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Vietnamese immigration to Poland

Anna Mazurkiewicz Ph.D, University of Gdansk, Kosciuszko Foundation Fellow at the IHRC

While Americans know that Vietnamese migrate, few imagine Poland as an important destination for them.

The remote lands of Poland and Vietnam share an unhappy history of foreign domination in both the 19th and 20th centuries. But in today's world, a direct connection has been established by Vietnamese immigrants to Poland.

Soon after diplomatic relations were established in 1950, the first tiny wave of Vietnamese students arrived in Poland. Due to the protracted armed conflict in Indochina many of them decided to stay. The failures of Poland’s so-called “real socialism? did not offer many economic opportunities in Poland, but it did offer hope for change. Over the next twenty years the numbers of Vietnamese students and professionals increased. But the major influx of the Vietnamese people to Poland came later, along with democratic changes in Poland in the 1990s.

In 2001 the Polish Office for Repatriation and Foreigners counted as many as 40 thousand Vietnamese living in Poland. Today's estimates suggest their number from 30 to 50 thousand, third only to France (500 thousand) and Germany (100 thousand). However, in a recent census, only 1,808 declared their nationality as Vietnamese and only 436 as having Polish citizenship. (A total of 775,000 people in Poland did not declare any nationality at all.) http://www.stat.gov.pl/cps/rde/xbcr/gus/PUBL_PUBL_Demographic_yearbook_of_Poland_2007.pdf

The reasons for giving ambiguous answers are complex but the single most important factor is Polish government’s very restrictive visa policies. Although the numbers of deported Vietnamese nationals are relatively low, the threat of forced repatriation to Vietnam is enough to influence any “head count? of this group. Especially that the repulsive immigrant policies resulted in the increase of the illegal immigration. At the same time, Poland’s attractiveness was further elevated with the country’s accession to the European Union. http://www.cafebabel.com/en/article.asp?T=T&Id=8039

For some, Poland is just a transit point en route westward but for many others Poland is “a promised land?. The European Commission’s report of 2003 informs us that only Ukrainians were granted more permits for settlement in Poland than the Vietnamese, followed by Russians, Armenians, and Belarusians. (http://ec.europa.eu/justice_home/doc_centre/asylum/statistics/docs/2003/country_reports/poland.pdf )

Migration and trade have developed in tandem. The single largest Vietnamese company in Poland sells its products not only in EVERY Polish grocery store but also Europe-wide. (http://www.tan-viet.com.pl/index.php?mod=ofirmie&kat=&id=&lang=en).

The Vietnamese embassy in Warsaw points to an increase in bilateral trade from $20 to $330 million between 1992 and 2006. http://www.vietnamembassy-poland.org/nr070521165956/news_object_view?newsPath=/vnemb.vn/cn_vakv/euro/nr040819110934/ns070919142436

How are the Vietnamese perceived by Poles? The majority of Poles regard the Far East newcomers as hardworking, intelligent and honest (E-polityka; TNS OBOP, Jan. 2008). An article by Nguyen Thi Hoa, Wiktor Kaspian and Pham Viet Anh found the Vietnamese immigrants are predominantly highly educated professionals, not always able to secure a job that would enable them to employ their professional skills (http://nigdywiecej.org.pl/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=93&Itemid=15). Many have been trained in engineering and art. Some even hold Ph.D.s in Polish language arts!

The first poll that asked Poles about their attitude towards the Vietnamese people (not the immigrants) was conducted in 1998. It showed that among various nations, they were close to the middle of the ranking, the most liked being the Americans, the least – the Gypsies (Chart on page 2 http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/1998/K_158_98.PDF ) The same poll in 2007 showed that Polish attitudes towards the Vietnamese had become less favorable ( Chart on page 3 http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2007/K_144_07.PDF ), perhaps as a result of increased immigration.

The most prevalent stereotype of the Vietnamese in Poland is that of a market stall merchant, fast food bar or restaurant owner. The image comes from the single largest Vietnamese community in Poland residing in Warsaw. Dariusz Bartoszewicz and Tomasz Kwaśniewski of Gazeta Wyborcza estimated that in the "Deccenary markeplace Stadium? alone there are over a thousand trading booths operated by Vietnamese retailers. There are over 30 big restaurants and 300 bars in Warsaw operated Vietnamese immigrants. As a result, a majority of Warsaw residents incorrectly believe Asians to be the single biggest immigrant community in Poland. (In fact it is peoples from the former USSR.) Three-quarters of respondents to a poll admitted that they either shopped or ate at the Asian facilities. http://miasta.gazeta.pl/warszawa/1,34862,2956397.html

According to Teresa Halik, many poles perceive Vietnamese migrants as a tight, hermetic and isolated group. (In fact, she titled her book--written with Ewa Nowicka--The Vietnamese in Poland. Integration or Isolation?). Warsaw is still not London; Vietnamese people admit they do feel they are outside the mainstream of Polish society. 


Still, one can find Polish initiatives aimed at discovering and promoting Vietnamese culture. One of the major Polish dailies „Gazeta Wyborcza? helped to promote an event organized by Polish young artists’ organization. A cultural project “Viet Nam at Play? included a “Vietnamese village? staged in the Warsaw Mokotów Fields. The event promoted the painters, photographers, musicians and naturally - the cuisine of Vietnam. Poles attended a “Vietnamese week? in October of 2005 and a film documentary by Anna Gajewska “the Warsavians? about the Vietnamese living in Warsaw. (http://www.warszawiacy.art.pl/film.php) (The trailers from a Vietnamese movie festival can be viewed at http://www.arteria.art.pl/5smakow/smak_gorzki.php ).

Scholarly research on the Vietnamese in Poland has followed. Teresa Halik has recently published The Migrant Vietnamese Community in Poland, which focuses on state policy and public opinion. She concluded that the Vietnamese are not only a “stable element of ethnic landscape of Poland, but also present one of the major and better-organized communities of immigrants aiming to stay in Poland?.

Krystyna Iglicka of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw has even observed that: “Today, Poland is probably the most striking example of a Central European country that is gradually shifting from a major sending country into a country of net-immigration and transit migration.? (http://www.migrationinformation.org/Profiles/display.cfm?ID=302 )

Clearly, Poland is undergoing rapid change. Many Poles are ready to open their homeland to strangers. However, 65% of them state that they have not yet personally met an immigrant. It can only be hoped that they will not change their attitudes to foreigners as they do so.