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WARSAW (Reuters) - Thousands of illegal immigrants will be allowed to stay and work in Poland under an amnesty unveiled on Thursday that highlights the country's transformation into a regional economic powerhouse from communist-era basket case.
Traditionally a country of emigration, Poland has become an increasingly attractive magnet for immigrants, especially from neighboring former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Belarus, as it notches up high rates of economic growth.
Under the amnesty, economic migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers will be able from January 1 to receive a resident card for two years that will allow them to work legally in Poland.
"Poland is becoming a more attractive country for foreigners because its growing economic position is leading it to become a destination country and not just a transition country as it has been so far," said Rafal Rogala of the immigration office.
Legalizing the immigrants will benefit the Polish economy by turning them into taxpayers, he said.
The amnesty will apply to undocumented immigrants who arrived in Poland before December 20, 2007, and to asylum seekers who were denied refugee status before January 1, 2010, provided that they have continuously resided in Poland.
The campaign is expected to be more successful than previous amnesties implemented in 2003 and 2007 because there are fewer restrictions, said Rogala.
"The idea is to reach the largest number of foreigners in order to regularize this situation in the widest possible manner," he added.
Most economic migrants entered Poland legally but overstayed their visas, officials say.
More than two thirds of the illegal immigrants in Poland are believed to live in Warsaw and the surrounding Mazowsze region. Some 7,000 of these people probably fulfill the criteria of the amnesty, said Jacek Kozlowski, governor of Mazowzse.
Apart from Ukrainians, Belarussians and other former Soviet citizens, members of Poland's ethnic Vietnamese community are expected to be among the main beneficiaries.
Eurostat figures show only 0.1 percent of people in Poland were born abroad, the lowest figure in the European Union. That looks set to change thanks to a buoyant economy and labor shortages exacerbated by the emigration of many Polish workers to western Europe since Poland joined the EU in 2004.
Even as much of Europe slows sharply due to the euro zone debt crisis, Poland's economy is expected to grow by 4 percent this year. It was the only member of the 27-nation EU to avoid recession during the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
Unemployment in Poland is currently around 12 percent but is much lower in Warsaw and some other big cities, which have seen a big building boom and are preparing to host the Euro 2012 soccer championship next summer.
In the last two years, the number of applications for work permits in Poland has doubled, with Ukrainians accounting for a majority of the requests.
The government has also implemented six-month work visas for Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, Georgians and Moldovans.
Rogala said Poland wanted to attract not only seasonal workers employed in such sectors as construction and farming but also highly-skilled workers.
Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Myra MacDonald