After the 2004 Eastern enlargement, Poles immigrated massively to the UK and account today for the largest part of the country’s migrant population from Central and Eastern Europe. In the wake of the financial crisis followed by the economic downturn that harshly struck the UK, studies claim that Polish nationals have, for the most part, gone back to their home country. About half of the one-million UK-based Poles are thus said to have returned. Are these assumptions backed by evidence? And what are the perspectives regarding Polish immigration to the UK?
A Massive Wave of Immigration after 2004
The UK experienced a massive wave of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe, especially from Poland. Migrants from countries that had recently joined the EU were seduced by the prospect of higher wages in pounds and a relatively open UK emigration policy, although nationals of these countries (the so-called “A8”, excluding Cyprus and Malta) were subject to restrictions in their access to labour market in the UK. Nevertheless, officials estimated in 2008 that almost 60% of migrants to Northern Ireland from the new EU states were of Polish nationality. By the end of 2009 there was a cumulative total of over one million registrations under the Worker Registration Scheme, which was set up in order to regulate Eastern European newcomers’ access to the labour market and right to claim social benefits.
Besides, a study conducted by Trinity College Dublin found that Ireland attracted the most qualified Polish migrants, as those who moved to Ireland and the UK had higher educational attainments than Polish migrants to other European countries.
The Controversy about Statistics: have the Poles gone Home?
Some British official sources such as the Office for National Statistics, echoed in many newspapers, claimed that many Poles have returned home in the wake of the economic crisis, as potential benefits of returning to Poland exceeded the cost of living in the UK in the context of rising unemployment.
Think-tanks such as the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) thus claimed that 1.5m people from new EU states, mostly Poles, had come to the UK since 2004 and that more than half had now left. Contrary to the worldwide trend according to which immigrants overwhelmingly are choosing to stay in their adopted countries rather than returning home, the MPI report states that “the United Kingdom has witnessed a rapid turnover of workers from the eight Eastern European countries and a significant drop-off in A8 immigration – particularly from Poland.” Immigration Minister Phil Woolas also declared in 2010 that only about 700,000 Poles remained in the country. Similarly, in 2008, the Warsaw-based Centre for International Relations contended that half of the estimated one million British-based Poles were expected to return home. British and Polish estimations thus seemed to tally.
However, those figures’ accuracy has been questioned by a number of independent studies, from both Poland and the UK, highlighting issues of calculation and interpretation of data. They have pointed out the incoherences of these estimations, underlining the absence of comprehensive data in the UK regarding the number of Polish immigrants. Indeed, figures do count the number of incoming migrants but do not include the ones who leave the country. On the Polish side, numbers also tend to discredit the claim that Poles had massively left the UK: in 2008, only 22,000 Poles came back and registered for benefits. Therefore, the belief that about half of the UK's Poles have returned home is very controversial and cannot be supported by any relevant statistics, although there has indeed been a trend to leave.
Why would Poles have gone home anyway?
Figures nevertheless indicate that a significant number of Polish migrants left in 2008-2009, as the economic crisis was spreading. Reasons to leave included the pound/zloty exchange rate, which favoured the Polish currency: it shifted from £1 = 7,2 zloty in 2004 to 1£ = 4.8 zloty in 2008. In addition, Poland weathered the crisis quite well, as GDP growth remained at about 1.9% in 2009, the highest rate throughout the EU.
Besides these economic factors, when asked about the reasons why they would like to return home, Polish migrants pointed out harassment from the British native population. As stressed in the report of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NACIM), racism towards immigrants and especially Eastern Europeans has been thriving in the UK, in the context of economic downturn and the wave of immigration after 2004. A study from 2009 revealed that 28% of racist crimes in Northern Ireland, where an important Polish community is settled, were committed against Poles. The religious factor plays a role too, as some Protestant Northern Irish people discriminate against Poles, who are mostly Catholics.
Prospects: A second wave of immigration?
Although a significant number of migrants returned to Poland during the financial crisis, many are planning to move back to the UK if the economic context improves. Bartosz Trzaskalski, from the Centre for Strategic Consulting and author of a study about Polish immigration trends, found that up to half of the returnees announced that once again they will be leaving to work abroad within the next two years. A report entitled “On the move? Labour migration in times of recession” published by Policy Network concludes that “foreign immigration falls while unemployment is increasing, but only for a limited period”, an assumption that, in the UK's case, was proven true in previous crises. Despite the relatively good performance of Poland during the economic crisis, the 9% employment rate (as of January 2010) and the sluggish labour market might thus encourage Polish national returnees to leave again. Besides, GDP growth that had soared to about 6,8% in 2008 fell to a relatively low 1,9% in 2009.
The Irish case is obviously different. As the economic situation is worsening, migrants from Central and Eastern Europe are massively leaving the country. So are many Irish-born youngsters that are fleeing Ireland to study or work abroad. A recent study undertaken by that the Central Statistics Office found that the number of immigrants from the states that have joined the EU since 2004 is estimated at 5,800 in the year up to April 2010, representing a continuing decline from the peak of 52,700 in the year ending in April 2007.
But the UK is not in the same economic situation as Ireland, and as the pound is strenghtening again, one might witnesses a significant number of migrants coming back. As for a real second "wave" of massive immigration, it is however very unlikely to come from from Eastern Europe, where labour standards and standards of living have been steadily raising.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe website
- Goodbye Lenin en Pologne : l'ostalgie pour des descendants d'immigrés polonais en France
- Quels sont les défis de la politique d'immigration polonaise ?
- Baltes, Polonais, Ukrainiens, Roumains, Bulgares : ces immigrés de l’Est méconnus à l'Ouest
- Dossier de février 2009 : L'Europe, un continent migrant
- Za Chlebem, The Impact of the Economic Downturn on the Polish Community in Northern Ireland, NICEM (Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities)
- Population and Migration Estimates, April 2010 (September 21th 2010), Central Statistics Office
On the Internet
- Migration and the Global Recession (Report of the Migration Policy Institute, September 2009)
- 'How welcome are Poles in Northern Ireland?' , BBC News website, May 15th 2010
- 'Polish migrants raised standards here, research show ', Irishtimes.com, September 18th 2010
Source photo : (Sans nom) par Don't Worry, sur flickr