As David Davis, the UK Government minister responsible for managing the country’s exit from the EU, “gets down to business”, as he puts it, in Brussels, it is not surprising the issue of the rights of EU nationals living in the UK is top of the pile. Few public issues in the UK spark more heat than immigration, especially in the context of debates about ‘Brexit’.
In a new book, with my colleagues Julie Knight and John Lever, Labour, Mobility and Migration, published by University of Wales Press, we look at the experience of migrants who arrived in Wales after the enlargement of the EU in 2004, which saw Poland and nine other countries join the EU. As the UK prepares for its exit, what of the fate of those EU nationals who have made Wales their home?
One of the unique features of the migration which followed in the wake of EU enlargement in 2004 was that every part of the EU saw marked increases in the numbers of EU nationals settling, and not just the usual migrant ‘hotspots’. In Wales, the number of Polish nationals increased from just over 1000 in 2001 to nearly 20000 a decade later, with over 90% of Polish nationals living in Wales arriving after 2004. At the outset, the assumption was that we should expect migration to fall away a few years after accession, but that has not proven to be the case. Indeed, most migrants, too, come thinking they will stay only for a short period, only to find they stay much longer.
In our research, one of the issues we looked at was why migrants ‘overstay’. We found they did so for a range of reasons. Most particularly, they could do so because they have work or, should a contract be terminated, can find alternative employment relatively soon and, in contrast to many migrants from outside the EU, there are no compelling legal reasons why they need return. We found relatively few cases of individuals who were actively and positively choosing to stay because of their job, with the exception of entrepreneurs who had created openings for themselves and now had business ties to the localities in which they lived. Instead, work was, for the large part, a means to a better end. Similarly, the comparative ease with which migrants move between the EU’s member states is a crucial structural enabler of migratory drift, but this is about what makes possible this type of migration rather than what causes individuals to commit, to varying lengths, to an extended migratory career. To understand why most migrants drift, often for many years, we identified three main interconnected factors.
At the outset, individual migrants are likely to have a good deal at stake in ensuring they persist with staying abroad, even in the face of the difficulties most face after arriving. The decision they made to leave Poland will rarely have been made in isolation, and whether because of personal debts to others who have helped or because they have staked something of their reputation in leaving, these commitments act as constraints on their actions. Once they are joined by family, or new relationships are formed abroad, the complexity of these commitments increases in magnitude. This is because their actions are informed by interests extraneous to their original decision to migrate rooted as they are in experiences specific to the host society.
A second factor which emerged from our research which contributed to migratory drift was how, again over time, migrants adjusted to a different mode of life abroad. ‘Integration’ – as evidenced by growing familiarity with English, their exposure to and use of the language in their daily lives, personal connections to members of the local population or by how they accessed news about the host society rather than about life in Poland – was uneven across the localities we studied. Even among those, however, who spent much of their lives speaking Polish, they had nevertheless acclimatised to the different rhythm of life in Wales and this clearly exerted a considerable force over their outlook. Though better wages enabled them to worry less about the temporal pressures to which they were used in Poland – the weekly bills, the monthly rent or repayments – it was their experience that life in Wales, broadly, ran at a different, more welcome pace than in Poland. That many of those who, by objective measures, would be regarded as living in the shadows of the local society felt transformed by their experience of living in Wales might not be viewed as ‘integration’, but it is nonetheless a powerful form of adaptation.
Finally, to understand why so many migrants stay it is necessary to take account of the cultural and social context, not only the economic, in which migration occurs. In the case of Poland, in the near decade-long build-up to accession, it wasn’t just the country’s economic and policy structure which had changed; cultural values and social expectations, too, had undergone fundamental shifts. Especially in those former industrial towns and in rural Poland where economic restructuring had cut the deepest, and among young Poles with limited opportunities to exercise choice in the country’s transition to a market economy, migration provided them with the capability for making a change.
We need to review our understanding of the mechanics of migration. The ‘push-pull’ model for evaluating international migration frames labour migration as rooted in the differential conditions of national labour markets. ‘Poor’ people, or at least those originating from societies whose economies are less developed than in the destination country, are pulled towards ‘rich’ countries because they can earn more money. Our take on this matter is that while there is an undeniable truth to this proposition, those we interviewed were moving because they had aspirations to live better. Even if the need for an immediate injection of money was a factor, our research revealed that migration was more widely pursued as a strategy for achieving an improvement in how these men and women lived by changing where they did so.
What impact the UK leaving the EU will have on the legal status of nationals of EU member states is yet to be established. Our research nevertheless leads us to conclude that, wages aside, a reciprocal exit on the part of individual migrants, returning to Poland, would be seen to have come at a significant personal cost.
Labour, Mobility and Migration is published by University of Wales Press is available in paperback and as an ebook. For more details, see http://www.uwp.co.uk/book/labour-mobility-and-temporary-migration-ebook-mobi/
Andrew Thompson is Head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of South Wales