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Welcoming migrants: Poles in 1940s Britain

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In the second part of our series on immigration, Ken Olende looks at why the government had a contradictory policy after the Second World War
Issue 2077
Pilots flying with No 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron in 1940
Pilots flying with No 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron in 1940

Last week’s column argued that mass immigration is intimately connected to the growth of capitalism.

The kind of racism that had faced Irish people in Britain in the 19th century was meted out to the Jews who arrived from eastern Europe at the turn of the century.

As the radicalism around the New Unionism ebbed in the 1890s, bosses were able to blame poverty on immigrants.

Tory MP William Evans Gordon said in parliament in 1902, “Not a day passes but English families are ruthlessly turned out to make room for foreign invaders.”

This racism paved the way for the Aliens Act of 1905, the first to limit immigration and which defined some groups of migrants as “undesirable”.

With the media again filled with attacks on those coming from eastern Europe, it is interesting to look at Polish migrants at the end of the Second World War, who were treated in a very different manner.

The outbreak of war drastically affected the position of Poland.

Under the Hitler/Stalin pact the country was divided between Russia and Germany, and both poured troops in. The defeated Polish army fled.

By the summer of 1940 20,000 Poles had arrived in Britain. They were mostly troops but also included a government in exile. Through the war many more joined them. Most of these were also soldiers.

After Nazi Germany attacked Russia in 1941 many Polish troops interned by the Russians were given the option of joining the British army in North Africa.

In 1946 all these troops were demobbed in Britain. By this point Poland was under Russian domination.

The soldiers were now given the alternative of going back to Poland or volunteering for two years work with the Polish Resettlement Corps.

This was a civilian group organised by the military to employ ex-soldiers on rebuilding work while they were integrated into British society. The majority of the 160,000 eligible for the scheme signed up.

The decision to allow this level of immigration was officially related to their role in the “war effort”, though the needs of the labour-starved economy should not be forgotten.

However this line was not consistently applied – there was no such welcome for black and Asian “empire” troops who might not have wished to return to oppressive regimes, particularly since their rulers were British.

Later, workers including defeated “hostiles” – who had fought on the other side in the war – were allowed to come and often settle under the European Volunteer Workers (EVW) scheme.

The Poles were the only group of immigrants to be welcomed as a group.

They were offered naturalisation, language training, help with housing and vocational courses – including fishing, forestry and tailoring.

The Polish Resettlement Corps was wound up ahead of schedule in 1949. In all, the corps processed 114,000 workers and the EVW about 57,000 more.

That is not to say that the arrival of the Poles was without controversy.

They had faced some racism – with accusations of profiteering, lawlessness and violence that any immigrant group would find familiar.

There was also a conflict with sections of the trade union movement.

This was partly because the new workers were seen as undercutting wages and union influence and partly because the Communist influenced trade union leadership saw them as a reactionary block who should return to “socialist” Poland.

After a long debate in 1946 the TUC argued that “no Pole should be employed in any grade in any industry where suitable British labour was available”. But it also said that “any training facilities required should be comparable to those applying to British ex-servicemen, and that the rate for the job should be paid in all cases”.

Without much comment, around 300,000 Poles settled in Britain after the war. These were ex-servicemen and their dependents who arrived by frequently lengthy and complex routes.

This may seem an insignificant number, but it was roughly the same number as the Jews whose arrival 50 years earlier had caused such outrage among racists.

Rather than becoming a model for welcoming migrants the treatment of the Poles after the Second World War was a one off.

Next week I will look at the very different treatment of Asians arriving in Southall, West London, from the 1950s onwards.

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