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The homecoming of Poland

It's been several years since Marek Tomasikiewicz and his family left Poland for a better life in Britain - higher wages for him and his wife, boosted by the strength of the pound, and a better education for his daughter.

They were among hundreds of thousands of Poles who escaped the low wages and high unemployment of this ex-communist country, an exodus underwritten by Polish membership in the European Union.

Times, though, have changed.

Slowing economies in Western Europe and shifting exchange rates are altering the economic calculation for would-be immigrants, and some who came are finding that Britain and Ireland - the destination for most recent Polish migrants - are not the lands of opportunity they had expected.

Meanwhile, rapid economic growth and falling unemployment has brightened many people's outlook on their prospects at home.

Tomasikiewicz has returned, lured by an emotional attachment to his homeland and the sense that well-paid work can be had in Poland now. His family plans to join him after his 23-year-old daughter Agnieszka finishes her studies to be a lawyer.

Since 2004, when Poland joined the EU, its economy has thrived and spawned new jobs, higher wages, a stronger currency - and no less significantly, new hope for the country's future.

While Poles migrants are not returning home en masse yet, cases like that of Tomasikiewicz stand as a sign of the new optimism, and could mark the start of a new trend if the Polish economy continues to roar ahead.

"In Poland, things have really changed a lot," said Tomasikiewicz, 48, who left for Britain in 2001 to work as a bus driver and construction worker. "Now, jobs are just waiting for you if you want to work. I see a colossal difference."

Now, he is back in Poland managing houses that he bought largely with his British earnings and which he rents out to tourists.

While mass migration back to Poland has not yet kicked in, fewer are leaving home: Britain's Home Office said that the number of applications by Poles seeking work permits from August 2007 to June 2008 fell 17 percent compared to 2006, down to 134,255 from 162,495.

Poland is also attracting immigrants from places like Ukraine, Belarus and Vietnam - people for whom Poland beckons as a land of freedom and opportunity.

From an economic point of view, there are good reasons why the stream of Poles going abroad has slowed. The jobless rate, at 19.7 percent in 2003, fell to 6.8 percent this July, according to Eurostat, the EU's statistical office. Wages keep climbing higher and higher - recently averaging nearly 3,000 zlotys ($1,300) per month.

And the Polish currency has risen sharply against the pound - from more than 7 zlotys to the pound in 2004 to just over 4 zlotys now. That means that Poles earning pounds in Britain and sending them home get about 40 percent less in exchange than four years ago.

In Wroclaw, one of Poland's best-run and most affluent cities, a noticeable number of Polish migrants have returned from Britain and elsewhere, showing up at companies like Volvo to seek work and helping to ease a labor shortage, said Pawel Panczyj, a city official who heads efforts to promote foreign investment in the city.

"Just in the last four months, the situation has changed," he said. Local companies "are not experiencing such a dramatic difficulty in finding people anymore."

Migration experts say that as the country nears the five-year anniversary of joining the EU, it is reaching a critical phase: if those who left don't return soon, they probably never will, depriving the country of the people that it needs as it struggles in the coming decades with the trademark problems of the industrialized world - low birth rates and an aging population.

History has shown that immigrants who have been in a country longer than five years tend to never return because by that point they've laid down roots and lost ties to their old lives, said Krystyna Iglicka, a migration expert with the Center of International Relations in Warsaw.

Maciej Duszczyk, a migration expert who advises Prime Minister Donald Tusk's government on its migration policy, agrees that now is a "very crucial time."

If Poland follows in the steps of Spain and Ireland, which saw economic miracles after joining the EU, then 60 to 70 percent of Poles abroad will return, he predicts. If not, most will probably never come back.

"We are probably in a situation where these next few years will decide the future," he said.

The fate of the economy in Britain, where the majority of Polish migrants have gone, will also help determine whether the Poles stay or go. In past years, a booming construction sector and strong economy have pulled in hundreds of thousands of Poles, with some estimates putting the numbers at around 1 million. But now the British economy is on the brink of recession, with Britain's Treasury chief Alistair Darling saying the country faces its worst economic crisis in 60 years.

But many of the Poles abroad say money isn't everything, and they choose to remain because they value what they describe as a greater tolerance and a less burdensome bureaucracy in places like Britain.

Robert Brzezinski, a 40-year-old cameraman who moved to London this March, says he will never go home because he is disgusted by the small-town conservatism of Polish society and what he describes as the inefficiency, corruption and surliness of officials in public life.

"There is a still a communist mentality in government offices, post offices," he said. "If you want to build a house, for example, there are problems like under communism. It's a rotten system."