Migrants in the city – exploring the gendered experiences of Polish migrants across five European cities

By Louise Ryan, Co-Director of the Migration Research Group, University of Sheffield

Although the academic study of Polish intra-European migration, especially to the UK context, but also more generally, has burgeoned, there is a need for further attention, first, to the particular roles of cities as settlement sites for migrants and second, to the evolving gender identities and relations among Polish migrants.

While the transnational lens has shown the importance of migrants’ long distance ties, in recent years there has been growing interest in how migrants navigate their lives in local places – the locations where they work, socialise, build new relationships, rear their children, spend their leisure time.

In exploring these issues, a new collection of articles has been published in the journal Gender, Place and Culture (2018) guest edited by myself and Marta Bivand Erdal. This themed section, entitled, Gendered, spatial and temporal approaches to Polish intra-European migration, explores how the economic, cultural and political specificities of particular cities shape opportunities for local encounters and belongings.

The articles in this collection arose from the Migrants in the City conference held at the University of Sheffield in 2015 and a series of panels held at the IMISCOE conference in Rotterdam in 2017.

Focusing on the in-place experiences of migrants, this collection draws on the work of feminist geographers such as Gill Valentine (2008). Gender relations and dynamics are significant to processes of migrant adaptation within particular cities. As Valentine notes, while cities may be understood as ‘spaces of encounter’ (2008: 331), these spaces are not free of ‘history, material conditions and power’ (2008: 333). Thus, the ways in which migrants navigate their new locations are shaped not only by institutional structures but also by gendered, classed and racialised power dynamics enacted in and through those spaces. By examining the experiences of Polish migrants across various city spaces in different national contexts, the articles consider how migrants may adopt particular strategies to negotiate these specific ‘spaces of encounter’.

Through empirical studies from destinations across Europe, this themed Special Issue explores the ways in which structural features of local context affect migrants’ lives and how and when these become gendered processes. By analysing how the labour market and welfare regimes, housing availability and prices, language, education and childcare organization, and the distance from Poland and cost of travel, as structural features of local places, affect migrants gendered everyday lives, all the authors draw out the spatial and local ‘embedding’ (Ryan, 2018) of contemporary Polish migration.

The five articles in this Special Issue focus on varied and distinct urban sites: Berlin/ Munich, Oslo/Bergen, Belfast, Bologna and Barcelona. The fact that most of these sites begin with the letter ‘B’ is entirely coincidental.

While there has been extensive research on Polish migrants in cities such as London (see for example the work of Datta & Brickell, 2009; Ryan, 2010; 2018, Magdalena Lopez Rodriguez, 2018), this themed issue presents a unique opportunity to explore the experiences of Polish women and men across a range of different cities. Of course, that is not to suggest that Polish migrants only move to cities. In the UK, for example, there are significant numbers of Poles in small towns and rural locations. But for the purposes of this collection we have focused on cities. In so doing, these papers address key questions concerning implications of the specific structures and opportunities of the urban localities where Polish migrants settle for their gendered everyday life experiences.

Focusing on Barcelona, Alina Rzepnikowska uses the concept of conviviality to critically explore these encounters as gendered and racialised experiences in specific spatial contexts.

In Belfast, Polish migrants also negotiate their identity through the complex socio-political environment of Northern Ireland’s troubled history. Markieta Domecka and Justyna Belldemonstrate how the place of arrival enters migrants’ world of everyday life, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Drawing on ethnographic data collected among Polish migrants in the Norwegian cities Oslo and Bergen, Marta Bivand Erdal and Marek Pawlak analyse migrants’ gender relations and identities by considering them as intertwined with conceptualisations of place and time.

Through a case study of Berlin and Munich, Agata Lisiak and Magdalena Nowicka analyse the temporal aspects of migrants’ experience by disentangling different understandings of time in various urban contexts.

The paper on older Polish migrants in Bologna especially considers the role of time through the life course as people age and retire in the destination society. Weronika Kloc-Nowak critically engages with the theoretical framework of ‘lifestyle migration’ and discusses its applicability to labour migrants from Central-Eastern Europe settling in Mediterranean countries.

The articles brought together in this collection shine a light on a range of diverse cities beyond more widely researched migrant destinations such as London. In so doing, they widen the scope of migration scholarship offering new insights on everyday life in diverse places. Together, these papers demonstrate that, while the subject matter of Polish migration has been extensively researched, there is still more to be learned. Indeed, the evolving context of Brexit offers opportunities for new research to contribute further to our understanding of migratory experiences in dynamic socio-structural contexts.