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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


A photograph of immigrants arriving in New York

Immigrants queuing on arrival in New York.

From Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930 (Open Collections Program, Harvard University Library), digitized historical, manuscript, and image resources selected from Harvard University's library, museum, and archive collections that explore immigration to the United States between 1789 and 1930.

War, Cold War, and New World Order: political boundaries and Polish migration to Britain

Kathy Burrell, De Montfort University

While the crossing of borders is at the heart of most experiences of migration, the case-study of Polish migration movements to Britain over the past sixty years is a particularly important one for understanding the intersection between personal experience and political boundaries. From the end of the Second World War until the post-2004 era there have been considerable movements of people migrating from Poland to Britain – firstly as a result of wartime displacement and deportation, then during the Cold War in spite of heavy restrictions, and later again, post-socialist economic migration away from the economic uncertainty of a 'transitioning' country. In each case borders have been central to the migration journey undertaken. Based on the findings of two research projects – oral history interviews undertaken firstly with post-war refugees, and secondly with people who have migrated since – this paper will use this Polish example to consider the changing experience of migration within Europe through the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Wartime displacement and refugee journeys

Although there had been Polish migration to Britain before the Second World War, the first really significant settlement of Polish citizens in Britain occurred in the immediate aftermath, and as a direct result of, the war. When Germany and the Soviet Union both invaded Poland in 1939 the presence of hostile armies unleashed waves of population movement and displacement which would not have taken place had war not broken out. As young men moved with the Polish army, civilians from western and central Poland were sent to labour camps in Germany, and on the eastern side were deported to Siberia by Soviet troops. For hundreds of thousands of people, therefore, their first experience of crossing international borders was one of force, fear and violence. (1) As the war progressed, those who had been deported by Soviet troops were released, with men joining the Second Polish Corps and women and children spending the remaining war years in Red Cross civilian camps across India, Africa and the Middle East. (2) Those in German work camps had to wait for their release until the Allied liberation at the end of the war.

In the chaos that followed the cessation of hostilities in Europe, displaced Europeans had the chance to migrate abroad – the Polish Resettlement Act allowed Polish servicemen to demob in Britain, and different governmental work schemes arranged for other Displaced Persons to also come to Britain. (3) Polish wartime migration, as a facet of general displacement in Europe during the war years, is therefore perhaps one of the clearest examples of the power that political borders hold over individuals. By 1951 there were over 160,000 Polish refugees settled in Britain, but very few of these people had wanted to leave Poland permanently and live abroad. (4) Political decisions had dictated where they were to live the rest of their lives. The general perception that Poland, experiencing the establishment of the communist regime, was too dangerous to return to cemented the status of these refugees as exiles. Not only that, but for those from the east, the westward movement of Poland's external borders at the end of the war had ensured that their home towns were now no longer in Poland, but were instead in the USSR, in Ukraine and Belarus. The borders that they had crossed by force several years before could not easily be crossed again.

While this chronological outline of Polish displacement is a familiar part of the wider history of the Second World War, it is really only through individual interviewing that the significance of borders in these experiences can be appreciated. (5) Polish narratives of war and displacement are stories of border crossing, and in the case of those who were deported from eastern Poland to Siberia, the crossing of multiple borders. The following account is an extract from an interview with Anna. Her story illustrates the enormity of the journeys undertaken by some of the Polish deportees:

When the war broke out I was nine... We had a very bad time. The Russkis came in on about the 17th September... We know that my father was taken to prison... The partisans and the Russian soldiers came, with the guns, with the rifles. They gave my mother half an hour to get ready, and told her she would be joined with her husband... We didn't know where we were going, but it came out that it was Siberia. They took us to Siberia. We had two solid weeks going by train in the cattle trucks to Siberia... In 1941 we had an amnesty, General Anders. We managed to come out of Siberia, the four of us, my mother, my two brothers and myself, somehow we survived. Perhaps we come from good healthy stock. From Siberia to Caucasus, it took three months, we were travelling three months in the cattle trucks... At the beginning of August the Polish army came and took us, I remember this, this how we left Russia. On the 6th of August we crossed the border, we went to Karachi, to Mombassa, then we landed in the jungle in Uganda... We were there five years, we arrived just before Christmas 1942... We came to England because my eldest brother was in the Polish army. We came in 1948. (6)

