Is frictionless migration possible?

In this Impact Essay, Shamit Saggar presents original data on the experiences and attitudes of Polish migrants to the UK.

A world in which migration takes places regularly, smoothly, successfully and uncontroversially is one that is hard to imagine. Nevertheless a vision of ‘frictionless’ migration remains an important point of reference.

For supporters, a reduction of traditional barriers to migration presents a chance to allow people to be mobile and to create new, successful communities and identities out of older ones. Migrants are no longer merely economic units. Rather, they are exercising lifestyle choices that give rise to changing national and transnational identities, and, with these, different potential obligations, relationships and loyalties.

For sceptics, it is an opportunity to log the costs of migration, both direct and indirect, and a further platform to refine an argument that says that, despite reduced barriers, migration continues to cause various social ills that are best avoided.

Eastern European migration to the UK following the 2004 Accession of eight nations to the EU has been a major laboratory to test these competing claims. The scale and suddenness of the movement of people was unprecedented in terms of migration into modern, prosperous societies. And in the case of the UK, Polish migration is the largest slice of recent European migration. The Poles have thus rapidly entered the country’s popular cultural lexicon.

For these reasons it is important to know how Poles have fared as migrants. Surprisingly, there are some significant gaps in knowledge, particularly around why people come, why they stay and what underscores patterns of integration. Here I describe fresh quantitative evidence based on a large sample – the first of its kind – on these points, comparing the experiences of Polish migrants in four notable destinations (UK, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands) that offers new, granular detail on their experiences both pre- and post-migration.

This sheds fresh light on diversity within this group and the importance of their pre-migration context. The new evidence also extends knowledge on very recent arrivals, an important component for understanding people’s mobility and assessing the friction that migration sometimes leads to.

Migrants and migrants

The free movement of people that comes with EU membership creates a revolution in choice for would-be migrants. This is accompanied by lower costs of travelling and staying in touch. That fundamental choice calculus is interwoven into the nature of migration from East European sources, something that has been rather overlooked by so many commentators.

The findings of my research point to different and contrasting types of Polish migrant in terms of their initial motivations and intentions, as well as their prior migration experience and socio-economic background. Overall, the numbers speak for themselves: Sumption and Somerville identify around 1.5 million migrants from A8 countries who came to the UK in the five years following Accession. The 2001 General Census noted 19,000 Polish-born adults in England and Wales. By the 2011 Census, this had swollen to 466,000.

Poles in the UK obviously vary as a result of how long they have been here. The big distinction lies between those who are circular migrants, to-ing and fro-ing at various intervals, and those who are not. Those who are more circular in their movements are rather less positive about the migration experience than those who are more one-way. A key finding is that highly educated Poles tend toward the latter category.

Migrant types also shape aspects of migrant integration. Unsurprisingly circular and temporary migrants have lower subjective orientation towards the UK and perceive the country to be less hospitable. On an objective dimension they are less socially and residentially integrated. But regardless of this, taking part in employment is the biggest driver of integration of all migrant types.

This last finding goes to the heart of policy discussions and debates about how best to support migrant integration, and also points to many spillover effects from employment that flow into subjective wellbeing and the perceptions of migrants by non-migrants. Having a job and earning your way delivers gains for the migrants whilst also building recognition for their industry in receiving societies. A US federal government official once remarked that his fellow officials saw no need for a Home Office agency taking the lead on integrating immigrants – in America, holding down a job and paying your way was all that was needed.

Following the collapse of Communism (1989) and before Accession (2004), Polish migration to the West typically took the form of ‘incomplete migration’. This was temporary, semi-legal and typically involved a male, family breadwinner leaving to work abroad and remitting funds home. Additionally, the 1990s also saw various bilateral agreements with Germany and others that sucked in large numbers of temporary, low-skilled workers from Eastern and Central Europe. The German focal point of Polish migration remained largely undisturbed until 2004. Meanwhile, the flows of large numbers of low-skilled Poles at this time obscured smaller yet significant numbers of graduates escaping the country’s bleak employment prospects for highly skilled workers.

The UK had the second largest number of pre-Accession Polish migrants, second to Germany. The UK has also had a different profile, historically, attracting those with higher skills and personal-political outlooks than those destined for Germany. Farther back, Poles have made their way in significant numbers to the UK shortly after the Second World War (mainly via the Polish Resettlement Corps) and bringing around 150,000 such settlers to the UK between 1946-49. Important Polish communities were established at this time in several northern mill towns (Rochdale in Lancashire and Bradford in Yorkshire for instance) and also in and around Ealing in West London.

