“Here to Stay:” How the UK Failed Its Eastern Europeans

by Melania Parzonka

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

The unprecedented wave of Eastern European migrants that arrived in the UK following the 2004 and 2011 EU enlargements transformed British society. It had lasting social consequences, triggering controversial and xenophobic debates about Brexit fueled by fearmongering on the Right. Media outlets boasted sensationalist headlines like “Mass immigration ‘has made the UK’s poor even poorer’” or “Poles are sending home £3bn a year…and we pay them £4.5m a week in benefits.” The UK’s recent lorry and petrol crisis—due to a shortage of drivers willing and qualified to work in the UK—is one concrete example where consequences of Brexit and shifts in migration policy can be seen in action.

Historically, much of the debate about Eastern European migration in the UK has centered around economic ideas such as how migrants drive the economy and how they contribute to GDP growth. But as Bulgarian writer and international migration expert Yva Alexandrova argues, migration is about much more than pounds in pockets. 

I had the chance to sit down with Alexandrova, who has acted as Head of Policy and Campaigns for the charity Asylum Aid and an organiser for the People’s Assembly campaign group. She also served as Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of European Funds with the interim government of Bulgaria. Most recently, she has been working as the Head of Policy Liaison for UN Migration in Bahrain. 

Alexandrova has just released her new book Here to Stay: Eastern Europeans in Britain, which recounts her own experience as an Eastern European migrant living in London and her involvement in the British political scene. Her story is enhanced by interviews with other Eastern Europeans living in the UK, giving voice to a social group that has received very little attention outside of the polarized political landscape. 

Alexandrova argues that migration is a complex and rich subject that cannot be measured through economic gain. She points out the shortcomings of New Labour’s immigration policy that failed to encourage more compassionate discussions surrounding migration, as well as the British Left’s failures to address and respond to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Leave campaign. 

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

MP: What prompted you to write your book? How did you approach the task?

YA: I’ve worked on migration since 2001—this is what I do professionally. And I’ve always been very interested in migration: why people move and how people move, and what are the consequences of people moving. But it was only when I came to the UK that I started experiencing migration as a migrant myself, not just as someone who’s working on it.

I came to the UK in 2008, and I got involved with a lot of the politics around Occupy and then the People’s Assembly. And then the debates around the Brexit referendum started, and I started to question my own experiences and what I was seeing and hearing and, more importantly, what I wasn’t seeing and hearing. 

Occupy London protests, October 15, 2021. Photo by Neil Cummings

Then Brexit happened, and everyone was very heartbroken, disappointed, and disillusioned—me in particular. I think this book came out of that helplessness and frustration, and my own need to understand what was happening and why. So I wanted to include my own perspective—as a migrant, as an activist—but then also, I wanted this book not to be just about me, because I also recognise that there is a big gap in the voices and representation of Eastern Europeans in the UK. And once I had the opportunity to start writing this book, I thought it would be really interesting to also include other people in it. 

It’s not meant as a comprehensive explanation of what Eastern Europeans experience, but it includes personal experiences from Bulgarians, Romanians, Macedonians and Poles. In some ways, we all have similar experiences, and in other ways, we all have very different trajectories in the UK. The aim of the book was to have a debate and discussion, and to present these perspectives a little bit more. I wanted to make Eastern Europeans more visible in a sort of 3D way, not just sound bites that you’d normally hear in the media.

MP: In the book, you highlight how the British Left failed to respond to anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed by the Leave campaigners. What was their role in this debate? 

YA: Something that I emphasise in the book is that I do believe that the British Left is much better than the rest of British society in understanding racism and xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. And I think this understanding comes from the understanding of the Empire and how colonialism worked and how oppression worked. That’s why it was very successful in terms of supporting migrants from the Windrush generation and all the other groups of migrants that came from former colonies. 

So I think, in essence, the British Left has an understanding of immigration. And actually, it was a surprise for me that all of this anti-immigrant, anti-Eastern European sort of rhetoric was coming out, and no one on the Left was responding to it. I didn’t expect this because I thought this would be automatic, because if you understand racism in one form, you should understand it in another form. This was a surprise, that I was hearing these anti-immigrant Leave messages, and I wasn’t hearing the counter voice. 

It took me a long time to try and understand why this is and where this is coming from—and this is what the book talks about. On the one hand, the British Left’s understanding of the world is centred around colonialism. And it actually isn’t very experienced in dealing with issues that fall outside of the Empire—the European Union is one such thing. More specifically, Eastern European migration is also largely working class. And this element was lacking; it was very much not present. I mean, the British Left wasn’t hostile in any way—but it was disinterested. There was no engagement, no recognition of the consequences that Brexit would have for people like us. 

An anti-EU flag

MP: You talk about the European Union’s importance to Eastern Europe, and how admission to the EU was such a pivotal point because it meant being recognised as an equal to Western European countries. As a Polish person, I understand that impression: I remember the day we became a member of the EU and the hope and optimism that accompanied that moment. The freedom of movement that came with it was considered hugely significant. Do you think that there’s any understanding of this positive aspect of freedom of movement on the British Left?

