Poland must be ready for another refugee crisis

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Poland must reform its immigration laws in light of the situation in Ukraine. A possible escalation of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia will have very serious consequences for Poland. On the one hand, Poland may face a wave of refugees from Ukraine, while on the other hand, some Ukrainians working in Poland may leave to defend their homeland. The Warsaw Enterprise Institute urges the Polish government to implement a clear immigration strategy for Poland, liberalize the law on hiring foreigners in Poland, and to strengthen the administration.

Nobody wants Russia to invade Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Polish state should be ready for such a scenario. For the polish economy, a possible escalation of the conflict beyond our south-eastern border will be unpleasant news. Our country will be treated by foreign capital as a high-risk country, which will slow down the investments inflow, while the cost of debt service will rise. A serious crisis is also threatening us in the demographic and migration spheres. For years, the Polish labor market has been struggling with a deficit of workers, which luckily has been alleviated by the labor force coming mainly from Ukraine. According to various estimates, between 800 thousand and even 2 million Ukrainians work in Poland. An armed conflict on the territory of Ukraine may create two parallel phenomena. Firstly, thousands of refugees will try to cross the Polish border. Second, some of the Ukrainians working in Poland will return to their homeland to defend it. We are talking about events that may take place within a few weeks and as such would come as a shock to Poland. Note that not all of the refugees will be able to work, there will be elderly people and children among them. War refugees are not economic migrants. They will become an additional cost to state financial capacities. At the same time – tax revenue will decrease due to the second phenomenon mentioned above, that is, a sudden outflow of a significant part of the labor force. As noted by Cezary Bachański in the WEI report “Portrait of immigrants in Poland”, immigrants – mainly Ukrainians – currently generate about 2-3 percent of Polish GDP, and also pay about half a billion zlotys a year in social insurance contributions.

How to protect Poland against such a scenario? Complete protection against such a scenario is impossible, but its potential effects can be mitigated. First of all, it is necessary to increase the flexibility of the labour market for foreigners so as to broaden the range of countries from which they come to work in Poland. Bachański points out that immigration from Ukraine alone will not be able to fill the demographic gap in the long run anyway – we should think of people from Philippines or Vietnam, too.

A clear and comprehensive immigration strategy for Poland should be implemented as soon as possible, so that those willing to work in our country could do so based on clear rules. The current rules are unclear, complicated and heterogeneous, as they leave a lot of room for discretion to local officials. As a result, the process of issuing work permits is characterized by various pathologies, described in detail in the above mentioned report.

In preparation for the refugee crisis, mechanisms should be introduced to temporarily allow foreigners to work while waiting for their refugee status. At the same time, the administration of Voivodeship Offices and Labour Offices should be strengthened so that it can devote more resources than at present to serving foreigners. Also an information campaign on the rights and obligations of foreigners in Poland should be carried out, including training on the possibility of taking up legal employment and applying for residence on that basis.

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