Moving People Changing Places

Polish people in the UK: A short history

Those young Polish workers who came to the UK after the accession of Poland to the EU in 2004 were not the first Poles to settle. Following the failure of the November Uprising of 1831, many Polish soldiers sought sanctuary in Britain. During the Second World War many Poles had fled because of the Nazi and Soviet occupation of their country. The Polish Government ‘in exile’ was set up in London in 1940. When a communist regime was installed after the war most Poles living outside Poland refused to return. The Polish Resettlement Act was introduced in the UK in 1947 to allow them to stay. London, particularly Ealing, Hammersmith and Balham, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Nottingham have substantial long-standing Polish communities, with social and cultural organisations, shops and restaurants. London alone has ten Polish Catholic parishes, the first of which was founded in 1951. Polish Londoners are served by Radio Orla, which can also be accessed online.

Polish War Memorial, Northolt

Fortress Europe

The EU is a major site for both internal migration and immigration from other parts of the world.  The term ‘fortress Europe’ is sometimes used to refer to the way Europe controls its borders and detains immigrants, as well as to its negative attitudes towards immigration.

The Council of Europe was formed in 1949.  Originally with six members, it has now become the European Union, with 27 member states. Ten of these joined in 2004 – mostly from Eastern Europe – with Romania and Bulgaria being added in 2007.  The citizens of all member countries have freedom of movement and the right to work within EU boundaries, and labour mobility has increased as more countries have joined.

Romanian Farm Workers in East Sussex
Romanian farm workers in East Sussex

In the period from 2004 over 1.5 million workers from new member states came to the UK in search of work.  Up to 40% of these returned, and the rate of entry slowed from 2009.  Poland was the major source, with
migrants also coming from Portugal, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. Many of them were young and well-educated, though they were employed in low-paid jobs requiring few skills.  Their willingness to work hard with long hours and in jobs that many British people would not do meant that they filled a vital gap in the labour market.  Their contribution was essential for the dynamism of local economies and in some trades and industries.
“Without migrant labour the food industry would not be able to operate.”
Mark Simmonds, MP.

Working in construction, manual labour, food-processing, domestic work, agriculture, and the hotel and retail sectors, they dispersed in search of jobs, into rural as well as urban areas.  Villages and towns in English counties such as Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Humberside and Yorkshire sometimes found it a challenge to provide suitable accommodation and services to support newcomers.

We might expect it to have been easier for new migrants from European countries to integrate into British society and culture than those from other parts of the world.  But that’s not necessarily the case.  Language barriers made communication difficult, and there were few opportunities for migrants to meet and interact with local people.  Anxieties among rural residents about competition for housing and pressure on schools, health services and other local resources created a further barrier to good relations.

“I look at them suspiciously because I do not know them.”
Attitudes were mixed, with some seeing the number of EU migrants as a drain on resources or as responsible for increased crime levels, and others seeing them as hard workers, often exploited by employers, who made good and caring neighbours.  Meeting and getting to know those from different backgrounds, for example through work, is important if people are to develop more positive views about others.