Understanding Polish Migration to the UK

In my academic research I have focused on Polish migration to the UK. I have done this largely through interviewing Polish migrants directly – in-depth interviews which allow time to talk about key experiences and feelings related to migrating from Poland to the UK. I have interviewed people who were refugees from the Second World War, people who migrated during the Socialist regime, who moved afterwards in the 1990s, and who have migrated since the expansion of the European Union in 2004. Through this research, built up over 17 years, I have built up a good appreciation of what the causes of these movements of people are, but also what the experiences, hopes and fears of Polish migrants may be. It is my strong belief that if we want to understand the position of Polish migrants in the UK now, and especially in light of the vote to leave the EU and the accompanying rhetoric on EU migration, there are some contexts and perspectives that we should be aware of and reflect on.

Historical Contexts

First, there are some important historical contexts which help to position contemporary migration movements more clearly. Poland, rather like Ireland and Italy, is a country where emigration is a normal course of action, whether long-term migration to America in the nineteenth century, or shorter-term and seasonal movements to Germany. Emigration and labour mobility is both economically pragmatic and culturally embedded. What’s more, there is a longstanding political tradition of exile, dating from a time when Poland did not exist on the map of Europe, which posits Polishness as something which can exist outside of the territorial boundaries of the country itself. A reading of one of Poland’s most famous romantic poets, Adam Mickiewicz, underlines this – his most widely read work talked about longing for the Polish homeland from afar. When people leave Poland in the twenty-first century to work, therefore, strong historical precedents are being re-enacted, whether consciously or not. Mobility and diaspora are not strange ideas or distant experiences.

In terms of Polish migration to the UK there are important historical precedents here too. The Second World War, for example, saw Polish troops become part of the Allied forces, saw the Polish government-in-exile established in London, and ultimately saw the resettlement of over 150,000 ex-servicemen and their families, along with displaced refugees from eastern and Baltic Europe, in the UK after the war was over. The Polish Resettlement Act of 1948, effectively a managed refugee settlement programme and industrial strategy in one, ensured that Polish soldiers were demobbed in towns right across the country, and channelled into key areas of labour shortage. The result was the establishment of a strong Polish infrastructure in the UK, with churches and Ex-Servicemen’s clubs being collectively funded from community efforts. I have interviewed many people who were part of this era of migration – people who had been caught up in the trauma of war and deportation, sent to Siberia by Soviet troops, and people who had fought in the forces. I found that the horror or war hung heavily in people’s lives, that there was a sense of betrayal that Poland was lost to Stalin’s sphere of influence after the war, and that it was hard work establishing lives and homes here.

Polish migration to the UK did not end there. Since the Second World War there have been relatively small numbers of women coming to marry Polish men in the UK, of doctors and academics accepting invitations to work here in their professions, and of people escaping uncertainty and sometimes persecution in the Solidarity era of the early 1980s. With the Polish government-in-exile remaining in London during this time the symbolic links between the two populations also remained. After 1989, furthermore, the removal of mobility restrictions with the tumbling of the Socialist regime – because before 1989 people were generally not able to keep their passports at home and needed permission to leave – migration to the UK, and across Europe, reconfigured again. The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, for example, employing Polish migrants in key agricultural sectors, set an important precedent for post-2004 movements, bringing in workers to fill labour gaps and strengthening migratory links between the two countries. Professional and student migration increased too, alongside this.

It is worth pausing here and thinking about this era, after 1989 but before 2004, in more depth, because suddenly now, with the spectre of Brexit looming, the experiences people had in the 1990s as Polish migrants in the UK have a real resonance. At this time being in the UK rested on not just having the ‘right’ passport, but the right visa too. When I interviewed people about living here then this issue of having the right documents, and having to prove this, especially at the border, was really important. ‘Julia’ came to the UK in 1999 at the age of 19 and shared the following:

‘…there were times that I had to, at the border they didn’t want to let me through, they were asking me very personal questions’.

Q Which border?

Here, asking me if I was pregnant, was I coming here just to be with my boyfriend and marry him and then escape with British money. They were very rude at the border. There was a point that I was in tears on the way back, so stressed that they were not going to let me in… It is not like I came here to use British benefits or anything like that.

I have always found when I have interviewed migrants that these journeys are really significant for their wider experiences of migration. Feeling anxious and like a second class citizen at the border highlights a wider asymmetry of privilege and status, and can have far reaching implications for feeling at home too. This of course is far from unique to Polish migrants and we are witnessing extreme examples of this with the ‘Muslim ban’ in the US, underlining further the difficult and often traumatic emotional dimensions which are tied up in the crossing of borders.

