Poland will bring in tens of thousands of ethnic Poles living in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, according to its finance minister.

The long-neglected issue was raised recently during a heated debate over the European Union's plan to share 120,000 refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia among its 28 members.

Poland has said it will host 7,000 of them.

Critics of the refugee programme, however, say Poland's first obligation is towards the ethnic Poles whom Soviet leader Josef Stalin expelled by hundreds of thousands from their homes, and to their descendants.

Mateusz Szczurek, Poland's finance minister, said on Tuesday the country's cabinet has put aside funds for the repatriations, while the interior ministry said it would be about $8m in 2016 alone.

The money - for housing, Polish language lessons and professional training - would go to local governments to encourage them to take in the arrivals.

Under the EU refugee programme, funds for people from Syria and Eritrea will come from the bloc.

Past expulsions

Most of the expulsions took place during World War II, when Soviet authorities forcefully sent Poles from areas overtaken by the Red Army to Siberia or the bare steppes of Kazakhstan.

The families were not allowed to return for decades under communism, both in the Soviet Union and Poland, until the 1990s.

Democratic Poland started the ethnic repatriation programme in the late 1990s, but the reluctance of local governments has been a chief obstacle.

So far, about 5,000 ethnic Poles have been brought to Poland from Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan, according to the interior ministry.

Another 180 were evacuated from war-torn eastern Ukraine in February.

But tens of thousands more are waiting. There are at least 34,000 ethnic Poles in Kazakhstan alone, according to estimates.

Source: AP