In the midst of the referendum for whether the UK remains part of the EU I have felt particularly affected by the topic of immigration.
Since the influx of Eastern Europeans over the past several years I have felt the growing animosity and segregation between groups of nationalities. There is no doubt that this is one of the major key notes as to why the UK stands at almost 50/50 for leaving the EU.
As the numbers grew in my hometown to the point where one could walk down the street hearing nothing but Slavic languages, Polish especially, and as the Polish shops sprung open on every street corner I could feel a change in the atmosphere and attitude of the natives. Although I cannot say that my town was ever diverse or open-minded with regards to foreign influence, I had never before been surrounded by such hostility towards Eastern Europeans and Poles in particular. I later found that this hostility was not only encamped within my hometown but in many other parts of the UK as well.
Although being born and raised in the UK I have had mixed feelings regarding immigration, at the risk of causing guilt to either aspect of my heritage.
My mother is one of the former generations of Polish expats who came to live and work in the UK in the 80s, wherein she met my father and has lived happily in the UK ever since. Coming from what was then the Soviet Block, my mother had to arrange and qualify for a visa which allowed her to stay for a maximum of a year before she had to return to Poland had her situation not changed. It was a risk that was not guaranteed success. Luckily, marriage and later a family allowed her to begin a new life away from the constraints of the Iron Curtain.
A generation before, my grandfather fled Hungary by boat prior to the Hungarian Revolution. Having hidden in a forest for two weeks before crossing the border to Austria and being detained in a refugee camp, he moved further West into France where he had to serve in the French Foreign Legion before he could find sanctuary in the UK.
Needless to say, the conditions of immigration have changed significantly from the 50s and 80s, when movement across the continent was much more difficult and was made with the determination of finding refuge or a new life.
When Poland joined the EU in 2004 it gave free-and-easy rein for Polish, as well as other migrants, to traverse Westward to our little island, which they believed flowed with milk and honey. The UK was not expecting such an influx, nor were we prepared, and resentment grew as the UK felt themselves being taken advantage of.
The age-old battle cry of; ‘They took our jobs!’ was being yelled from the rooftops, gangs of youths began to gather from both sides, the issue of the benefits system became the forefront of frustration, and Nigel Farage began a UKIP campaign which played on the locals’ frustration with immigrants and border control.
So where do I stand in all this frustration? It seemed as though many British citizens had been coasting on the backs of bank loans and benefits before and during this influx. ‘Easy-money’ was one of the causes of our economical downfall of the 00s and still many people choose to rely on benefits and loan shops rather than find honest work. Many migrants took the jobs that the British Nationals did not want – a man could earn more working in a waste site in the UK than as an accountant in Poland.
The flip-side of the coin to this is the fact that along with the hard-working, honest immigrants who happily took the jobs that the locals didn’t want also came the free-riders and coasters who also hoped to gain benefits for nothing. But the truth is that immigrants have brought so much to the UK in terms of economy, culture, and diversity.
With free rein to cross Europe within the Schengen Zone or EU Zone one would have to accept that along with the skilled and hard-working will come those who have little intention of working. This is the case with all nationalities, local and distant, established and new. However, British expats and students travelling and studying abroad have also taken advantage of the freedom of movement across Europe. Therefore, condemning access for others we will limit access for ourselves. And I LOVE travelling around Europe!
As a result, a called need for stricter border controls, such as they have in Australia, was demanded of the government to allow only those who already have work or desired skills into the UK.
Being a ‘second-generation’ immigrant to my mother I consider myself fortunate to have been raised within a diverse culture of mixed Polish/British tradition, and within a dual-language household.
I grew up with access to a Polish community and parish and all together we felt as though we were an extended family. Given that our Polish community was built by the ex-soldiers and refugees of World War II the sense of solidarity, pride, and unification held steadfast. Everyone knew each other and felt comfortable with each other.
Afterwards the children of the war veterans kept the community alive for a time, and being second-generation themselves they had already been integrated into British life and their own children even more so. My mother joined the second generation community and became part of the extended family who welcomed her and my British father with open arms.
Now my generation have all but dissipated to various parts of the world, taking advantage of the freedom of travel that our parents and our grandparents never had. The veterans have died out and my parents’ generation are losing the community spirit as a new wave of Poles take over the parish and community.
With our own Polish community dying out one would think that a fresh revival of the parish would have reawakened our vigour. But in fact the opposite happened. It was no longer our community, our parish. We had become the locals and distant from the new breed of Polish migrants. I can only speculate that the separation of the generations of immigrants was due to the differing circumstances in which they arrived. From the strength and unity of the first generation who fought and survived the War with whatever dark atrocities they had witnessed, to the second generation who grew up in the safety of Britain but with the strength and staunch pride of their parents before them combined with those like my mother who had freshly fled from the Soviet Block. This was contrasted with the new breed of free-reining Poles who seemed to have had no struggles on arrival nor had to flee from any kind of dictatorship. The only feeling of common kinship was that we all spoke the same language.
A bitterness grew as the invasion of our territory was threatened by a mass takeover of new Poles who had not fought with blood, sweat, and tears to become a part of the UK and earn its acceptance, but had nonchalantly laid claim to any area which was perceived as Polish – ‘Our parents built this place!’ became a second war cry.
One of the underlying aspects of many of the problems with ‘us’ and ‘them’ from both a British and Polish perspective is integration. As the animosity grows stronger the separation becomes more apparent. This is something of which all sides are guilty, whether it is over a case of turf-marking or job-taking. A distrust of different people and culture has been an issue since mankind came into existence. Racism is still an issue in many parts of the world, fascism is still a major problem of the world, terrorism and senseless bloody violence is something which I fear will still remain even in our children’s lifetime. But integration is an issue that we could tackle within our own lives.
Communities are built to make people feel safe and make people feel as though they belong, but this should not result in segregation or disconnecting with ‘outsiders’ because of their race, colour, or creed.
Furthermore, diversity can add so much to our country and our lives and it should not be treated like a virus that needs quarantine. We do not lose our identity by communicating with different nationalities. If you’re Polish and you send your child to an English school, it does not diminish his or her heritage. If you are English and you work in a shop owned by Polish migrants, it does not make you suddenly Polish. As a Catholic when I enter into a mosque it does not mean God will smite me or that I will re-emerge as a Muslim. Heritage and belonging is the pride and feeling of the individual. If you feel your own sense of heritage at threat then there is a problem within yourself, not the people around you who happen to be from another country.
With regards to immigration as a whole – yes, I do feel there is an issue which should have been addressed long before it became a problem. Perhaps then there could have been less resentment. Logistics state that the UK is only a small island which needs to find room for our growing population. Jobs are not infinite and neither is our economy.
But as far as people are concerned, as I watch the news I see many people of various nationalities that the country could do without, including British. But this is true in every country I visit! There are good and bad. But we’re not all bad.
I think we can take a lesson from the migrants who build a strong community within the hostilities of any country. And by accepting them and encouraging them to integrate with us in return we build our own sense of national pride – because we are a free nation which can allow and embrace diversity within our green and pleasant land – to add to the richness of our nation. And is that not what our grandparents and theirs fought for after all?