There is a further historical context which needs to be reflected on if post-2004 migration from Poland is to be understood properly: the fall out in Poland from the collapse of the Socialist regime. Countless authors have written about the 1990s in Russia and former Soviet sphere countries, discussing this period of ‘crisis’ and the impact the shift from a planned to a market economy had on ordinary people. In Poland this meant significant unemployment for the first time since before the war and a loss of social security safety nets. While some people did very well as the country changed, and many welcomed the newly western pivoted internationalisation that developed, many more struggled as jobs were lost and old certainties eroded. There are some fantastic biographies around now which talk about what it was like to ‘come of age’ during this time (for example, Jana Hensel’s 2008 autobiography After the Wall: Confessions of an East German Childhood and the Life that Came Next, of seeing the world of your childhood vanish in front of you. Alongside the economic uncertainty came a new psychological anxiety about what the future would hold. In my interviews with people who came to the UK between the late 1990s and the 2010s this period was talked about seriously, as an important part of life stories and migration narratives. A strong sense came through of the disorientation of suddenly not knowing what the new rules were, and of the people who would usually be relied upon to offer guidance, parents, grandparents, teachers, not knowing either. ‘Adriana’ came to the UK in 2005 when she was in her early thirties, and wanted to speak about her family’s experiences at this time:

“My parents used to work for a big company, they made parts for big boilers, and near those factories they built a big block of flats, where there were big production places they built big blocks of flats, so they had a flat absolutely for free, they just had it, and they both had jobs. And then after that it turned out that the company was having trouble after communism fell, so they closed some parts of it, then they stopped production, so you could really see it falling. And I remember you usually got paid every month in Poland, almost every month, and they started paying weekly because they couldn’t afford … weekly, and then there was a long break, not next week, so that was really difficult so I remember this. And finally they closed it. So it was hard. And then my mum lost her job at some point.”

Her testimony underlines the wholesale change that was happening for some people – if factories closed, with them went associated housing, community and transport infrastructures, rhythms, routines and social networks. It was this period which saw an increase in emigration from Poland across Europe, and into southern Europe especially, the result of a combination of new mobility opportunities and hardened realities at home. For ‘Sylwia’, who came to the UK in 1999 in her early twenties, anxiety about unemployment was the most difficult change:

Unemployment, and that is something that definitely determined my life choices. For the first time, the fear of unemployment. I was going to university, studying at university in 1995. So the first few years of this big change, people started losing jobs, before that there was this high inflation, terribly high inflation, and then this inflation was coming down. But at the same time, there was something going on in the economy and everybody feared, I feared I might end up with no job, what should I chose to study? In my environment the main change was this fear of unemployment among people of my age. What should we do, where are we? There was this idea for the first time that we shouldn’t be choosing our area of study based on just what we were interested in, we should for the first time make sure that we end up having jobs later on. The whole talk changed, and this idea of markets, competitiveness, that we all had to become competitive. I remember that affected me terribly as a teenager, this uncertainty about what will happen, and then you hear about somebody, a friend’s father or mother, losing a job. What to do?

What is so important here too is that this ‘transition’ – a problematic term because it suggests that Poland was moving towards something more ‘normal’ in becoming more ‘western’ – lasted way beyond the 1990s. On the eve of EU enlargement youth unemployment was around 40% in some areas, wages were low, and the initial euphoria of 1989 was a distant memory for many. While this may not sound so shocking in 2017, when faced with ongoing crisis in Greece and generalised high youth unemployment across the continent, in the early 2000s it is easy to see how this could lead to both a weariness with the status quo and a curiosity about what else might be out there. There has been a lot of discussion, for example, about how people left because they wanted a ‘normal’ life, a life where wages would cover living costs more easily. ‘Gosia’, who left Poland in 2005, talked about how she struggled on her teacher’s salary:

“I worked at a secondary school but because payment was very poor I also gave private classes, I had some classes at language schools which ended up with me working ten or twelve hours, so I would leave home at seven and coming home seven, eight, working twelve hours. I got the proper amount of money but only after working twelve hours”