New migration models

Polish migrants vary by region of origin, migratory experience, motivations and trajectories. This fact alone means that it is unwise to rely on averages as these may mask a wide span of profiles. Indeed, a holistic account of the new waves of migration from Europe to the UK is needed precisely because of its diversity.

How do these new waves of migration compare with earlier waves? Migration is more feminised; it is unencumbered by tough border controls; it is relatively cheap; and, crucially, it comes with a host of ways of retaining direct and indirect contact with home countries. These transnational networks and ties allow all manner of support and information to help certain migrants navigate the new whilst remaining participants in the past.

If it is shaped by economic motives (as earlier waves of economic migrants have been), it is also laced with many other things that smooth and re-order the cost-benefit calculus of being a migrant. Skype, widespread broadband coverage, mobile telephones, innovative consumer markets and social media all serve to create an experience that, qualitatively, is at odds with that of rural peasants from northern and western India who set out on one-way voyage to the UK in the 1960s. The latter were driven by the prospect of sustained industrial demand for their labour unimaginable at home, and with this, only the very slight prospect of retaining daily contact with their kith and kin.

Added to this, the relative proximity of new European migrants means that the range of motives behind migration has blossomed. Migrants are potentially much younger, will comprise many students and those seeking to follow their peers and even strangers, and will be a lifestyle choice that is little understood to date.

Differing portraits

Those migrating to accumulate financial resources over the short term are heavily focused on matters of pay and being in work so as to be able to remit funds. They are also less oriented to investing in their host society and do not have great expectations of what to expect or how they should be treated.

Those migrating for the longer term are different in that they are interested in gaining work that is well-fitted to their skills and also in developing new social relationships that will frame who they are and how they are thought of in their new society. Typically, where the goal is family reunification, then the realisation of this goal, rather than gaining a well-paid job, is where they will invest their efforts. This path has implications for their openness and capability to meet other objectives.

And students provide a further layer of nuance. This is because the data tend to show that, despite their motives lying in education and/or skill acquisition, they appear less successful in the labour market because they take lower paid jobs or may be unemployed. Some may still feel that migrating has served its purpose such as gaining access and proximity to a cultural experience that would not have been possible without actually migrating. Furthermore, these educational migrants are aware that they are laying down potential pathways for future migration that allows them to countenance onward migration to other countries having already migrated once.

Overall, there are important clusters of migration motives, backgrounds and future intentions, and these resemble half a dozen recognisable, latent classes. Six stand out:

  • Circular (8 per cent) – crucially, this group matches the pattern of earlier migrant cohorts between Poland and Germany (twice as prevalent in the German sample incidentally) but they account for a small slice of migrants to the UK.
  • Temporary (35 per cent) – rather like circular migrants but with a smaller likelihood of having had an earlier migration experience, they are the joint largest subset in the UK sample.
  • Settled (36 per cent) – these migrants challenge the traditional myth of return formulae since they are most committed to living their lives beyond Poland and possibly beyond the UK as well. For them, securing their economic goals will potentially involve multiple migrations.
  • Family (9 per cent) – clearly these migrants are heavily driven by family reasons, yet a third plan to return to Poland and another third plan to stay put.
  • Student (5 per cent) – although just a tenth of sample across all four countries (but half this in the UK sample), they are especially open to the idea to moving again in search of transnational opportunities, whilst also being keen to return to Poland. The inference is that the UK, thus far, holds little special attraction.
  • Adventurer (7 per cent) – arguably the least studied group, these migrants appear to have migrated ‘just because’ and hold a wide array of future intentions. What is less clear is their sense of leaving something, as against getting closer to something else.

The costs of staying, going back or moving on are important to understand for these six clusters. Frictionless migration implies that these costs are substantially lower than for earlier waves of long range, one-way migrants. Equally, for these Poles, their patterns of settlement and taking root will have shaped some aspects of how there are perceived by their host society and thus whether, or how far, their arrival has generated another friction in terms of attitudes of acceptance versus rejection.