The crossing of borders was not only an intensely physical and long drawn out experience and an emotional journey into multiple unknowns, but in the oral history interviews it was also presented as a symbol of survival. With each new border another danger had been overcome. The more borders crossed, the more meaningful and extraordinary the survival.

Negotiating east and west during the Cold War

The development of the Cold War in Europe had a profound impact on border crossing between Britain and Poland for both settled and new emigrants. For the war-time refugees the political situation in Poland appeared to push the borders of Poland even further away. Contact was maintained through visits, telephone calls and letters, but the new distance ensured that sentiments of exile continued to dominate the identity of the burgeoning 'community' in Britain. (7) The situation was different for those in Poland who wanted to migrate to Britain, usually hoping to leave in order to join family members, marry, further medical or academic careers or escape political tensions. It is difficult to be sure how many people came to Britain from Poland during this time. Estimates put the figures at a minimum of several thousands, peaking in the 1980s, although numbers for those emigrating to Germany and the US greatly exceeded this. (8) Migration for these people represented a new experience of border crossing – the opportunity to traverse the political barriers of the continent and escape to the mystical 'west', and in doing so, outmanoeuvre the Polish authorities. If refugee border crossings were about survival, the narratives of those leaving communist Poland were about getting the better of bureaucrats and overcoming corruption. Recounting these migrations provided an opportunity to assert personal resistance against the system and highlight the chaotic, intrusive and pedantic nature of state affairs. Maja left Poland in 1984 at the age of 24 – the difficulties she had in leaving were an important part of her story:

It was very difficult to go abroad at that time. I was lucky because that cousin of mine who lives in England sent me an invitation. And it took me a year to organise a passport and a visa, because my father was an army officer and the time when I was applying for visa they actually threatened him that he was going to lose his job, because they thought I was going to be a spy. Me, 24 years old, a girl, thinking about boys, but this is what they thought, I'm coming here to be a spy. They warned my father that it will cause you a lot of trouble if our daughter goes abroad, but my father was actually close to his retirement time and he said 'I'm not really bothered any more, if you want to go, just go'. But they refused to give me a passport at first, and I reapplied and it took me a year before they said 'OK you can go, it's no problem'. But I was allowed to go back, because some of the people who left in early 80s, they were not allowed to go back, they had one way tickets like to America, so never came back, 'if you come back we will arrest you'. (9)

Once safely ensconced in Britain, these migrants faced similar difficulties in sustaining their bonds with those left behind. As with the earlier refugees, perspectives of Poland became clouded by inaccessibility and potential political danger. As Stanisława, who left Poland in 1973 at the age of 23, explained: 'Anyone could open the letters. Even when you phoned, spoke on the phone, they could listen. If you spoke about politics you could get in trouble'. (10) Stories of going home became stories of frightening border guards, physically making return visits uncomfortable.

Experiencing both sides of the Cold War border also impacted upon family dynamics in a different way. In addition to the political divide, the movement to the west of a family member perpetuated and personalised popular imagination's construction of the wealthy west, creating new emotional barriers within families. Those left behind could not easily understand the new lives of the migrants, expecting them to deliver the fruits of western life through gifts and money, while in reality they were struggling to consolidate their own positions. (11) The most significant borders for these migrants were therefore those of experience, creating social gulfs within the broader political one. As Iwona, who came to Britain in 1961 at the age of 19, recounted:

When I came here, they were expecting me to send the parcels all the time, but I couldn't afford it. I couldn't afford to send enough to buy them a house or a car or whatever. That was a problem. But I couldn't because I had my life here, my family, and I had to work to keep my family. (12)
A borderless Europe?

