Everybody loves the Poles. Everybody loves reliable plumbers and natural-born nannies. Only Andrzej Tutkaj, of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, is sceptical about the benefits of the march from East to West.
I spoke to Mr Tutkaj on the telephone this week and asked him how all the new Poles were faring in London. There was silence, then a sigh. ‘I personally,’ said Mr Tutkaj, ‘don’t like to over-glorify the Polish people. They are far from ideal.
‘Since Poland joined the EU, it has been very hard work for the people in the firing line having to deal with desperate Poles with no money and nowhere to live. A lot of mistakes have been made.’ What do you mean? ‘Well, last year, the government said that there were 500,000 unfilled jobs in Britain. So of course this spreads instantly around Poland. “Wonderful,” everybody thinks, and comes straight over here. Thousands of them, hundreds of thousands. I would estimate there are half a million Poles in England now.’
Surely not that many? ‘Believe me,’ he said, ‘it’s not far off. There are no statistics yet, but I see many, many people. There are Polish newspapers in the newsagents, Polish food in the corner shops. Go to any Polish Mass on Sunday, the services are packed. I’m not joking with you. I would say that official figures seriously underestimate the true number of Poles in Britain today.’
But isn’t that a great thing, Mr Tutkaj? If unemployment’s high in Poland and we need workers here, surely that’s good news for both countries? ‘Yes, yes. That’s the story, isn’t it? It’s the only story you ever hear. Me, I see things a little differently. I meet the Poles who get lost in London, the ones who can’t cope. They heard about the jobs, you see, and they thought it would be easy. It’s the communist mindset. They arrive in Victoria, then come to me and say, you promised work, so where’s my job? Some do well, of course, but London’s a tough place to survive, so many end up destitute. They hang around, start drinking, then go to the Polish priests for money. Or they live all together in one house, fight, and sometimes cause problems with the neighbours and the police. There have even been a few cases of Poles killing each other in drunken rages. Then there’s the suicides. People who can’t cope in Poland come here thinking it’ll all be easy, and when it isn’t they despair and kill themselves.’
Mr Tutkaj is a second generation Pole, whose parents arrived here after the second world war. The post-war Poles fitted tidily into London life. Polish neighbourhoods grew up in Hammersmith, Ealing and Balham; Polish clubs, pubs and churches. It was a friendly symbiosis: they had their community, we had their workforce and their restaurants: Daquise, Polanka, Wodka. But since EU entry, Britain’s Polish community has become unsettled.
Perhaps you’re afraid the established Polish community will suffer as a result? ‘Yes, of course we want to maintain our good relations,’ he said. ‘But I’m thinking of Britain as well as Poland. I’m very concerned, for instance, that the criminal element in Poland is arriving over here, that the Polish mafia may move to London. Convicted rapists have fled already to Britain and re-offended here, and Polish women suffer from domestic violence and end up on the streets. Our chairman, Jan Mokrzycki, has talked to people high up in the British government about many of these issues.
‘I’m not a pessimist,’ said Mr Tutkaj. ‘I just think it will be best for everybody if Poles know how difficult life will be in London before they come, and if some can be persuaded to return to Poland.’