Panel discussion on migration within, to and from Central and Eastern Europe in the shadow of Brexit

By September 24, 2019Blog, Projects

Members of the Migration Research Group at University of Sheffield and Centre for Migration Research at University of Warsaw organised a panel on migration and Brexit at the Polish Sociological Association conference, held in Wroclaw, Poland, in Sept 2019.

Chaired by Professor Paweł Kaczmarczyk, Director of the Centre for Migration Research, this panel provided an opportunity to bring together discussions about Polish migration to the UK and the increasing levels of immigration into Polish society. While Poland has historically been known as a society of emigration, in recent years the country has experienced rising immigration especially from Ukraine, with an estimated 1 million Ukrainians moving to Poland in the last decade. Moreover, cities such as Wroclaw, where the panel took place, also attract significant numbers of highly skilled migrants from all over the world including North America and Asia, as well as the rest of Europe. Of course, while Poland is often thought of as a mono-cultural society, it does have an established Roma population, as well as other more recently arrived Roma from countries such as Romania. This fascinating mix of new and established populations was a theme for discussion by members of the panel and is the subject of new research by panellist Dr. Krzysztof Jaskułowski, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Olga Chrebor, Mayor of Wroclaw’s plenipotentiary for Residents of Ukrainian Descent, spoke about the various efforts to celebrate the diversity of cities such as Wroclaw. Ukrainians in Poland often experience the kinds of hostility that Polish migrants experience in the UK. Being culturally and geographically so similar to the ‘host’ population is not necessarily a protection from hostility. Narratives of migrants taking ‘our’ jobs and ‘our’ housing are common in both contexts. The city of Wroclaw has introduced a number of initiatives, for example in schools, to try to foster openness and understanding between the different residents of the city.

While Ukrainians are ostensibly similar to Poles, the Roma, by contrast, are often perceived to be different and have faced discrimination and persecution for centuries. Roma who have moved to Poland from other EU countries are often without official documentation, such as passports, and so rarely enjoy the rights associated with EU Freedom of Movement, as Maciej Mandelt, an activist at Nomada association, explained to the audience. Organisations like Nomada are working not only to support Roma communities in Poland but also to tackle anti-Roma stigmatisation and racism within Polish society.

Louise Ryan and Majella Kilkey, co-directors of the Migration Research Group, both focused on the UK context. Majella talked about Brexit and the likely scenarios for immigration regulations. Majella warned that many of the new immigration schemes currently being considered by the UK government, post-Brexit, looked like ‘Guest Worker’ programmes. Immigration visas would be time limited and hence would result in a rapid turnover of migrant workers. For sectors such as Social Care, which relies on trusting, inter-personal relationships between carers and those receiving care, short term visas and a high turnover of staff would be potentially disastrous. Moreover, if the UK government made such visas so restrictive, the question arose – would migrants want to go and work in the UK under such unattractive conditions.

Louise looked back at the Brexit referendum and the subsequent divisiveness across the UK. She argued that we cannot understand the Brexit vote without paying attention to the impact of the UK government’s austerity programme since 2010. A decade of public spending cuts has resulted in rising levels of poverty in the UK. That a Western European country like the UK should see a massive increase in the number of food banks is a truly shocking indictment of any government in this day and age. While the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, recently declared that austerity is over, we need an honest conversation about the long term damage such a policy has inflicted on the most vulnerable people in British society. The Brexit vote needs to be understood against the backdrop of austerity. Migrants provided a convenient scape-goat for the deeper problems of British society. Nigel Farage’s infamous poster showing long queues of people apparently lining up on the European borders tapped into and stirred up anti-immigration hostility.

However, as many members of the panel noted, attitudes toward immigration are complex and multi-layered. In Poland for example, levels of immigration have been increasing in response to a growing demand for labour. In the UK too immigration is needed, despite anti-immigration rhetoric in many quarters. In fact, one of the most interesting issues to emerge across the panel discussion was how politicians often present themselves as anti-immigration while, at the same time encouraging migrant labour. This may result in policies which appear somewhat contradictory. For example, as Boris Johnson is appearing to close the doors on EU Freedom of Movement with a no deal Brexit, he has quietly changed the rules in an effort to attract more student immigration by Third Country Nationals. Thus, there is plenty of work for us to do as migration researchers to offer analysis of this fast changing landscape.

This panel was part of the wrap up meeting of the project Modern Poland: Migration and Transformations, a two year networking project led by the Migration Research Group and the Centre for Migration Research. It is funded by the Noble Foundation’s Programme on Modern Poland. The overall aim of that project was to bring together leading scholars from the University of Warsaw and the University of Sheffield, using the lens of migration to examine key dynamics in modern Polish society and applying a transnational lens to explore the interconnections between Poland and Britain.

The Sheffield team are: Prof Louise Ryan, PI, Dr Majella Kilkey Co-I and Dr Aneta Piekut, Co-I. The Polish Co-Is are: Prof Paweł Kaczmarczyk, Prof Izabela Grabowska, Dr. Anita Brzozowska and Dr. Weronika Kloc-Nowak. We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Noble-Foundation which made this event possible.