A Polish friend, who grew up in south London, laments that the recent wave of Polish migrants to Britain has played havoc with his morning commute. Not, he says, because of the sheer numbers of Poles now using public transport, but because “10 or 15 years ago, you used to be able to sit on a bus and listen in on the most intimate conversations between Polish people. They would share all sorts of indiscretions and talk in loud voices because they thought nobody else could understand them.
“Now,” he adds, “the whole bus is Polish. So nobody talks about anything exciting any more.”
Polish, it was revealed this week, is the most commonly spoken non-native language in England and Wales. More than half a million people in Britain now speak Polish as their first language, placing it ahead of Punjabi and Urdu and behind only English and Welsh. The data, extracted from the 2011 census, confirmed the staggering numbers of Polish migrants who are now living, working and putting down roots in the UK. Some 521,000 Polish-born people have made their homes here, a figure that has increased seven-fold since 2003, when just 75,000 were listed in the census.
In many parts of Britain, such statistics will come as no surprise. The influx of Poles to this country has long been evident in the swathes of Polish supermarkets, grocers, churches and cultural centres that have appeared across the country—particularly since 2004, when Poland joined the European Union, opening up borders for free movement of workers. In addition to long-established Polish communities—in west London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Nottingham and Slough—smaller hubs have established themselves in rural areas, such as Carlisle in Cumbria (twinned with the Polish city of Slupsk) and the Scottish Highlands.
During the past decade, Polish culture has ingrained itself in British society. Most major supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose, now stock Polish food and drink. There are 10 Polish churches in London alone, in locations such as Balham and Ealing, and road signs are translated into Polish in villages around Cheshire. There are hundreds of Polish-owned clubs, pubs and bars, a hugely popular newspaper (founded in 1940) and cultural centres that regularly host sell-out Polish plays and exhibitions.
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, Poland is the most common country of birth for non-UK born mothers in Britain, with 20,495 babies born to Polish mothers in 2011. Marriages between Poles and Brits, too, have multiplied. Poles have become British homeowners, business owners and taxpayers. So how have they, unlike any other nationality before them, achieved such full-scale integration into our society—and in such a short time?
The ability of Poles to integrate seems to be linked to the reason many of them come to Britain in the first place. “Work,” explains Robert Szaniawski of the Polish Embassy in London, “is the main factor that draws Poles to the UK. Most of them are young—they’re from small towns; they see it as a chance to get out and have an adventure, so they come to Britain.
“They’re flexible and they move with the demands of the labour market. It’s this willingness to go where the work is that helps them to ingratiate themselves.”
Poland’s GDP is significantly lower than Britain’s ($514.5 billion, compared to the UK’s $2.43 trillion); there is high unemployment (averaging 12 per cent since 2008) and the minimum hourly wage is less than half that paid in Britain. As Poland’s economic growth slows down—it halved to 2 per cent in 2012—still more skilled workers are lured to the UK. In 2011, 45,000 Poles settled here, marking the biggest rise in migrants since the financial crash.
Poles have a reputation for being hard workers, especially in the manual labour sector. Adam Zamoyski, a British historian descended from a Polish noble family, says Poles are “brilliant workers. When they’re abroad, they put their best foot forward and act as ambassadors for their country. They have a better experience in England than they do in Germany or France. They’re treated as menial in other countries; in England, they’re treated with kindness.”
But with such mass immigration comes inevitable tension. Many British workers blame the steady flow of cheap, cash-in-hand Polish labourers for keeping them out of jobs. And not all Poles who settle in Britain come here for gainful employment. Of the 371,000 non-UK nationals claiming unemployment benefit, 13,940 are Polish—making it the only previous EU accession state to appear in the top 20. In 2010, 6,777 Poles were convicted of crimes in Britain, and there are currently more than 700 Polish migrants in UK prisons (ranking in the top five nationalities of the 10,592 foreign nationals behind bars).
“As with every large group of migrants, you do get an underbelly,” Zamoyski says. “There are huge scams going on with benefits, whereby Poles come over to work, bring their families, sign them all up for child benefits and then go back home again with the money. And I have heard of older Poles accosting younger ones on their way to the bus stop and fleecing them for all their money.”
It was the Second World War that really formed the roots of Britain’s Polish community. The Poles made an important contribution to the Allied war effort, providing troops, intelligence and vital equipment. After the fall of France in 1940, the exiled Polish Prime Minister and his government set up office in London, bringing with them 20,000 soldiers and airmen. Poles made up the largest non-British group in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and, by July 1945, more than 150,000 Polish troops were serving under the command of the British Army.
When the war ended, Churchill vowed that the British would “never forget the debt they owe to the Polish” and pledged “citizenship and freedom of the British empire” for all. Fleeing the Communist government in Poland, many refused to return home, leading to the passing of the Polish Resettlement Act 1947, the UK’s first mass immigration law.
This first generation of Polish migrants laid the foundations for recent immigration. Nicola Werenowska, a playwright from Colchester, is married to Leszek, a second-generation Polish migrant whose parents moved to Reading after the war. While researching for her play Tu i Teraz (“Here and Now”), staged recently at the Hampstead Theatre in London, she interviewed 50 young Poles in Britain about their experiences of moving here.
“They come over for the jobs, but the history of migration helps them feel connected,” she says. “There are generally positive attitudes towards the UK in Poland.” Szaniawski agrees: “It’s a friendly, welcoming country and there’s a huge tradition of our parents and grandparents coming here.”
The willingness—and ability—of Poles to learn English is another factor that has been crucial to their integration. According to the Polish Central Statistical Office, 40 per cent of Poles aged 25-64 speak at least one foreign language, most commonly English or German.
Joanna Pietrzykowska, 27, a trainee accountant from a small town in eastern Poland, came to the UK seven years ago to learn English. “I initially came for a year, but I liked it so much that I am still here,” she says. “You can get anything you want over here now—Polish food, movies, books from the library. Wherever I go, I meet at least one Polish person. I have an English boyfriend, and I’ve always found it very welcoming. There are more career opportunities than in Poland—so why would I go back?”
But not all Poles have such positive experiences of Britain. Some, says Adam Zamoyski, simply don’t want to integrate. “They don’t ever have to learn the language; they stay in their own communities, where you can go all the way from the obstetrician to the grave without ever having to speak English.”
Others, like Sofia Pekala, 54, a cleaner who moved to the UK from Poland in 2002, have had bad experiences at the hands of British employers. “When I first came I worked on a farm in Penzance,” says Pekala, who used to own her own clothes shop. “I was treated very poorly and paid just £2.75 an hour for very hard work in poor conditions.”
Rafal Zbikowski, 34, who moved to Boston, Lincolnshire—where 3,006 out of 62,243 residents are Polish—eight years ago from Krakow, says he has experienced some tension, but adds: “It has been a great place to work. I came here to work in a food production factory and have had a job ever since.”
So what does the future hold for Britain’s Polish migrants? Werenowska believes that the roots many Poles have put down will last. “Of the Polish migrants I interviewed, there were broadly two types,” she says. “The first are those who want to earn as much money as they can, as fast as they can, and then go home to their families. The second are those who have come to Britain because they love it, who genuinely want to be a part of British society. Like it or not, they’re definitely here to stay.”