Poland suspends programme to attract IT specialists from eastern neighbours over visa concerns

A programme launched under the previous government to attract IT specialists and companies to Poland from its eastern neighbours has been suspended by the new foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, over concerns about who visas were being issued to.

The programme has previously faced criticism for continuing to provide visas to Russians after the invasion of Ukraine. There have also been claims that the system was exploited by some applicants to get access to the European Schengen area without any intention of working in Poland itself.

On Friday, the foreign ministry announced that Sikorski had suspended the programme – called “Poland. Business Harbour” (PBH) – because the scheme “did not live up to expectations” as well as concerns “regarding the use of visas issued under the programme for purposes inconsistent with its assumptions”.

The programme will remain suspended “until the adoption of solutions guaranteeing proper verification of companies and foreigners who are its beneficiaries,” informed the ministry. But it emphasised that IT specialists seeking to work in Poland can still apply for a visa through normal channels.

Komunikat ws. zawieszenia udziału Ministerstwa Spraw Zagranicznych w Programie Poland. Business Harbour.

Dowiedz się więcej ⤵️https://t.co/UiemprLqGc

— Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych RP 🇵🇱 (@MSZ_RP) January 26, 2024

The PBH scheme was launched in 2020 amid the protests and repression in Belarus following President Alexander Lukashenko’s declared but contested election victory that year. At the time, it was presented by the Polish government as a way to both support Belarusians and boost Poland’s economy.

The programme offered an expedited immigration procedure as well as legal and investment advice to help IT specialists and companies relocate. By 2021, it was estimated that 10% of Belarusian IT specialists had moved to Poland.

That same year, the scheme was expanded to also include candidates from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia. By September 2023, 93,512 visas had been issued under the programme, with almost 95% of them going to Belarusians, reports broadcaster Belsat.

One tenth of ICT specialists in Belarus have reportedly relocated to Poland and a further two fifths are considering moving.

Amid last year’s unrest, the Polish government set up a programme to help Belarussian professionals and firms move to Poland https://t.co/g6W37WmEOv

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 26, 2021

However, the number of visas issued declined over 2023, according to figures obtained by the Dziennik Gazeta Prawna daily. The newspaper cited experts expressing concerns that the system had been exploited by foreign workers seeking access to the Schengen zone and that some visas had not gone to IT specialists at all.

The former Law and Justice (PiS) government was also criticised last year by the opposition after it emerged that in 2022 and 2023 over 1,700 visas had been issued to Russians under the Business Harbour scheme despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“What can you be thinking to bring Russian IT specialists to Poland after Russia attacked Ukraine? What can you be thinking to manage Polish security so irresponsibly?” asked Marcin Kierwiński, then an opposition MP. Kierwiński is now interior minister in a new government that took office last month.

The opposition has criticised the government over official data that show more than 1,700 visas have been issued to Russians in 2022 and 2023.

But a foreign ministry official says they went to people „fleeing Putin’s regime” who were „thoroughly vetted” https://t.co/yaIcQnlJsy

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) October 11, 2023

After Friday’s decision to suspend the PBH programme, Michał Szczerba, an MP from the new ruling coalition and head of the parliamentary investigative committee, tweeted that the scheme had been used to “pump out” visas and said his committee would investigate it.

“There are indications that the unsealing of the [visa] system could have seriously jeopardised state security,” he wrote. “We will present the facts and those responsible for this gross negligence!”

The former PiS government also faced a wider controversy last year over allegations that corruption in the visa system had allowed immigrants to effectively jump the queue by paying bribes.

Masowa przepompownia wiz w ramach programu Morawieckiego pn. Poland. Business Harbour zostanie wzięta pod lupę komisji śledczej. Istnieją przesłanki, że rozszczelnienie systemu mogło poważnie zagrozić bezpieczeństwu państwa. Przedstawimy fakty i winnych tych rażących zaniedbań! https://t.co/SK9CPtLDBt

— Michał Szczerba (@MichalSzczerba) January 26, 2024

Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.

Main image credit: MSZ (under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL)

Agata Pyka is an assistant editor at Notes from Poland. She is a journalist and a political communication student at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in Polish and European politics as well as investigative journalism and has previously written for Euractiv and The European Correspondent.

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