So, the results of the 2011 census, published last month, reveal Poland to be the second most common country of birth for residents from outside the UK – second only to India. There are nearly 600,000 Poles in the UK, compared to less than 100,000 a decade earlier, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that figure were an underestimate, even though many Poles are said to have returned home. Poles have settled particularly in England’s eastern counties: towns like Peterborough have a significant Polish minority. The Polish port of Gdansk, short of skilled workers, is said to have sent a delegation there to try to persuade some of them to come back!
Why do so many Poles arrive and then settle here? I’m sure there are surveys and scientific studies, but as I test my pidgin Polish on just about every unsuspecting Pole I meet in this country, I’ve made something of an informal study myself. Last might is a good example. I met a friendly Polish girl at the reception of the hotel in which I was staying. She hailed from Wroclaw and had now been here some 6 years. Wroclaw is hardly somewhere to escape from – a beautiful old town, and as a former part of Germany (once called Breslau), pretty well developed, too.
No doubt she came looking for work – despite being the economic tiger of Europe, unemployment is high in Poland, as is the cost of living – but said she likes it here now because of the social conditions. She said she finds the Brits an open and cheery people, and that Poles can be a tad downbeat. I find this interesting not only because I make the same observation in my book Polska Dotty, but because it appears to be a factor in the migration of the Poles over here. As everyone by now knows, Poles have settled pretty much seamlessly into life on these shores, and I can’t help thinking there must be some natural affinity between our two cultures. This may even be, to an extent, the attraction of opposites – but that can be the subject of another blog…
I knew, long before any census results were published, that Poles had come here in great numbers since EU membership in 2004, but was surprised to read there are now between 100,000-200,000 Lithuanians over here, too. Remember Lithuania’s entire population is only 3m, compared to Poland’s 40m. I’m waiting for a Lithuanian delegation to make its way here, too: Please, UK, can we have our people back? If they want them, they’ll have to drag them away from the Dagenham Leisure Centre, which apparently has become something of a hub for Lithuanians, because they adore basketball, and no less than two leagues of Lithuanian teams now play out of Dagenham. What was interesting in the article I read were the comments of one Lithuanian who said it’s a stereotype to claim all Lithuanians come here as economic migrants. Rather, he said, many of them are perfectly successful already – high fliers, in fact – but come here for the experience, the international life.
I suspect, as ever with these things, the truth lies somewhere in between. A whole lot of the Eastern Europeans who come here surely do so seeking work. But having done so, it seems they take to the conditions remarkably well, and build up a genuine affinity with the way of life. Or, maybe I over-analyse, and they just can’t stand the idea of another Eastern European winter (some have told me so)!