Brexit, COVID and stay/return narratives amongst Polish migrants in the UK

By Magda Mogilnicka.

Following EU enlargement in 2004, Polish migrants quickly became the largest migrant population in the UK. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, however, the Office for National Statistics has documented a decline in the Polish population by around a quarter. A further drop in numbers was noticeable after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the estimated population of Polish citizens at the end of 2020 at 691,000 compared with 818,000 in 2019. Both the rise and the fall in numbers have been widely understood in terms of Poles as economic migrant workers and their contributions to the economy. But how do Polish migrants themselves reflect on their presence in the UK? In 2021 I carried out a research pilot study to learn more about the impact of COVID and Brexit on Polish people living in Bristol, and whether they are currently considering leaving or staying in the UK.

Since the referendum there has been a surge in British citizenship and EUSS scheme applications made by EU citizens, which demonstrates that concerns around Brexit and the pandemic have driven some EU citizens to take actions to anchor themselves in British society. However, recent media debates have focused on the return of many EU citizens to their countries of origin, which has been understood as an exodus that will affect the British economy. Commentators have pointed at Brexit and the pandemic as contributing factors in these individuals’ decision to leave, and the impact of these events on a rise in hate crime towards them, being made to feel unwelcome and uncertainties around their future.

Although many Polish people are leaving, it is unclear how many of them have also secured EU Settlement Scheme status or applied for British citizenship. The current return migration should not, therefore, be seen as a definite, long-term departure. Neither should their potential relocation back to the UK be interpreted as a long-term stay. In other words, the Brexit or COVID related changes in status and mobility are not fixed.

Polish grocery store in Plymouth, UK, 2015 (image by Chris on Flickr)

Polish migrants in my pilot research study clearly voiced their anxieties about their future in the UK. In 2021 I interviewed 15 Polish workers employed in a variety of sectors, such as hospitality, the NHS, food distribution, supermarkets and the public sector. The project explored how Brexit and COVID were affecting their everyday lives. This led to discussions about the possibility of returning to Poland.

At the time of the study, Brexit was overshadowed by COVID-19.However, the respondents readily shared memories of the vote to leave the EU five years earlier. Above all they described a feeling of disappointment and betrayal.

Most participants knew of someone who had already left the UK and were sympathetic towards the decision. The returns were perceived as a loss for the British industries, as stated by a female participant Edyta: ‘Watching all those construction sites in our neighbourhood, I thought to myself: “Who is gonna work here?” (…) Poles are leaving, escaping (…) because it doesn’t pay off for them anymore (…). So, who is gonna work here?’ Similarly, Marta noticed that Polish people might be better off financially in Poland: ‘The British pound is not as strong a currency as 15 years ago. We cannot save as much anymore.’

Other respondents also reproduced the discourse of Poles’ economic contributions as migrants. One of them, Ania, claimed that the UK is already experiencing a shortage of labour force: ‘They say: “immigrants are taking jobs away!” Now farmers cannot find anyone to work so what jobs are we taking away?’ Some suggested that British people would eventually regret their decision to leave the EU as they are losing an essential labour force. These narratives draw on the stereotype of a hardworking Polish migrant and reproduce the sense of validity and usefulness of Poles in Britain as migrant workers rather than citizens deserving to be here.

Although the participants justified other migrants’ decisions to leave, they themselves had no intention to do so in the near future. Interestingly, the narratives about staying also constructed Polish citizens as migrant workers. A notion of their irreplaceability has led some to believe that their position in the UK is secure, as expressed by Monika: ‘They won’t kick us out – they need immigrants, Brexit is just an economic stage in their country’s history, I don’t take it personally.’ Similarly, Marcin claimed: ‘I’m not scared of losing my job. I will find another one easily.’ Over the years, Poles have earned a good reputation as a ‘hard-working’ migrant group. As Marta stated: ‘One of my customers said to me: I voted Brexit but have nothing against Polish migrants. They work hard.’ Although Brexit continues to have serious consequences for EU migrants’ mobility, the participants were convinced that their legal status was secure. Their stay narratives – similarly to their return ones – constructed Polish people as migrant workers in British society.

By contrast, the participants expressed their sense of belonging to Poland through nostalgic memories about family, friends and places. These feelings had been intensified by the pandemic. The sudden travel ban following the start of COVID-19 made it impossible for them to see their families, which led some participants to seriously consider leaving the UK for good. They rethought their values and the importance of their families, as seen in Ania’s reflection: ‘I’m the only child, my parents miss me. They are 80 and 79, I don’t know for how much longer I will have them.’ Marta’s memories of Poland expressed deep nostalgia: ‘I miss Poland so much. I miss gardens, parks, people, everything!’ This romanticised picture was reinforced by Monika: ‘I miss four seasons (…) I feel like I’m missing out on so much by being here.’

My respondents rationalised other Polish people’s decisions to leave as a financially more secure option and as a loss to the British economy, but they talked about their own potential return in terms of an emotional connection to Poland, which was missing from their narratives about the UK. Those who expressed a sense of belonging to the UK talked about it in terms of their local links to neighbourhoods, workplaces and mortgage commitments, or having children who feel more at home in the UK than in Poland.

Their stay and return narratives therefore reproduced dominant discourses in UK society that identify Poles as migrant workers whose value is measured in economic terms. In other words, they are seen as economic actors rather than as citizens – an issue for many migrant groups. Their narratives are also in dialogue with broader media and political discourses in the UK that construct them as the racialised East European Other – that is, cheap, low-skilled economic migrants praised for their hard work, but also facing political hostility and racism. These discourses position them below the white British majority in hierarchies of belonging. And yet, as seen in my participants’ responses, many Polish migrants today point to the UK’s labour shortages resulting from Brexit and the pandemic and use this to re-negotiate their identity as economic workers ­that once again need to be appreciated.

Magda Mogilnicka is a Lecturer in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations, University of Bristol. Her PhD thesis, ‘Lived diversities of conditional citizens: Poles’ encounters with difference in Britain’, investigated everyday ambivalent experiences of learning to live with diversity in the context of British national hierarchies of belonging.

2 thoughts on “Brexit, COVID and stay/return narratives amongst Polish migrants in the UK

  1. Very interesting article. As for what entices them leave, however, you’re relying on migrants that are talking about others’ experience but who personally plan to remain in the UK (at least in the short term). To really gauge this issue, it would be better to talk to migrants that have left the UK and returned to Poland.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
      I agree that there is a need for further research with Polish migrants (and other EU migrants) who have left the UK, in order to identify motivating factors behind their decisions. This was beyond the scope of my pilot study. Instead, I wanted to draw the attention to the fact that Brexit and the pandemic made people reflect on their presence in the UK. I was interested in how they talked about the possibility of returning, regardless of whether they decide to leave or not.

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