If earlier migrations had to be undertaken within, and despite, the political boundaries of their times, migration away from Poland took on new dimensions again after the collapse of the communist regime in 1989. Emigration continued as it had always done, but this time it was easier to leave. (13) While emigration was legal, however, Polish immigration in Britain was not necessarily so straight forward. As with those who left during communism, legal status in Britain rested on the extension of short-term visas, official work offers or marriage. The economic pain of transition nevertheless pushed hundreds of thousands of Poles to emigrate, although Britain was not a major destination in the way that Germany, Italy, Greece and the US were. Until the accession of Poland into the European Union in 2004, the issue of east European workers in Western Europe especially could be overlooked. (14) Workers could be ignored, as long as they continued to do jobs nobody else would take, in an unobtrusive manner. The lead-up to 2004, however, brought the issue of east-west migration in Europe out into the open. Barely concealed unreconstructed prejudices about Eastern Europe dominated press discussion, with the 'Polish plumber' quickly becoming the symbol of all that was unpalatable about the new Eastern Europe. For Western Europe especially, EU enlargement challenged ideas about what Europe really was, and how east and west could work together on an official footing. For people in Poland, 2004 signalled a change again in emigration trends to the west; although emigration had been steadily building throughout the 1990s, now it was legal to go and work in Britain, Ireland and Sweden, the first countries to offer open access and allow the free movement of people within the Union. According to Home Office sources, by June 2006 264,560 Poles had registered to work in Britain, the majority of these being young, and a significant proportion being highly skilled. (15)

So how has the experience of migration changed for these emigrants, taking advantage of the apparent borderless Europe, enjoying the supposed New World Order of the post-Cold War world? Certainly technological advances and more accessible travel options have created a more transnational workforce among Polish emigrants. Cheap flights, internet connections and telephone company deals have all led to the notion that these new migrants are actually commuters rather than settlers, hopping over, rather than crossing, international borders with ease, much more likely to return to their homeland than earlier emigrants. And presumably, as the physical boundaries melt away, so too should the cultural divides that have characterised Europe for so long. As Joanna, who arrived in Britain in 2005 aged 28 suggested, coming to Britain is not so different to moving to another city within Poland:

I was thinking, I don't feel like I have emigrated, I feel like I have changed the town for a job change, it's like I haven't moved from Katowice to Derby, but from Katawice to Sopot or Gdansk, it's like that for me. And I am quite happy with that. (16)

But have these borders between east and west in Europe really dissolved? Are these new migrants really commuters, or are there still real borders fettering their journeys? Firstly, no amount of internet access can replace the experience of being close to friends and family. The Polish migrants I have interviewed are not overjoyed to have to be away from home, pushed away by high unemployment and the struggle of daily life. They feel the distance very keenly, admit to feeling lonely without the people they left behind. They are negotiating emotional borders when they leave and return, as well as economic ones.

What about politics? Patrycja's account of coming to Britain to study illustrates how significant EU membership could be in bringing down the remnants of Cold War barriers – a way of bestowing equality on formerly second class Europeans. The difference in treatment between EU and non-EU members on arrival in Britain is quite stark:

The interview was on the last day before we joined the European Union, so I was still one of the last who had to take the other gate at the airport. It wasn't very good, we had to queue and write something about why we wanted to come, and I was asked why I wanted to come here, and people from the European Union were just crossing the other gate. I was furious about it! The next time I went by coach, but now it is different. (17)

Responses to this new chapter in Polish migration to Britain, however, have demonstrated that political barriers are still apparent, despite Polish accession. Polish workers are again being signalled as a problem in certain parts of the British press – they might be white Christians, but they are still 'other', still characterised in the popular imagination as coming from a place that is backward and corrupt, here to drive down wages and living standards.


