When 22-year-old Polish immigrant Michal Anisko showed up in October at a homeless day shelter in Slough, England, he was a far cry from the stereotypically successful “Polish plumber” often blamed in British tabloids for depriving native workers of jobs.
His weather-beaten face showed the strain of having slept on park benches for four months, ever since returning to this charmless, industrial suburban town outside London — known for its factories, plentiful jobs and big Polish community. After finding only spotty employment in his native Poland for a year, England had drawn him back with memories of an earlier year of steady work in restaurant kitchens, car-washes and construction. But that was before the recession hit Slough; when he returned this summer, the temp agency that had found him those jobs had shut down.
Even the Polish food shop window, which he remembered crammed with help-wanted placards, was comparatively bare. “These days there are only a few jobs posted, and when I ring up, they say someone already took the job,” he said through an interpreter. Desperate, Anisko took an illegal job as a construction day laborer, but when he asked for his pay, his employers beat him up.
Slough is only one barometer of Britain's economic downturn since 2004, when Poland and seven other former Soviet bloc countries joined the European Union and thousands of Poles — just granted the right to work anywhere in the EU — were attracted to England's booming economy. Three or four years ago only one or two Eastern European migrants per day came through the door of Slough's Save Our Homeless shelter seeking a hot meal or a shower.
“We're now looking at 30 or 40 a day using our service, because they're sleeping on the street,” Mandy McGuire, who runs the shelter, said in October. Typically, the men, most of them older and more street-hardened than Anisko, have lived in Slough for four or five years and once earned enough at low-skilled jobs to send money home and rent a room. “But now the work's gone, their accommodations are gone; they're turning to alcohol,” McGuire says. “The more they're turning to alcohol, the less employable they're becoming.”
London has seen a similar trend. At the latest count, 954 people — about a quarter of those found sleeping on the street — were from Eastern Europe, according to London's Combined Homeless and Information Network. That is more than triple the number counted in 2006–2007. Across the country, 84 percent of homeless day centers have reported an increase in the number of Eastern European migrants using their services, according to Homeless Link, which represents 480 homeless organizations in the U.K.
Because Anisko's past employers paid in cash, which was off-the-books, he's not eligible for unemployment or housing benefits available to registered immigrants who have worked legally for a year — another contradiction to the widespread British view of immigrants as “welfare scroungers.” Anisko's ineligibility for welfare is typical of homeless migrants from Eastern Europe, either because their jobs are illegal or migrants can't afford the $145 fee to register as a worker, experts say.
The European Commission has said Britain's policy of denying housing, homeless assistance and other social benefits to immigrants from Eastern Europe who have not been registered workers for at least 12 months is discriminatory and violates EU rules on free movement and equal treatment. The United Kingdom has two months to bring its legislation in line with EU law, the commission said on Oct. 28. Otherwise, the commission may decide to refer the U.K. to the EU's Court of Justice.
Also in October, the Polish charity Barka UK offered Anisko a free plane ticket back to Poland and help finding work there. But he refused, saying it would be even more difficult to find a job back home. Six of his fellow migrants from Slough had accepted Barka's offer and flew home the previous week, according to McGuire.
While most of Britain's approximately 1 million Polish immigrants have fared well in England, about 20 percent — generally older men who don't speak English — have failed to find a steady source of income, according to Ewa Sadowska, chief executive of Barka UK.
Discouraged by Britain's sagging job market, Polish immigrants in London board a bus to return to Poland on May 20, 2009. Thousands of Polish workers flocked to Britain after Poland's entrance into the European Union in 2004 eliminated barriers to Poles working in other EU countries. (Getty Images/Dan Kitwood)
“This is a communist generation that spent most of their lives under a regime where everything was taken care of by the state,” she says. Some were lured to London by sham employers who advertised British jobs in Polish newspapers, then took their money and passports when they arrived in England, according to Sadowska.
After the Soviet Union began disintegrating in 1989, Barka UK was founded in Poland by her parents, two psychologists, to help homeless, troubled individuals. Barka was first invited to London in 2007 by one of the local councils in a neighborhood where homeless Polish immigrants were sleeping on the streets. Since then, Barka has been working in a dozen London boroughs and in nearby Slough and Reading at the invitation of local governments, which fund their outreach work.
Besides a free plane ticket, Barka offers help in Poland with alcohol and drug addiction. Unregistered migrants in Britain don't qualify for rehab or detox programs under England's National Health Service. Often, homeless migrants are ashamed to go back home and be seen by their families as economic failures, says Sadowska.
“We help them to understand it's pointless to stay in London and die on the street,” says Sadowska. So far, 1,248 mainly Polish migrants have returned to Eastern Europe with Barka's help.
Slough residents have complained of drunken noisemakers and rat infestations at makeshift homeless camps. Slough's local newspaper ran a front-page picture on Sept. 24 of a homeless camp beneath a discarded billboard under the headline “How Can We Be Proud of This?”
Asked if Slough is funding Barka just to export a local nuisance, McGuire said: “We're certainly not saying, ‘Go back to Poland and stay there.’ We're saying, ‘Go back, get yourself sorted out. If you've got an alcohol problem, address that; maybe get trained with a skill that's needed over here so it's comparatively easy to find work.’”
The temperature had just dropped to freezing the previous October night. As winter approaches, McGuire says, “My personal concern is that those that don't want to go back will be freezing to death out there.”
— Sarah Glazer