Work, save, go . . . or stay?

Marek Kohn on the new migrants

It is easy enough to explain why one can travel the length of Britain, from cities to far-flung villages, and at every mealtime be served by a Pole. Average earnings in Poland during the first half of this year were £463 a month and the unemployment rate is 12 per cent - and these figures would be much worse if it were not for the departure of more than a million Poles to Britain, Ireland and other EU countries.

It's not so easy to decide what this mass movement means. To the Polish prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it is a "flow of blood" that must be staunched. To a young Pole working in Britain, it may seem like a necessity or an opportunity, a passing phase or a permanent transition. The Poles who have gone abroad are generally the young, and their situation is too novel for anybody to know whether they will stay or return - least of all the migrants themselves. Polish government research indicates that 20 per cent plan to stay abroad, 20 per cent intend to return home, and the remaining 60 per cent don't know.

Some do both. Many Poles in Britain have a simple plan: work hard, save up, go home and buy a shop or a house. Others make more complicated arrangements. Michal Garapich, who is researching migration at the University of Surrey, found Poles working in London while studying at Polish universities. Poles coming to Britain today have resources that previous waves of Polish migrants and exiles could never have imagined. They can travel freely; they can work legally; they can travel back and forth on coaches or budget flights; they can chat with their families or watch Polish TV news on the internet. Some are more like commuters than migrants, but even permanent settlers can retain a virtual presence in Poland.

If they want to vote in the Polish general election on 21 October, however, they will have to do so with their feet. With just 20 polling stations set up across the UK, many Poles in effect will be disenfranchised. Their importance to politicians is thus as an election issue rather than a source of votes.

For the 2005 elections, more than 70 per cent of the 3,000 presidential votes cast in the UK went to Donald Tusk, leader of the opposition Civic Platform (PO). Liberal economically and socially, PO has a sympathetic constituency among Poles who have followed liberal economic logic and come to socially liberal Britain. "The Civic Platform electorate is here," says Garapich. "Whether or not they will vote is another matter."

But the real obstacle is not distance to a polling station, but an alienation from politics that has blighted civic life in Poland since before the end of communism. "Young Poles are all incredibly well-versed political pundits," says Marek Kazmierski, who emigrated to Britain as a child in 1985, and now runs Apart Arts, a migrant artists' association. Yet although they know what's going on, they don't believe they can influence it. Instead, they sit back and watch the splits, plots, machinations and scandals that make up the Polish political scene.

They expect little better of their fellow citizens. Polish migrants have a saying, adapted from a Latin proverb: "Polak Polakowi wilkiem" - a Pole is a wolf to Poles. This bitter verdict expresses a concern about how Poles can become not just a presence, but a community. Although Polish communities have been established in Britain since the war, after six decades of separate development they are divided from the newcomers by a common language.

The Polish labour minister, Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, foresees a different-generation linguistic gap. If children born to Poles abroad have a shaky grasp of Polish, she suggests, their parents will take that as a reason to remain abroad.

As part of its new "Return" programme, the government will promote the teaching of Polish in countries such as Britain. So it'll be off to Saturday school for the next generation, following in the footsteps of the old exiles' children. But they will sound more English: according to Polish consulate staff, many Polish children born in Britain are being given names the British can grasp. Economically, this may be a wise precaution: at present rates of growth, they may have children of their own by the time Poland's level of prosperity has reached the European average.

At their weekday schools, they will learn the lesson, long overdue in Poland, that being white does not make them superior. That will do much to reform the idea of Polishness as a quality that no longer has to be confined within national borders. And that might even have some effect upon the idea of Britishness. Michal Garapich tells how a Pole visiting Southampton, where Poles are said to number more than one in ten, approached somebody to ask directions. "Are you Polish?" he asked. "Not yet," the Englishman replied.

Tags:Poland