Why are the Poles leaving Poland

Poland: The high price of emigration

The Polish internet is full of stories of children feeling abandoned by their parents working abroad. There are internet forums where they look for support and tell about their fate. "Hello, dad. I'm already 16 years old. It's been a whole year since you went away. Every day I smell your shirt that you left because it didn't fit in your suitcase," quotes Maria from hers last letter to the father who works in England. "My mother went abroad when I was 13. She was only supposed to go to Germany for a few months because she earned very poorly here in Poland. She couldn't afford clothes. She's there to this day. That makes me sad "complains the 18-year-old Tomek.

When Małgorzata Greber decided to leave the country, she wanted to spare her daughter Martyna such a trauma. She had enough courage to take the then 8-year-old to England. In Poland she earned 600 euros a month as a nurse, in England she got almost four times as much. But she quickly felt lonely and missed her home, family and friends. Financially, too, it wasn't as brilliant as she'd hoped it would be. "The employment agencies lure with a lot of money, but everyone who wants to leave should work out exactly how much the living in the respective country will really cost. Only those who leave as a couple make it well," she said in an interview with the DW.

No dignified life in Poland

After two and a half years, Greber returned to Poland with her daughter to work as a nurse again. But that only went well for half a year. "The most important thing for me was the child, and I always had 12- and 24-hour shifts, that was too exhausting for me. And it was difficult to get along with the wages again." Małgorzata currently has a good job in a three-year project at the Medical University of Lodz, after which she would like to return to her profession. But she wonders if she can ever lead a decent life with the salary of a nurse in Poland.

Malgorzata Greber with her daughter Martyna

Małgorzata is one of the few exceptions. Most of the nurses who work abroad in their trained profession or as caregivers do not come back to Poland - and when they do, they no longer go to the state health service.

Polish healthcare on the ground

Teresa had worked in hospitals in western Poland for 15 years. When her children were 14 and 15 years old, she began commuting to Germany regularly for work. Their marriage had since broken up because the man who worked in England had found a new partner. The children were with grandma, who had a hard time with the teenagers. Teresa decided to go back.

She was in shock in her old hospital. Many of her colleagues had emigrated to England, Germany and Norway. "Some wards were empty, others so overcrowded that patients were lying in the corridors. We were so busy that I had to constantly decide whether to feed the patients or accompany them to the toilet. And which of them should be first? That was demeaning, for the patient and for me, "says Teresa.

Teresa is now looking after an elderly man near Kiel and is receiving 1,460 euros. After two months of work, she always needs two months in Poland to gather strength. "My contract says about working hours: 40 hours a week. In practice, however, I have to be ready for work around the clock. After two months I feel completely exhausted". But she has to accept these conditions, otherwise she would not get the job. There are enough women from other countries like Romania or Ukraine who would accept all conditions, says Teresa.

Social costs of emigration

Since Poland joined the EU, at least 20,000 Polish-trained nurses have gone abroad, most of them to work as carers. Today there are 280,000 nurses in the country, of whom only 42,000 are under 40. The average age is 51 years. In 2015 there were 5.2 nurses and 2.3 doctors per 1000 inhabitants (in Germany: 13 and 4.1). The healthcare system is chronically underfunded.

No wonder that the staff thinks about leaving the country more and more often. But the social costs are very high. Three years after Poland joined the EU in 2007, around 1,300 children whose parents worked abroad had to be placed in children's homes or substitute families. There is currently talk of 100,000 Polish "Euro orphans" and, more and more often, of the "Euro seniors" whose adult children work abroad.

Many men from Poland work in Germany, Great Britain or Scandinavia

Money versus private life

Teresa, with her many years of experience as a commuter between Poland and Germany, feels that this way of life has gone wrong in her private life. The important time when the children were teenagers and she was almost never at home can no longer be made up. There is also no trace of the social life that she once had. She meets her friends less and less and many contacts are broken off. "This is not a good life. Life runs past me," she says.

But the 55-year-old is still dependent on the constant commute because she now also has to support her parents and want to finance the children's studies. She is not happy with that, but she sees no alternative for herself in Poland.