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Sunday 23 December 2007

Living poles apart in a parallel existence doesn't benefit anyone

Young Poles are deserting their country only to create a Polish bubble abroad, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

EARLY on Friday morning, trying to put myself to sleep with the help of the BBC World Service, I heard a riveting interview with an English bus driver who had moved to Poland on the grounds that there must be jobs there since all Poles had moved to Britain and Ireland.

Now happily married to a Pole, beginning to master the language, and driving buses on which he faces no aggro and the only danger comes from poor roads, he loves his new home. Sure, the wages are much lower than he was used to, but the monthly rent on his pleasant apartment in a village surrounded by mountains is €70; the beer is 40¢.

This resonated with an article in last week's Spectator by the American writer on Russia and Eastern Europe, Anne Applebaum, now settled in Poland. When last summer she asked her painter to recommend a plumber, his response was: "Well, there's Jacek -- no, sorry, he's gone to Dublin. There's Lech -- no, I'm afraid he's away, I think in Bristol. There used to be that guy, what was his name, Jackowski -- no, he's in London".

The loose estimate is that there are around a million Poles in the UK. Ireland, which as a result of migration from Eastern Europe has the fastest-growing population in the EU, probably has more than 100,000.

Over the past six months, with the advent of more cheap flights to Dublin and Liverpool full of eager Poles responding to recruitment drives by British and Irish construction firms, wages are shooting up in Poland and so Ukrainians are pouring in. What next? asked Applebaum. The Ukrainians importing Kazakhs, the Kazakhs Kirghiz, the Kirghiz Chinese and the Chinese Californian?

Migration on a sensible scale is one thing: this mass migration is in the interests only of employers, who would rather import cheap labour than make an effort to train the young people at home who have been let down by their schools and their society.

I live in Ealing, in West London, a borough now referred to in Poland as the fourth-largest Polish city in the world. Certainly, my village, South Ealing, is beginning to seem very foreign to the English, as well as to the Irish, Asian, West Indian and the other immigrants who have rubbed along together since I first moved here in 1979.

There was always a strong Polish presence, but the old Poles who had fled here from communism had learned English and integrated, while keeping a strong sense of their history and culture.

We don't know the young Poles who have been arriving over the past few years in their tens of thousands unless we meet them in their places of work, although they walk past us in the street speaking Polish to each other or on their mobile phones. Because of technology, they live in a parallel world.

In Ealing, your average young Polish immigrant lives with other young Poles, watches Polish television and listens to Polish Radio, reads Polish news on the internet, communicates by phone with family and friends at home for little or nothing, travels back cheaply by coach or air for holidays or family celebrations, goes to mass at the local Polish church, shops in one of the innumerable Polskie delikatesys where newspapers and free-sheets provide local Polish news, Polish books can be bought and small ads in Polish scrutinised, socialises in Polish cafes and bars and clubs and, usually, mates with another Pole.

Geographically, they may be over here, but their hearts and minds are still over there.

It's human nature in a foreign country to want to be with your own kind. But living such a parallel existence is bad for the Poles, who are limiting their experience of a wider world, bad for the rest of us, whose social cohesion is already seriously damaged by the disaster that is multiculturalism, and bad for Poland, which needs lively young patriots.

The English bus driver was baffled that Poles who had made a bit of money abroad weren't coming back to invest in their beautiful country. Perhaps the answer is that because they can create a Polish bubble in the UK or Ireland, they don't suffer from the homesickness that might otherwise send them back.

The new Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, returned from a visit to Dublin promising to "build a second Ireland" in Poland. Polish radio, according to Applebaum, is enthusiastically discussing whether Poland can be made sufficiently economically attractive to attract its people home.

Applebaum ended her article appealing to the Poles of the British Isles to come home: "We need you more than they do." I would add a plea that if they intend to stay in Ealing, would they kindly stop trying to turn it into a corner of Warsaw.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards