Thursday, August 28, 2008

Homesick for Poland: Migrants' dreams in tatters

Life has been getting harder for many of the thousands of Poles in Britain, who suffer alarming levels of poverty, depression and suicide.

Mariusz Krasucki arrived in the UK from Poland in 2004. Aged 25, he had grand dreams of making a new life, with well-paid work in the booming UK economy; sending money home, and saving to set up his own business. Four years later those dreams lie in pieces, shattered by dead-end jobs and ever increasing bills.

"It has been lonely, and sometimes it is hard. England seemed like a relatively stable country, but now the price of things is going up and we have to work harder just to keep going," said Mr Krasucki.

He is just one of hundreds of thousands of Poles now living in hardship in Britain. Rising costs of food and fuel, the credit crunch and increasing unemployment have all taken their toll on the 800,000-strong Polish community, many of whom are in low-wage jobs.

Polish organisations are reporting rising levels of suicide, depression, abortion and poverty. Unreleased figures from the Polish embassy in the UK reveal that as many as one in five of the 250 Poles who died in Britain last year took their own lives.

The fate of 22-year-old Pawal Lipinski illustrates the growing difficulties Poles face. After he was found to have taken his own life near his rented room in Bedford, police discovered he had packed his bags and bought a ticket back to Poland. Like many migrants, Mr Lipinski had felt trapped in an impossible situation – desperately unhappy in England, but under pressure from family to send back much-needed money.

The value of the Polish zloty has risen 17 per cent since the country's accession to the EU in 2004, meaning that the hundreds of thousands of UK-based Poles sending money home are now contributing much less in real terms.

One result is that fewer workers see Britain as an attractive place to come. Home Office figures released last week revealed that levels of work-related migration to the UK from the eight Eastern and Central European countries had fallen to its lowest level since 2004. A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research concluded that almost half of Eastern European migrants to the UK since 2004 have already left.

Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski is calling for the Polish government to improve support services for its citizens who have moved to the UK. "So many Poles came to the UK, the Polish government needs to do more. They have a responsibility to protect their citizens," said Mr Kawczynski. "I want to make sure that the Polish government realises there are a lot of citizens here and they need to make sure their investments in the embassy and consulate are appropriate."

"Depression is a big problem for Poles living in Britain," Robert Szaniawski, press attache at the Polish embassy, acknowledged. "We try to support them somehow, but there are no special services."

Eva Zandman, 27: 'I've been tremendously affected by rising prices'

I'm on the minimum wage, and I've been tremendously affected by the rising food prices and gas bills. I'm not looking for huge money. I just want enough to last until the end of the month. I found it hard to get a job at first, and have mostly been working in care homes. I'm a trained physiotherapist. It can be lonely when you go to a new place. There are days when I think about my family, about the fact they are far away. I came over to England in 2004, and since then I've called the Samaritans. They were helpful, but if my English wasn't so good I wouldn't have been able to do that.

Mariusz Krasucki, 29: 'I have a degree in journalism, but have to work as a driver'

It has been lonely. It was difficult to make friends, because of the language and the cultural barriers. English people have a different sense of humour and sometimes they would make jokes and I would be offended. For the past two years, I have worked as a driver. I am by myself all day long, and sometimes it is depressing. I have a degree in journalism, and am overqualified to be a driver – it is easy, nothing to be proud of. I couldn't make enough money to live on in Poland.

Ela Meller, 25: 'At one point there were 10 of us living in three bedrooms'

When I came over from Poland in 2002 I was just 19. I ran out of money so quickly because my Polish money was worth so little. At one point there were 10 of us living in three bedrooms. After two years of waitressing I started to get a bit down – I thought I'd still be doing it aged 75. It happens to lots of Polish people. I began to study bookkeeping part-time while still working. It was hard – sometimes I worked 90-hour weeks. I became qualified and now work for the 'Big Issue' accounts department. In Poland it was way too expensive to study and I couldn't get a job. I come from quite a poor family, and however hard I have to work here I'm pleased that at least I can support myself.

Anna Sajnog, 25: 'I came over hoping to have a better life but it isn't better'

My husband Alex, my one-year-old baby and I all have to survive on 53 a week. If it wasn't for handouts from the Red Cross and the church charity, the Boaz trust, I don't know what we would do. They help us by giving us food parcels and helping with the rent. I work as a cleaner, but I do only a few hours a week so I hardly earn anything. It is so difficult. I want do be able to give my daughter things, but we have no spare money at all. I came over from Poland hoping that I would be able to have a better life, but it isn't any better. If I were still single I would return, but my husband is Sudanese and cannot leave the UK.