YA: I think parts of the British Left obviously understood and tried to defend the freedom of movement. I think that freedom of movement is the most valid and important freedom that the EU has brought, the most empowering for people—for example, free movement of capital is there, but that doesn’t really affect the majority of people or it affects them in a negative way. 

Freedom of movement was this equalising force, especially for us in Eastern Europe, coming out of the Cold War and going through the really painful transition of the 90s. During that time, many people left—and they left illegally, they had to work illegally, and they had to face all these difficulties. And all of a sudden, you became a member of the EU, and these problems disappeared. Overnight, you weren’t illegal anymore; you could travel, you could move, you could go wherever you wanted. And I think there was a profound lack of knowledge and understanding about what this meant for the large majority of Eastern Europeans and in particular the young ones. It was very sad that the freedom of movement was painted as something negative—as something that undermines British workers, which it doesn’t.

MP: Your book stresses how migration rates massively surpassed expectations in the first years following the 2004 enlargement of the EU. Was there any long-term plan for how to deal with that big influx of Eastern European migration?

YA: No, there wasn’t a plan—simply because no one expected this to happen. But I’m not really keen on these discussions about numbers. How many is too many? And how many is okay? We’re talking about people, we’re not talking about potatoes. And I think the point was that these people were coming, and they were becoming part of UK society and the UK economy, but were somehow not recognised as such. And at the same time, they were somehow operating outside of the traditional spaces—especially Eastern Europeans.

Part of the reason why we weren’t acknowledged was that we’ve been here for a short period of time—but a decade is not that short a period of time. Another aspect is the understanding of migration through the Empire and postcolonialism, which I think didn’t allow the Left to develop this understanding on a theoretical level. The other was the very personal level where most people didn’t have an opportunity to engage with Eastern Europeans, to form friendships, to understand where people came from, and to develop very direct solidarity on that basis. It simply wasn’t the case. And I think that partly also played a role in the fact that Eastern Europeans weren’t widely represented among activist groups and in campaigns.

Pro-EU march in London to mark the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding agreement, the Treaty of Rome, March 25, 2017

MP: Do you think the tendency to speak about migration in economic terms—namely how migration will benefit the UK economy—had an impact on how Eastern Europeans were perceived in the early years of EU enlargement?

YA: That was very much a New Labour’s solution to the problem. The GDP is growing, and that’s why it’s all fine. And it just came back to bite Labour. Because when they had an opportunity, when they had a big majority and the political mandate, they didn’t use this to change the conversation on immigration. They didn’t use this to increase representation or increase the understanding that migration is a multifaceted process, not just something linear that results in GDP growth or decline. 

And I think that argument didn’t work because they kept saying, “Yes, they’re contributing to the economy”—but these people in Leave areas that were just pissed off at everyone, they just couldn’t care less, because they weren’t seeing that contribution, or they weren’t recognising it. But it definitely didn’t factor into their way of thinking. 

Migration is a social phenomenon—it’s not just how much money people earn, how much they send back, and how much they contribute to society. There are a lot of important contributions that migrants make to cultural life, social life, and family life that makes migration beautiful. It’s not just transactional—this is what makes migration interesting. This is where the kind of differences and learning and excitement comes from. And that just completely wasn’t present in the whole discussion. Sadly I think it still isn’t, to a large extent.

MP: Do you think there is any kind of collective Eastern European migrant identity?

YA: No, I don’t think so. Most of us coming to the UK didn’t see ourselves as part of any sort of group of migrants—and actually what we wanted to do was to fit in the UK as ourselves. That collective identity of Eastern Europeans was only present when we were being attacked. It was through all these kinds of constant negative prejudiced stories and language that we started feeling like, “Oh my God, wait, I am an Eastern European, and you are attacking me.” 

A Polish shop in Bournemouth. Photo by Derek Harper

MP: Another thing I found interesting was the fact that in the postwar period, Eastern Europeans were considered the “ideal immigrant” because of cultural proximity, given that they were white and Christian. How did that attitude change over time? 

YA: I think it changed when more people started arriving, and I think that was in the early 2000s, when the big waves of migration happened. And it’s quite interesting, because the Eastern Europeans who were in the UK prior to that were a very small minority. One of the people I interviewed, Sonia, talks about being in this university in the countryside, where no one’s ever heard of Eastern Europeans. And then she comes back to the UK 10 years later, and we are everywhere. So that changed. 

But what also played a role is scapegoating. At some point, the Daily Mail decided to pick on Eastern Europeans, and picked on them for years until people decided “Oh, maybe they really are a problem.” I think this is how the media works, unfortunately. And this is how the scapegoating of migrants works. They’ve done this for asylum seekers, they’ve done this with the Windrush generation—it’s just a moving target. And sadly, there is nothing that counters this narrative. That was really a part of why I wanted to write this book, because I don’t want to be defined by what the Daily Mail says about me. I want to be defined by what I say about me and what other people say about themselves and about ourselves. 

Yva Alexandrova

I have to say that my book can come across as very critical, but it actually comes from a place of real appreciation. Because again, the UK is one of these places where these conversations happen. Maybe you have to carve the space, but there is still a space that can be carved. And that was very important for me to try and do that, to try and put our voices out there.

Melania Parzonka is the co-founder and web editor of INTERZINE.

Yva Alexandrova

Here to Stay: Eastern Europeans in Britain

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