2004 EU Enlargement

Poland joined the EU in 2004 as part of the wider expansion of the union to include the ‘A8’ former socialist sphere countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), along with Cyprus and Malta. This expansion, historic in itself as embodying a new era of European inter-continental relations, changed the mobility landscape of Europe considerably, bringing a legal right to migrate to the UK, as well as Ireland and Sweden, without the need for special visas or arrangements. Other countries put a transitional delay on this right, but honouring the freedom of movement for people as well as capital was always going to be integral to the ethos and practice of the enlarged union. This opened up new opportunities for people who wanted to move to find work, to study abroad, or even just to have an adventure. It also brought a new infrastructure – not just of legal and administrative rights and procedures, but very quickly of transport links facilitating this movement. Coach routes were opened up, and there was a phenomenal growth in low costs airlines connecting these accession countries with the UK and Ireland, servicing this migration as well as new tourist movements. One of the most striking features of this new infrastructure has been the rise of the regional airport – before 2004 flights to Poland from the UK would have been from Gatwick or Heathrow, and would have predominantly been to Krakow or Warsaw. In my interviews with people who came after 2004 this new regional infrastructure was talked about a lot. According to ‘Filip’, “I usually take a flight with Wizzair, or on Ryanair, it depends on where I am going, to visit my parents in Poznan then I go from Robin Hood airport in Doncaster to Poznan”. ‘Rafał’ especially valued this ease of travel: “I have to go back to Poland even more often, every month, it is so easy to travel right now. It is very cheap. From Stansted there is a direct flight to Wrocław, I paid, how much did I pay, from Stansted to Wrocław it takes 2 hours and I paid only £33 twice”. Not only has the airline landscape changed, but there are whole secondary industries now linking Poland and the UK – courier services carrying parcels and goods back and forth between the two countries by road, and delivery vehicles bringing supplies to Polish shops and international supermarkets. The internet has also been hugely significant for this migration movement , coinciding with the rise of the smart phone and Skype connections. Not only are these heavily used to keep in contact with friends and family, but internet usage has enabled a better understanding and knowledge of the UK before arrival – jobs often secured in advance through on-line recruitment agencies for example, and internet discussion forums consulted for general day to day advice.

Life in the UK

It is clear then that the timing of EU enlargement was important – it coincided with a migratory impetus already developed in Poland, with a labour market in the UK open to new workers, and with a whole new tranche of connecting technologies and transportations. Polish migration to the UK after 2004 has become one of the most significant movements in UK migration history – official numbers put the movement at over 600,000. Several things stand out about this migration. One is how widespread ‘settlement’ has been within the UK – most towns, as well as cities, now have a Polish presence, and it is probably the least London centric migration movement the country has seen. Regional economies have become closely entwined with this migrant labour too – East Anglia being a good example. As a result, Polish migrants have a local conspicuousness in the UK which their whiteness and religion may have been expected to protect them from, and which may have been significant for the Brexit vote. It also means though, that Poles have become part of the social fabric of these localities in many ways. ‘Arleta’ came to Derby in 2009, in her late twenties, and spoke about the importance of the of Polish shops there, a good example of local interactions and increased Polish visibility in public space, as well as the importance of food for feeling at home:

“My luggage is full of homemade food, I should say meat dishes and sausages. We don’t buy readymade stuff as it is easily available in Derby now, and even our corner shop run by Pakistani couple offers Polish food… Polish food and drinks are easily available in Derby now. The number of shops in Normanton offering Polish food is rising each month, it nicely reflects the influence Polish immigrants have on the local economy. The variety of products is sometimes overwhelming. We go to the Normanton shops usually once, sometimes twice a month. Polish beer and vodka are available in the most of bars and pubs in the city centre, which I find quite amazing as well. As I mentioned before, even our corner shop provides Polish food selection. The owners of the shop are so kind, they ask us what we need or want and they try to supply items requested. We usually buy sausages there, much better quality and taste better than local ones. We buy readymade meals like bigos and flaczki, some spices, diary like Polish sour cream, full fat white cheese, our favourite mayonnaise. Those products are not available from English supermarkets and shops.”

Another point which stands out is how diverse this migration movement is – it is certainly a myth that Poles are all ‘low skilled’ migrants. Research has found that the UK attracted the most highly qualified young people from Poland, compared with movements to other European countries, and that many encountered ‘brain waste’ on arrival, not able to translate their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees into commensurate positions – although another thing that marks this migration is good occupational mobility once in the labour market. I interviewed a vet who had already lived in Holland before moving here – fluent in Dutch and English, as well as Polish. So while there has been a concentration of Polish migrants in blue collar work – building, hospitality, factory work – there are highly skilled professionals too. The age range is interesting as well, because while the largest section came in their twenties and early thirties older people have also moved, escaping limited labour market options for the over 40s in Poland, or joining family to help look after children. The point is that there is no ‘typical’ Polish migrant – any more than there is a ‘typical’ British person.

