from the introduction of mandatory visas and the tightening of border controls. It was feared that cross-border co-operation, which had been gradually developing during the 1990s, could be made more difficult, and that cross-border family relationships would suffer under a more restrictive border regime. Entrepreneurs from the region expressed their concern that the number of customers from neighbouring countries would decrease. In 2003, when mandatory visas were introduced for citizens of the eastern neighbouring countries, the number of people entering Poland through its eastern border initially decreased by 7.5%. Where the border with Ukraine is concerned, however, an increase in immigrant numbers has been recorded since 2004, with increases also recorded for the borders with Belarus and the Russian Federation since 2005. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen what effect the full implementation of the Schengen Agreement in Poland from 21 December 2007 (land and sea borders) and March 2008 (air borders) and the associated abolition of border controls with other Schengen states will have on migration from neighbouring states to the east.



  1. EU Expansion and the Free Movement of Workers: Do Continued Restrictions Make Sense for Germany?
  2. Communes wishing to support an repatriate are listed in a register used by potential repatriates to look for a suitable invitation (in particular with regard to opportunities for professional integration). The law provides for a range of administrative and financial incentives for the communes (e.g. partial refunding of accommodation costs) which are to be financed from an allocation in the central budget.
  3. (a) The EU/EEA group also contains ten new member states; (b) The three Baltic States have not been included in the numbers for the Soviet Union. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are included in the EU/EEA group; (c) Not all foreigners are categorised according to citizenship in the census breakdown.
  4. Act on Promotion of Employment and Institutions of the Labour Market; cf. Dziennik Ustaw (Journal of Law), 2004, No. 99, item 1001.
  5. The repatriation law did not come into force until 2001. However, in response to an uncontrolled influx of migrants at the start of the 1990s, the immigration of ethnic Poles was provisionally regulated by the Aliens Act following a government resolution.
  6. See Elrick, Frelak and Hut (2006).
  7. For a critique of the Polish integration policy, see Gmaj (2007) and Kępińska (2006).
  8. See FFM (1999).
  9. Act on Social Assistance, cf. Dziennik Ustaw (Journal of Law), 2004, No. 64, item 593.
  10. See Kępińska (2006).
  11. See Kępińska (2006).

About the Author:
Stefan Alscher
E-mail: stalscher@migra.org

References and Further Reading

    • Multiple Citizenship in Poland. ISS Working Papers No. 53. Warsaw.
    • Iglicka, K. (2003): Priorities and Developmental Directions of Polish Migration Policy, Analyses & Opinions No. 13, The Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw.
    • Kępińska, E. (2006): Recent Trends in International Migration. The 2006 SOPEMI Report for Poland. ISS Working Papers No. 15/73. Warsaw.
    • Kępińska, E. (2004): Recent Trends in International Migration. The 2004 SOPEMI Report for Poland. ISS Working Papers No. 53. Warsaw.

Internet Sources

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.