Recently Poland has aimed its immigration policy at absorbing a young labour force from Belarus. Belarusan authorities definitely dislike the initiative, but have proved unable to counter it so far.
On 28 January the Polish Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers proposed granting residence permits to a million migrants currently in Poland. The majority of them are Ukrainians, followed by Belarusians and Vietnamese.
In recent years Poland has been aiming its immigration policy at absorbing a young labour force from the regions of former Polish rule, and has created unique preferences for foreign citizens in the form of the Card of the Pole. The card gives its holder the right to work and study in Poland, and later to obtain Polish citizenship.
Many Belarusians see it as an opportunity to work and study in Poland with the prospect of getting EU citizenship in the conditions of the ongoing economic crisis. The authorities of Belarus definitely dislike the initiative, but have proved unable to counter it so far.
Poland attracts migrants
On 28 January the Polish Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers in a publication estimated that due to the demographic crisis, by 2050 Poland will need to accept between 2m and 5m migrants to retain current economic growth rates. Currently, around one million people, mainly from Ukraine and Belarus, are employed in the Polish economy. Thanks to them the Polish budget receives an extra €1.5-2bn annually.
In an interview with Gazeta Prawna, union head Cezary Kaźmierczak said that migrants from these countries are “the best in the world”. They do not take away jobs from Poles and cost nothing for taxpayers. He contrasted them to migrants from the Near East and Africa, who in most cases do not work and live on social benefits. As discontent with current EU migration policy grows in Poland, Belarusians and Ukrainians are increasing their chances of becoming resident in Poland.
The Card of the Pole
In 2008 Poland introduced a Law on the Card of the Pole, which targeted the population of lands formerly ruled by Poland in Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltics. The card gives its owner the right to get a long-term free Polish visa, legally work, do business and study in Poland on an equal footing with Polish citizens, as well as offering some other benefits.
To get a card, one needs to demonstrate documented proof of ancestors living in Poland in 1921-1939. Poland at that time included the current western Belarusian territories. Alternatively, one must make a considerable contribution to Polish culture to receive the card. These criteria makes a few hundred thousand Belarusians potentially eligible for the card.
In 2013 the Polish authorities announced that they had granted the Card of the Pole to 42,000 Belarusians. The current number of card owners in Belarus remains unknown, as Polish officials are reluctant to reveal the latest figures. According to Eurostat, around 70,000 Belarusians have received national long-term visas, which gives an approximate indication of the number of Pole card holders in Belarus.
In November 2015 a special commission of the Polish parliament recommended an amendment to the Law on the Card of the Pole, which would allow its owner to get Polish (and EU) citizenship after living in Poland for only one year. Moreover, the card owners would receive a grant of around €5,400 per family member to cover their adaptation costs, as well as professional and language training.
Initially Poland declared the Card of the Pole a symbolic step to support its nationals abroad, but it has obviously become a purely pragmatic policy - an instrument to absorb the young workforce from neighbouring countries, which cannot go unnoticed by the Belarusian government
Authorities see Card of the Pole as a threat
In 2012 the Constitutional Court of Belarus announced that the Law on the Card of the Pole contradicts international law and violates a number of bilateral agreements. The government also made amendments to the law on the civil service which forbids officials from having a Pole card and similar documents from other states.
Andrei Yeliseyeu, migration expert from Belarus, told Belarus Digest that few countries would tolerate the fact that a considerable number of their citizens, including officials, declare themselves loyal to another state. He recalled the reaction of Lithuanian officials to the Card of the Pole law in 2009, when Lithuanian MPs tried to restrict card holders' right to run in parliamentary elections.
The negative reaction of the Belarusian authorities is justified. The Card of the Pole will cause a drain on the Belarusian labour force and strengthen the influence of Poland, a NATO member and ardent critic of Lukashenka, on the Belarusian population.
However, the authorities unwisely stimulate the rush for a Card of the Pole by protracting visa liberalisation with the EU and blocking small local border traffic with Poland. Many Belarusians would be satisfied just with free Schengen visas to shop in nearby Poland and Lithuania. With the Card of the Pole they receive a more alluring opportunity to get EU citizenship.
Belarusians are heading west
The economic situation in Belarus has been worsening for the last two years, and the coming years do not look bright either. Russia, which traditionally served as a migration hub for many Belarusians, is also declining and in addition getting increasingly aggressive and xenophobic. These developments push Belarusians to look west, to countries with more stable economies and effective rule of law.
Most Belarusians wish to get a Card of the Pole not because of sentimental attachment to Polish culture or pride in their ancestors. They want concrete material benefits – getting free visas with the prospect of receiving a residence permit and later citizenship of the EU, and the ability to work and study on equal terms with Polish citizens in a country with a three times higher average salary. Those who are not ready to move abroad wish at least to get the possibility of shopping and travelling.
Ihar from Minsk, 30, has recently become a happy owner of a Card of the Pole. He told Belarus Digest that among his friends around 10 people already have cards, and it has become increasingly popular among young people. For example, a section of the largest Belarusian Internet forum Onliner dedicated to discussion of ways of getting a Card of the Pole has 3,000 pages – one of the most popular topics on the forum.
Andrej Yeliseyeu thinks that the current economic crisis will definitely cause an outflow of Belarusians towards the west. Those not eligible for a Card of the Pole will use other opportunities, like seasonal works in Poland.
If the Belarusian authorities want to stop the brain drain, they should in the first place enforce local border traffic and make efforts to liberalise or completely remove the visa regime with the EU. In a longer term perspective, the government should think of introducing a similar policy to attract ethnic Belarusians from abroad and provide them with special preferences.