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Amid economic downturn, Poles in Ireland face tough choice

After moving to Ireland for work, some Poles are weighing a move back home.

A shopper walks past a sign for a Polish shop on a wet pavement in Dublin May 27, 2007. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

DUBLIN — There are so many Poles in Ireland that the Irish police have begun taking basic lessons in Polish. At least now they will not make the mistake of recording the name of errant Polish drivers as “Prawo Jazdy.” Some 50 summonses in that name were issued for driving offenses before it dawned on them that the words were Polish for "driving license."

Irish people have become used to the fact that the mechanic at the local car repair shop or the assistant in the coffee shop speaks with a Polish accent. During the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, up to half a million immigrants arrived in Ireland to find a better life, and they now make up one in 10 of the population born outside the country. The largest single group consists of Polish nationals, whose westward trek to Ireland in the last two decades has been a phenomenon of post-Cold War Europe.

Now, with the Irish economy shrinking at an unprecedented rate, many Poles are trickling back home on the cut-price airlines that brought them here, and the rate of new arrivals has slowed dramatically.

The 2006 census recorded 63,000 resident Poles in Ireland, but that number has more than doubled in some estimates since then. Up to 250,000 Poles registered for work in Ireland during the last four years alone, according to Nikola Sekowska of the Polish embassy in Dublin, though many of these have come and gone.

Those who remain face a dilemma, particularly the skilled workers who found jobs in the construction industry, which has collapsed. Unemployment has soared to 10 percent and is predicted to reach 16 percent by the end of this year. The near impossibility of finding new work was underlined on Monday when 4,000 applicants, including many Poles, queued for hours at Ballymun Civic Centre in Dublin to apply for 280 positions at a new Ikea furniture store that will open in July.

The Poles must decide whether to stay in their adopted country or return to Poland, where jobs are also scarce. “Not all are still here, but most are opting to stay,” according to Alicja Bobek of the Trinity Immigration Initiative at Trinity College Dublin, who is tracking the experience of Polish nationals in Ireland.

“The assumption that migrants will return home when times are tough is misplaced,” she says. “They get involved in social networks, make friends, and they also have the option of social welfare.”