A year since Brexit: How welcome do Poles living in the UK feel now?

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“I’m not going anywhere. I’m happy here and this is my home.”

Ewa Gluza came to the UK in August 2003, the year before Poland joined the European Union. Even with Britain now outside the bloc, she has no intention of going back.

“Immediately after the Brexit vote I thought, ‘Oh my God, they don’t want us anymore’. I remember going to work and people telling me ‘We want you to stay’,” she says.

Now 47, Ewa is chair of the Oxford Polish Association (OPA), an accounts clerk at Oxford University’s Hertford College and she also runs her own bookkeeping firm for mostly Polish self-employed clients.

About 10 percent of her Polish bookkeeping clients have gone back home since Brexit, including cleaners, health workers and people in construction.

“Of course, a lot of people are going back now. One reason is Brexit, but another is having parents to care for, and of course some people – especially labourers – lost their jobs in the pandemic. Some went back to see how the situation was in Poland, and found it was pretty good,” she tells Euronews.

‘No reason to leave’

The years since the UK voted for Brexit have seen many EU citizens return to their home countries, a trend accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Latest figures show tens of thousands more people left than arrived in 2020 — a near-40% rise on the previous year.

Polish people — the largest national group — are no exception. Official statistics also suggest the number living in the UK has tumbled from over a million in 2017 to 738,000 in 2020.

But some are sceptical about their accuracy. “These figures also feel a bit weird given that at the same time the Home Office has had 1.1 million applications to the EU Settlement Scheme from Poles,” says Polish journalist Jakub Krupa.

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The fact that so many have sought to remain in the UK is perhaps unsurprising, given how anchored they are in their local communities. Ewa Gluza says when Poland joined the EU, the OPA set up a Polish school with around 20 students. Today, it has some 250, plus a waiting list.

“We set up (the OPA) to try to engage with the community here, and not be outside. We wanted to promote our culture but also to teach people how to live in the UK; we have afternoon teas and Christmas dinners. Some families still struggle with the language barrier and watch Polish TV, but that’s very rare now here.

“Most families here in the UK now have decided there’s no reason to leave. Sometimes their children don’t want to go.”

Unsettled status

But staying in Britain after Brexit has not been straightforward. Although the divorce deal granted the right to remain, EU nationals have had to apply for residency via the UK’s EU Settlement Scheme.

Krzysia Balinska, coordinator for Polish Migrants Organise for Change (POMOC), says the difficulties many have encountered have played a key part in their decisions to leave the UK and go home.

“A critical issue for the Polish people after Brexit is the lack of clarity around the EU Settlement Scheme. Even people who received the Settled Status from the Home Office are facing difficulties that did not exist before Brexit: when applying for jobs, trying to obtain a mortgage or to receive health care people are asked to prove their immigration status,” she told Euronews in an emailed response.

The lack of physical proof of residency status — it exists only digitally — has aggravated the problems, Balinska says. This has also caused trouble for people at borders, especially when people travel with a different document than the one listed on their digital status — leading to some being turned away or even sent to detention centres.

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“There is a number of people who did not apply for the scheme on time because the government failed to reach them with culturally and linguistically appropriate information,” she explained, adding that others had left after experiencing different administrative problems, or for family reasons.

Business trouble

For some Poles, if Brexit was making them consider their future, COVID-19 made up their minds for them. Krzystof Dworny, 51, runs a minicab firm in London, has lived in the UK for 15 years. He told Euronews that many Polish-run firms have gone under.

“I barely survived, only because I had a contract with one large Polish company. Throughout COVID the whole tourism industry collapsed and they’re still robbing people by having them do PCR tests. If it continues like this, tourism will not recover,” he said.

Business for Krzystof is also complicated by the UK’s strict post-Brexit immigration regime. The labour shortage is affecting his sector too — but amid the poor state of UK-EU relations, he sees little prospect of the government extending visa schemes to allow Poles and other Europeans back into the country.

“They will seek help and bring drivers and other workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan and so on,” he said. “Now they need help because they’re drowning. But when they get help, they will thank you as they always do: ‘Get out of our country’.”

The huge influx of EU workers into Britain was one of the key reasons people voted for Brexit. The irony is that some sectors are finding the departed Poles hard to replace.

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“There’s a huge shortage of builders now. I get phone calls from building companies almost every day asking me (for contacts), because they can’t find anyone. They also have to pay more now. That will continue now because of the expensive visa process,” says Ewa Gluza in Oxford.

She believes the UK’s offer of visas for HGV drivers this winter should be extended to cover other sectors.

Welcome — or unwelcome?

Another factor cited over the departure of Poles from Britain is the essence of Brexit itself: the UK is no longer part of the EU.

“Those who left because of Brexit didn’t want restrictions caused by being outside the European Union. Either it was time to go home where there were opportunities, or look for a job elsewhere in Europe where they had more respect for working people,” Krzystof Dworny says.

It’s clear that the warm welcome and degree of assimilation that Ewa Gluza has experienced is not universally shared.

The phrase her Oxford workmates used after the Brexit vote — ‘we want you to stay’ — was famously uttered by then Prime Minister Theresa May, as the rights of EU citizens living in the UK were questioned in the aftermath.

But as home secretary (interior minister), May herself had instigated the policy which many blame for fostering a culture of hostility towards immigrants. Krzysia Balinska of POMOC says this extends to Poles in Britain today.

“Government does not send inclusive messages towards EU nationals which results in increase in discrimination in the workplace and other public areas. It is part of the hostile environment that British institutions are generating towards all migrants.”

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