Polish newcomers say goodbye as hard times hit Britain

The recession looming over Britain is sending many Poles back home, signaling the end to the largest single wave of immigration that the British Isles have ever seen.

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    Headed home? Bartosz Bart, a Polish builder in London, might leave the UK for Poland's strong economy as unemployment rises.
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Midweek in west London and it's another working day. If you can find the work, that is. For Bartosz Bart and other Polish builders still waiting at midmorning to be picked up for casual work, it doesn't look promising.

Mr. Bart and others are beginning to wonder if their long-term future rests in Britain. As the British economy slows, thousands of Polish immigrants are rethinking their options.

"More and more people are starting to go home to Poland," says Bart, who is originally from Poznan and has also worked in the US. "I've been here for two years, but I'll probably leave in the next six months. A lot of people will go home."

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Such moves signal the end of what was described by a leading academic as the largest single wave of immigration the British Isles have ever experienced – the influx of hundreds of thousands of Poles after Poland joined the European Union in 2004. The Polish community is now the third-largest minority in Britain.

Accurate data are hard to come by as no official body collects figures for Polish arrivals and departures. But in recent days, the Home Office reported that numbers arriving from Eastern Europe were falling; the Polish Embassy in London said that worker registration was decreasing, particularly in London; and the Federation of Poles in Britain said that the overall size of the Polish community, which has increased sixfold to more than 1 million since 2004, is on the wane.

"No one really keeps reliable statistics," says Krzysztof Treczynski, head of the economics section at the Polish Embassy in London. "But there is an evident downward trend on official [worker] registrations, and if you look at the numbers of air passengers flying both ways, the trend is decreasing."

The Polish influx was a notable migration in modern European history. At least half a million Poles took advantage of newly opened borders to try their luck in Britain, finding work in the service sectors or the booming construction industry. And not just in London. Polish can be heard on the streets of most northern cities as well as in the eastern English rural belt, where farms rely on migrant labor for harvests.

Officials cite a number of reasons for the turnaround. The slump in the pound (40 percent against the Polish zloty in the past two years) has made Britain a less attractive proposition.

"Many of these workers are keeping families in Poland and £1,000 sent to Poland two years ago was 6,000 zloty and now it's only 4,000," notes Mr. Treczynski. Most Poles in low-paid professions can now earn more in Poland for the same kind of work, he adds.

Poland is enjoying growth of more than 5 percent, and jobs are easier to come by. Workers are sought to help prepare the country to host its first major postcommunist event, the 2012 European football championships. "Poland has become a good place to live," says Treczynski.

Britain meanwhile is forecast to dip into recession this year. The construction sector is under pressure as the housing market softly implodes. That means fewer day jobs for Poles, but also a possible backlash against immigrants.

A Home Office minister, Tony McNulty, admitted last week that there may be "some difficulty" with relations between locals and immigrants as recession bites. "People realize that if ... unemployment rises they will be even less welcome than they are now," adds Jan Mokrzycki, president of the Federation of Poles.

For Britain the exodus could be painful. Poles worked on Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport and manpower will be required for the next great infrastructure project: the 2012 Olympic park in east London.

"The challenge in the next few years will be to attract enough migrant workers with the right skills who can drive economic growth in the UK," warns Jill Rutter of the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research think tank.

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