Poland Tries to Reverse Brain Drain

Young Polish workers have left home by the hundreds of thousands since their country joined the EU in 2004. Now Warsaw wants to entice them back

One of Poland's biggest exports since joining the European Union has been its own people. But now Warsaw has decided the brain drain needs to be reversed and the government has launched a campaign to entice the migrants to come back home.

In one of the biggest exoduses in post-war Europe, between 1.2 and 2 million of Poland's 38 million people have opted to leave home and seek their fortunes in the booming economies of the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as Sweden. These three countries were the only EU member states to welcome the new Eastern European workforce with open arms in 2004, and it has paid off. The host nations estimate the labor injection has helped to keep inflation and wages in check and further boosted the economy. But while many of the young Poles are enjoying their new lives so much they want to put down roots, their native Poland has now decided it needs them back.

The Polish government announced this week that it was launching a package of incentives to get Poles to return home. President Lech Kaczynski told a news conference on Wednesday that "our main goal is to get as many of them back to their homeland." The government wants to emphasize that there are now more opportunities in Poland, with rising wages and less unemployment.

Polish officials fear those who have left, whose average age is 26, will settle down and raise children abroad, which could have a huge demographic and economic impact. According to a recent opinion poll, around 20 percent of Poles in Britain do not want to return home. But Polish hopes are riding on the fact that 20 percent say they would like to head back east, with another 60 percent unsure. Officials reason that they might be easily tempted.

Meanwhile, the lack of skilled workers is pushing up wages and inflation back in Poland, with wages increasing 10.5 percent in the last 12 months, the fastest for seven years. On Wednesday, Labor Minister Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska said the government would make it easier for people to start their own businesses after returning to the country. And she will be sending representatives to the countries with the most Polish workers to organize job fairs to tell the migrants about the increased job opportunities and rising wages back home. She also wants to increase the network of Polish language schools abroad, to make it easier for migrants with children to head back home.

With the election campaign hotting up in Poland, the labor shortage, which threatens to stall the country's strong economic performance, is becoming a key issue. And the parties are also campaigning hard for the votes of the huge number of expat Poles.

While the Kaczynskis are offering incentives to return home, opposition leader Donald Tusk of the Civic Platform is going one better: He plans to travel to the UK and Ireland to campaign in person.

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