Poland: An Ever Growing Exodus of Youth

Theo Gicquel, correspondent in Warsaw. Translated by Gemma Kentish
13 Mai 2015

Since its accession into the European Union in 2004, and even more so since its integration into the Schengen free movement area in 2007, Poland has greatly increased its territorial and commercial access to Western European countries. This opening has led to a considerable flux of Polish students into the West, attracted by a Western style of living. This exodus is becoming a major problem for Poland.

Crédit DR
Crédit DR
« Cześć, jak się masz ? »  (Hello, how are you?). Over the last ten years in the United Kingdom it has become more and more common to hear these Polish phrases. They are spoken by students who have emigrated from Poland to try and find a better life across the Channel. There are many of them, and the numbers only keep increasing year after year. The phenomenon began with the entry of Poland into the European Union. This had a huge impact which led to a brain drain, and successive governments have not yet been able to curb the problem.

Officially, more than 2 million Polish people left the country between 2002 and the end of 2007, of which 650,000 went to the United Kingdom and 200,000 to Ireland. The large majority were fresh graduates: 82% were between the ages of 18 and 34.  They say that they were disappointed by their own country, which had no exciting job prospects when they left university: "The government doesn't help us and doesn't count on us. So why stay when they don't want us?" comments Bogusz, a Polish student exiled in London.

The second migratory wave in 2009 accentuated the movement, the government of then Prime Minister Donald Tusk having failed to put the brakes on this continual exodus.

Although the government believed this emigration would be temporary, it continued without cease. In 2013, 726,000 people under the age of 34 left the country, a sign of a stagnation of the quality of life at home and the open possibilities of Europe. With a much lower birth rate than its neighbours, which decreased from 2.06 in 1991 to 1.30 in 2012, combined with a unstable and inefficient healthcare system, the Polish government's efforts to keep their best and brightest were in vain.

"The exodus has become normal"

What we are hearing in Poland confirm that this exodus has no intention of slowing down. 20 year-old Joanna, student of the English language at Poznan, sums up the dilemma that many Polish students face: "I am already contemplating emigrating to England for at least a year. The exodus of Polish students has become normal; we go abroad because we know intuitively that life will be better there, that a different world awaits us outside of these borders. Here, prices are increasing faster than salaries. Because of this we believe that studying and working abroad would be the best option. But in reality, few of those who leave ever come back".

Focussing on the most desirable destination, the United Kingdom, the prospect of a salary more than double that of at home with a more comfortable life are enough to seduce young people. Despite a relatively low rate of unemployment in Poland, at 7.8% in January 2015 according to Eurostat, Joanna still wants to leave, considering the work climate to be too hostile for young people.

More than a normalisation, it is a fatality that is hitting young educated Polish people. For a long time the government has favoured the departure of its students for political purposes, as Demographer Krystyna Iglicka notes: "The authorities are used to the fact that emigration is a good way to deal with unemployment. There are no jobs for young people? But they are leaving! Perhaps they will return, but by then it will be the next government in charge." It is an admission of powerlessness on the part of the Polish government, who are unable to set up viable professional entry programmes, despite a growth rate of 20% since its entry into the European Union, and a rate of 3.2% in 2015, ranking first in the EU.

Public Apathy towards the Upcoming Elections

Just like a number of her compatriots, Joanna wants to go to Great Britain. Her ability in the English language will be an advantage, but will not guarantee a good job, given the number of Polish immigrants who have come to the British Eldorado.

Waiters, handlers, cleaners, when we identify the jobs that many Polish people are taking up, these are what come up the most often. It is not a sign of qualified positions: more than 70% of Polish migrants are over-qualified for the jobs they do when they arrive in their new home. Confronted with the language barrier and a saturated employment market, many find themselves having to do unqualified jobs, mainly in the construction or food and beverage industry.

"How long have you been in the United Kingdom?" When we ask this question to young Polish immigrants across the Channel, we are surprised to hear, "four years, five years", sometimes even longer. Many had intended to stay for a temporary visit, from six months to two years. For almost all of them, their return is still sine die, and their stay is indefinite. Bogusz confirms, "I thought that I would find a job for several months and then go home to continue my studies. But I have got used to life here, and now I have been living here in London for almost three years".

The salary, even if it is not what they expected before arriving, and the level of social benefits dissuade many Polish people from returning home. Joanna affirms, "My friend in England no longer sees the point in coming back to Poland: she has acclimatised to Anglo-saxon life, and she couldn't come back to work for a salary four times less".

To try and counter this continual huge brain drain, the government has put a number of  repatriation incentives in place: in 2007, Donald Tusk initiated the programme 'Return', followed in 2009 by '12 cities – come home, but where?' organised in conjunction with the twelve largest cities across the country, aiming to facilitate relations between migrants and public authorities. A draft bill on repatriation was drafted in January 2010 to facilitate the return of Polish citizens according to certain criteria. For Bogusz, "The return programmes were badly implemented and were not attractive enough to convince students to come back. Even our families prefer to see us abroad, because they know that the living conditions are better there".

Launched just after the financial crisis which struck Europe in 2008-9, these different programmes should have encouraged the return of Polish migrants: The Daily Mail stated that there were 500,000 Polish in 2008 following the British recession, but this figure was never reached.
Polish leaders never succeeded in finding efficient measures to convince the "lost generation" to come home. The question of joining the Euro zone could perhaps increase Polish living standards, and in turn put the brakes on the exodus of highly qualified Polish youth.

Outgoing President Bronislaw Komorowski seems to be in favour of this, but the Polish people are sceptical of inflation. Be that as it may, the issue of the future of students is still absent in the May 2015 Presidential election debates. The current President and his opponent Andrzej Duda, only one week away from the second round on the 17 May, are both more focused on societal issues such as domestic violence or the fertility law in vitro.