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Poland Worries of Brain Drain as Country Prepares to Join EU - 2004-04-26

On May 1, 10 new members, most of them former communist states in Eastern Europe, will enter the European Union. With borders coming down, travel from east to west will theoretically be easier. But several western countries have imposed restrictions on the inflow of eastern labor, and in the east there are fears of a brain drain as skilled workers and specialists search for better pastures in the west.

Tomasz Rejmak is 26-years old, and after six years of study that qualified him as a veterinarian he wants to leave his native Poland and go to Britain.

"I would like to get experience," he explained. "Maybe in the future, I would like to continue my education, get a PHD degree or something like this. And the second thing is more personal. At this stage of my life I would like to live in a big city."

For Dr. Rejmak, it is the variety of cultural life London offers, not money, that attracts him to the British capital.

"All the big bands are coming," he said. "All the galleries, the biggest galleries, are located in London right now. I am not going there to, I do not know, look for different things or highest salary."

And he says he is not worried about a new start. "I am not afraid to move anywhere else and start from the beginning," he said. "I know it is always hard at the beginning."

Like Dr. Rejmak, many of Poland's best and brightest twenty-somethings are itching to go west. The Polish government says most will return home someday, dismissing fears of a mass long-term exodus of doctors and information technology specialists - people whose skills are needed in the west, where salaries can be several times higher than in Poland.

At Warsaw University, students express mixed feelings about uprooting themselves from Poland and going west. Anna Kondarewicz says she intends to stay in Poland.

"It is kind of a fashion now," said Ms. Kondarewicz. "Everyone wants to go to France, Great Britain, and so on. They do not want to stay in Poland. I do not know why."

But her colleague Robert Mikulski wants to try his luck abroad for a while. "I think it is always a good experience to go abroad somewhere for a couple of years and then come back," he said.

Nearly all western European countries have closed their labor markets, for up to seven years in some cases, to workers from the new eastern European EU members, fearing a surge of low-cost job seekers. Only Britain and Ireland have left the door open, though they will require foreigners to be legal residents for two years before they can qualify for welfare benefits.

The restrictions have caused bitterness in the east. Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, for instance, says the restrictions contravene one of the cardinal principles of the European Union, which is the free movement of labor across borders.

The International Organization for Migration says more than 400,000 migrants from eastern Europe are already working legally in the European Union, and many more are doing so illegally.

Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, who runs one of Warsaw's top research institutes, the Committee on Public Affairs, says Polish migratory patterns have changed since communist times, when professionals and skilled workers settled in the west.

"Right now, unqualified workers, most men and women, are going to the West, to Spain and France, trying to work and returning back home, so they use migration to support their family budgets, whether they were living in a town or in the countryside," she explained. "I think that when Poland joins the European Union, we will face a higher migration of qualified workers, mainly young people, which is natural when there is such high unemployment in Poland."

Ms. Bobinska says that despite 20 percent unemployment in Poland, she does not expect a massive outflow of workers seeking jobs in the west.

Grzegor Kostrzewa-Zorbas, who heads a research institute in Warsaw called the Saga Foundation, argues that the young Poles who do head for Britain and Ireland will contribute more in work than they take out in pay.

"A large percentage of the best and brightest are now packing their suitcases to go to the United Kingdom and Ireland, those countries that have not imposed any temporary limitations on Polish citizens willing to seek jobs there," he said. "There is going to be an invasion from the continent on the British Isles with Poles who will, I think, greatly contribute to Britain's and Ireland's growth and prosperity, because these are going to be the best minds of Poland."

But that phenomenon worries some Polish officials, who note that some of the same countries that are determined to stop eastern workers from going west are actively recruiting doctors from the new member states. The result of this brain drain is that some hospitals will be left with a shortage of specialists.

Darius Semaska, the foreign policy adviser to Lithuania's prime minister, says he is concerned about the trend. "We are worried about that, as every government in each country is worried about not losing the best-educated people - educated on the taxpayers' money," he commented.

One of the new EU member states, the Czech Republic, is taking measures to cope with the expected brain drain. It is offering permanent residence to specialists from countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, and Kazakhstan in a bid to attract qualified outsiders to fill the gap left by those who depart.