Perhaps the most important assertion to make here is that while this migration has been seen as easy in some quarters, and while there has been talk of ‘hypermobility’ and great emphasis placed on the ease of mobility ‘enjoyed’ by these migrants, migration always carries a cost for migrants. It is not easy to move to another country, to learn a new language, to navigate a strange bureaucratic system, to find work and accommodation, to seek out familiar food. Research has shown, for example, that often Polish migrants are unaware of what rights they have in the UK. It is also not easy to leave behind family and friends, special people and places. Travel may be easier now, but it can still be expensive and needs to be fitted in around work patterns. You can’t hug somebody via Skype. Hypermobility is no antidote to homesickness. As ‘Gosia’ shared:

“I miss people, and I miss places, my places. I’m here and I’m fine, as I told you I’m open to new places and new people, that’s fine. But they are not my places and my people. I can meet people, I can talk to them, I can even have fun doing this, but it is not emotional. I miss people and I miss my places…”

The parcels sent back and forth, through these couriers, also testify to the effort expended nurturing relationships over borders. So many people I interviewed spoke with love about the things they send back – practical things like clothes, but also special gifts – to keep connected with people there and as a way of caring from a distance.

The final point to make about life in the UK is just how hard is can be. ‘Kasia’, who came in 2006, spoke about her vulnerability here, her experiences of terrible accommodation and the difficulty in getting references to rent anywhere to live:

“To be honest with you my first accommodation here was a nightmare. Now, when I look at it after over eight years of being in the country, I can’t believe we agreed to live like that. It wasn’t a flat, it was more like a hotel from hell. It was a little tiny hotel with horrible rooms, there was only one kitchen downstairs for all to use and I had the smallest room with just a sink, no toilet, no bathroom. We had to share bathrooms and toilets with other people who lived there. There were just a few between all of us, situated in the hall. Our rooms had holes in the walls, neighbours were screaming and shouting every night, it was not a good place to live. My auntie and her husband had their own room and I had mine. Once we’d saved a little, we were looking for a house or a flat but with no references we couldn’t get anything through an agency, so we moved in to a holiday-flat. And after a month we finally found an agency who helped us to get our own house in a bit better area. And then we started living as a family, like in Poland. We could cook dinners, sit at the table together, have guests.”

Later in her interview she spoke directly about the prejudice she has also faced:

“When I first arrived here my English wasn’t that good, but I could hear people talking behind my back saying ‘f***ing Poles, coming here, stealing our jobs’, thinking I don’t understand. A few years after I got used to it. I didn’t steal anybody’s job, I went to the job centre and applied for it.”

Brexit Futures

It is clear that since the result of the EU referendum in June last year that open hostility has increased towards Polish migrants, as it has to ‘foreigners’ generally. There have been horrific stories of children being targeted at school, of POSK the Polish cultural centre in London being daubed with racist graffiti. A Polish man was murdered in Harlow, Essex, just for being Polish. People who say that the fallout from Brexit will ‘blow over’, or that this hostility has been exaggerated, are not appreciating not just the real violence that has erupted since last year, but also the metaphorical violence of racist words and acts. How hard must it be to live somewhere, make it home, contribute in so many ways, and then be made to feel unwelcome, not worthy of being here. There is more scope for academic research into Polish migration to look again now at how this hostility has been building, and to be more critical of what whiteness means in the UK. It is time to think about the works of people like Paul Gilroy again, who talks of a ‘postcolonial melancholia’, to try to understand where this hostility and discomfort comes from, and where Polish migrants fit into the wider contexts of diversity and migration here, and how they are othered and orientalised.

It is also worrying to think about the impacts that Brexit could have for these migrants – as with others from the EU. The right to stay is still uncertain at the time of writing, but even if this is secured, these secondary mobilities could be under threat – the courier services, the low cost flights. It could be harder to visit friends and family, and send things back and forth. And that feeling of being a second class citizen at the border is likely to come back again. The timing here for Polish migrants is especially cruel, as it comes just as people have made the UK home.

So, nobody knows how the next few months and years will unfold, but what we can do is think about how these changes will be impacting on different people in our society. We can remember how interlinked British history is with European history and Polish history in particular, and we can be sensitive to the new vulnerabilities and uncertainties that many EU migrants may now be facing. We can stretch our imaginations so that we consider what it might feel like to be Polish in the UK right now.