A Different Immigration Story

After a week which included two failed car bombs in London and a flaming 4×4 which hit Glasgow Airport, (near new PM Gordon Brown’s home turf) there is renewed talk of the serious threat posed by home grown Muslim terrorists in the UK. There are an estimated 1.6 million Muslims in Britain which suggests a sizable recruiting universe for groups like al Qu’eda. 43 percent of the Muslim immigrants to the UK are from Pakistan, the nation which hosts untold numbers of radical Islamic terrorist training camps.

Seems like an opportune moment to tell a different immigration story. In 2004, eight Eastern European nations joined the European Union. Membership benefits include the ability to move freely between member nations for any reason, the most obvious being better job opportunities. Although some EU countries put restrictions in place to stem an unbridled flow of legal immigration, Britain and Ireland (and Sweden) did not. This open door policy has had a profound impact on the British Isles. By 2006, 264,560 migrant workers from Poland had relocated to the UK. 82 percent of those workers are between 18 and 34 years old. That number has now swelled to an estimated 600,000 or more (some say three times more). The government is having trouble nailing down the exact figure.

With 20% unemployment in Poland, small wonder that so many of Poland’s young people have come to the UK. There they can get jobs which pay per week what it takes a month’s work to earn back home. Young Poles are especially motivated to experience the freedom of movement across borders because they grew up listening to their parents tell them about being trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Although some of these young people claim they saving a portion of their wages to return to Poland, others have decided to stay permanently and start families. Eager to work and anxious to improve their English fluency, this new work force is not simply changing the UK economy, but also the fabric of community life wherever they settle.

Polish immigrants now comprise one of the largest ethnic groups in London. The Greater London boroughs of Acton, Balham, Brixton, Ealing, Earls Court, and Hammersmith have become known as ‘Polish towns.’ Beyond London, Poles have settled in Banbury, Bolton, Bury, Chorley, Lewisham, Nottingham, Rugby, South Yorkshire, Slough and Swindon.
Polish food stores, bookshops, restaurants, and bars represent a burgeoning business sector for entrepreneurs. There are now so many Polish children in British schools that school administrators are thinking about adding classes to teach Polish history and culture to all students. The idea is to help British children better understand their new classmates — a kinder gentler form of multiculturalism.

There are over 50 Polish “Saturday School” around the UK, organized and financed by the Polish Educational Society, with very little local or central government funding. Their purpose is to insure that the children of immigrants maintain Polish language and cultural fluency in case they must return to Poland and re-enter the education system.

Polish immigrants have also established thriving new communities in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The town of Wrexham in Wales, for example, has a special program to recruit taxi drivers from the estimated 10,000 Poles who live in that town alone. The North Wales Police are looking to hire Polish-speaking officers with sufficient English language competency to serve in predominantly Polish neighborhoods.

Estimates of the number of Poles living in Scotland range from 40,000 to 100,000. Of that number 8,000 live in Edinburgh, with the rest distributed in towns with factory jobs. These companies have a bonafide need for workers. Scotland’s own youth have long been leaving in droves to seek better jobs elsewhere, so in this case immigrants really DO take the jobs the locals don’t want to fill.

As an unintended, but not unwelcome, consequence, unlike France, Germany and Italy which have birth rates below population replacement levels, Scotland has just proclaimed that immigrants from Eastern Europe have triggered a baby boom. Births in Scotland in the first three months of 2007 went up by 646 over the first quarter of 2006. Of those 646 babies, 20 percent were born to mothers from Eastern Europe. The majority of that number were born to Polish parents. Yes, parents. Married couples. People who go to church.
The impact, which Polish migrants are having on Catholic, churches in England, Scotland Wales and Ireland is nothing short of astounding. In some neighborhood parishes, masses in Polish are held with standing room only crowds. Even some Cathedrals are beginning to bulge at the seams on Sundays. Indeed, this influx of Catholicism seems to be on a demographic course to overturn Anglicanism as the dominant religion in Britain. Holy Henry the Eighth.

So great is the demand for Polish speaking clergy, that the Roman Catholic Church has sent at least one prominent Bishop to recruit (poach) priests from Poland. Where there are staffing shortfalls, Polish clergy are sent out to visit parishes on a rotating basis like the circuit riding preachers in America’s colonial days once were. Beyond worship services, these congregations offer a support network where members can share insights on living in a country with different social and economic parameters. They ease homesickness while reinforcing traditional values. In other words, Catholicism is providing faith-based assimilation.

Because they are far apart in generational terms, young Polish immigrants have not networked much with the “Oldies,” those who arrived in England after the Second World War. Making connections with their peers is being made easier through a growing number of Polish social clubs. The Polish Cultural and Social Institute in the London district of Hammersmith frequently host special events. New media outlets such as the London-based paper Polish newspaper, Cooltura, are also facilitating resources for jobs, cultural events and practical advice. A handful of Internet sites give leads on sharing rentals and dating, as well as posting news headlines from back home. See for example: (

Special job fairs cater to the needs of young Polish workers. 5000 of them turned up to attend the third Annual Recruitment fair in London. The host of this event is The Polish Express, known as the newspaper for “the Polish Diaspora.”

To be fair, not all the lives of Polish immigrants have been rosy. Many with poor language skills have been shunted into job ghettos, primarily in the building trades. Others have found adjusting to life in Britain simply too hard and have packed it in. The already over taxed British health care system is experiencing a strain from immigrant overload. There are a few xenophobes who speak out on occasion against this “hoard of invading Poles.” But the overwhelming impression is that the UK could do worse than having a surge of decent hard working immigrants arriving on their shores. In a newspaper article from that previously mentioned town in Wales, one man commented:

“We are lucky to be the focus of Polish immigration; you hear foreign words in Wrexham, look up and see a nice looking young couple doing their shopping, they seem to be decent hard working people looking for a better life, and you can’t help thinking there are a lot worse in our society, even the ones born here. Don’t forget that the Poles who come here are the go-getters who don’t sit at home moaning, they have made an effort to improve themselves, I wish we had more people with that spirit.”

One is moved to observe that this immigration story makes a rather nice counterpoint to the sounds of civilizations clashing!