Polish migration to Britain since the Second World War therefore illustrates the changing nature of Europe's internal boundaries, with individual experiences reflecting wider developments in the continent's recent political history.

The Second World War violated the borders of so many European countries and the post-war resettlements redrew many of them all over again. Migration at this time tended to mirror these changes, with individuals finding themselves at the mercy of wider political battles and decisions. For the post-war settlers in Britain, the turbulent recent history of Poland's borders could only represent the upheaval and loss in their own lives. Crossing the border back to Poland again would always trigger awareness of this memory, even for subsequent generations.

During the Cold War, borders in Europe faced entrenchment rather than violation. Emigrating from Poland was no longer about survival in the way it had been before; it was far more focused on actually managing to move at all. For those who did leave, the physical borders may have been crossed, but new cultural divides had to be navigated. Subsequent transnational contact with friends and family became another site for the negotiation of the imagined barriers between east and west, as well as the real political ones.

Finally, as borders are reconfigured again in Europe, migration from Poland to Britain has entered a new chapter. Whether the east-west divide has really been healed is open to debate, however. It is economic disparity which is driving mass migration from east to west, a symptom of yet another divide on the continent. As political borders are redrawn, it will take longer for economic and social ones to catch up.

  1. For more on these events, see Thomas Lane, Victims of Stalin and Hitler: The Exodus of Poles and Balts to Britain (Basingstoke, 2004). Back to (1)
  2. See also Keith Sword, Deportation and Exile: Poles in the Soviet Union 1939-48 (Basingstoke, 1996). Back to (2)
  3. For information on the Polish Resettlement Act, see Jerzy Zubrzycki, Polish Immigrants in Britain: A Study of Adjustment (The Hague, 1956); for more on Displaced Persons see John Allan Tannahill, European Volunteer Workers in Britain (Manchester, 1958). Back to (3)
  4. See Colin Homes, John Bull's Island: Immigration and British Society, 1987-1971 (Basingstoke, 1988), p. 212. Back to (4)
  5. One of the best guides to deciphering meaning in interviews is Narrative and Genre, ed. Mary Chamberlain and Paul Thompson (1998). Back to (5)
  6. Interview with 'Anna' (pseudonym), 16.2.01. Back to (6)
  7. See Kathy Burrell, Moving Lives: Narratives of Nation and Migration among Europeans in Post-war Britain (Aldershot, 2006). Back to (7)
  8. See Keith Sword, Identity in Flux: The Polish Community in Britain (1996), pp. 40, 50. A comprehensive account of emigration from Poland can be found in Krystyna Iglicka, Poland's Post-war Dynamic of Migration (Aldershot, 2001). Back to (8)
  9. Interview with 'Maja' (pseudonym), 14.11.05. Back to (9)
  10. Interview with 'Stanisława' (pseudonym), 17.2.06. Back to (10)
  11. Similar situations arose for East Germans - see Milena Veenis, 'Fantastic things', in Experiencing Material Culture in the Western World, ed. Susan M. Pearce (1997), pp. 154-74. Back to (11)
  12. Interview with 'Iwona', pseudonym, 26.6.06. Back to (12)
  13. Again see Iglicka, Poland's Post-war Dynamic of Migration. Back to (13)
  14. For more about migration in Europe during this period, see Migration in the New Europe: East-West Revisited, ed. Agata Gorny and Paolo Ruspini (Basingstoke, 2004). Back to (14)
  15. Accession Monitoring Report May 2004-June 2006, joint report by the Home Office, Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Communities and Local Government, published 22.8.06., p. 9. Accessed at: http://www.ind.homeoffice.gov.uk/aboutus/reports/ accession_monitoring_report. Back to (15)
  16. Interview with 'Joanna' (pseudonym), 10.12.05. Back to (16)
  17. Interview with 'Patrycja' (pseudonym), 20.10.05. Back to (17)

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