Polish visa row heats up as opposition claims govt knew of irregularities

WARSAW (Reuters) - Irregularities in Poland's system for granting work visas to foreigners were known across government, opposition lawmakers said on Wednesday, amid a deepening scandal about the hot-button immigration issue ahead of Oct. 15 elections.

Opposition claims that the government was complicit in a system in which migrants received visas without being properly checked, after paying intermediaries, are potentially damaging for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has campaigned on a tough stance on immigration.

Officers from Poland's Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) carried out a search at the foreign ministry on Aug. 31, Polish media reported. That same day Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk was fired, with the ministry citing "a lack of satisfactory cooperation".

Polish media reported that the CBA had acted after other EU states alerted it to an unusually high number of migrants entering with Polish visas - which under the EU's Schengen open border regime give the holder the right to work throughout the bloc, in Germany for instance.

"Poland has become the largest centre for the transfer of illegal economic immigrants," Dariusz Jonski, a lawmaker from the liberal Civic Coalition (KO) grouping, told reporters.

"This is not just a matter for Deputy Minister Wawrzyk, but it was done with the consent of (Foreign) Minister Zbigniew Rau."

During a separate press conference, KO spokesperson Jan Grabiec said "half the government" was involved, as other departments such as the Labour Ministry would have been aware.

The opposition has said that the irregularities could concern hundreds of thousands of visa applications. Polish prosecutors have said that their investigation concerns "irregularities in submitting applications for several hundred visas over a year and a half".

PiS spokesperson Rafal Bochenek told a news conference that the party was waiting for the results of the investigation, but that KO was exaggerating the scale of the problem.

"The thesis that this is mass issuance of visas is untrue ... (there are) several hundred cases," he said. "As regards people who come, they are checked and verified people, seasonal workers who leave the country after finishing their work."

According to Eurostat data cited by Rzeczpospolita daily on Wednesday, Poland issued almost 2 million work visas over the past three years, including 600,000 in 2020, more than a quarter of the EU total that year.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Pawel Florkiewicz; Editing by David Holmes)