Certain contrasts between the four countries are noteworthy. For instance, Adventurers were surprisingly uncommon in the German sample despite its close proximity, familiar migration history and popularity for Students. The Irish sample meanwhile especially comprised Adventurers who migrated ‘just because’ yet they held highly varied motivation and intentions. These countries’ histories, institutional differences, welfare regimes and cultural mores are likely to have been influences.

Additionally, factors such as gender seem to shape migration categories. The survey shows some basis for this – men are more likely to be Circular migrants than women, while Family migrants are chiefly made up of women. But the gender differences wane after that – both genders are equally involved as Temporary or Settled migrants. This is an important finding showing that Polish migration is becoming more feminised than it once was, such that women play a much bigger role across all kinds of migration. This may have a bearing on issues of friction – for instance by the creation of migrant dual-earner households, itself a significant insurance against the risk of falling into poverty and benefit dependency. The overall likelihood of migrants to experience poverty in itself is a major aspect of public attitudes towards the kinds of migrants that gain approval.

And other elements play a role. Students, for instance, are more likely than other categories to have been in education prior to moving. But other factors also mould patterns and outlooks in important ways. For example, rural origins are commonplace among Circular migrants; their receiving country language fluency is poorer compared with Students and all those planning to settle permanently. At one end of the spectrum, migration amounts to a conscious lifestyle choice that comes with a transnational outlook, fewer family ties, better language competency, and so on. At the other end, migration is highly uncertain, temporary and circular, confirming that migrating behaviour is a reflection of constraint as well as choice.

Integration dynamics

How migrants make sense of their new lives and environment is a less understood domain. This may be because of the inherent subjectivity of this domain – covering aspects of people’s life satisfaction, their sense of feeling at home and hospitability of their host society, assessment of opportunity structures, who they spend time with, and so on. All of these elements reflect their subjectively felt integration. This picture is balanced by looking at objective economic integration – namely a combination of whether they hold a job and, if working, the social status of that job.

Open, outward-facing, optimistic, relaxed and aspiring communities align with the theory of frictionless immigration whereby migrants arrive, settle smoothly, succeed, build new relationships and are generally approving of their receiving societies.

But the rub comes when these pathways are disrupted. This leaves migrants feeling that they have made little headway despite moving and are unwelcome despite their efforts. Migrants who, in general, believe that they have not succeeded and remain isolated can then become susceptible to a stronger narrative of wasted effort and alienation. It is not long before they are tarred as outsiders at best or pariahs at worst. It is important to fill gaps in knowledge about the softer aspects of migrant integration, partly to know whether subjective feelings align with objective economic outcomes, and also to shed light on what else, beyond the labour market, influences social integration.

The Poles in this study provide confirmation that those who migrate for basic economic reasons are also better economically integrated than those who come for other reasons. Unemployment is less likely for them as compared with other migrants. But these economic migrants are more likely than others to be working in jobs with lower status. This touches on an old, familiar theme seen across many migration waves whereby workers are prepared to accept lower status in the labour market in order to gain some economic security. Put another way, they put up with less today perhaps with an implicit promise that tomorrow – for them, or their children – will bring more. Whether or not it does is another question, but obviously engaging in this trade-off and keeping faith in its terms is a central plank of social integration.

The lowest levels of life satisfaction and sense of being at home are found among Temporary migrants. They stand in clear contrast to other categories such as Settled, Family and Student migrants who report much higher scores. Temporariness, it seems, comes at a price of lengthening the odds that new migrants feel included and welcome in their receiving country. The research also shows that Temporary migrants see less hospitality towards and opportunities for Poles.

Causation is not clear-cut, however. It may be that Settled migrants use even short periods of residency to invest actively in their new home and it is the intention to settle, rather than length of time, that matters.

The issue of interacting with one’s own kind is more nuanced. This can be a product of opportunities to do so, with Students standing out as most likely. But Settled migrants also mingle more within Polish circles, even ignoring for employment status. Their interaction is likely to be via social networks and external opportunities based on Polish kinship. Meanwhile, Family migrants interact less among (non-family) Poles but this may be because their primary focus is on family-based activity. Family migrants, despite having fewer friendships from the receiving society, nevertheless use these to create fewer yet closer relationships.

If being a Settled migrant means that mixing with one’s own kind remains the norm, then this can fuels friction in that non-migrants can come to feel that newcomers prefer to live apart even despite the passage of time. But the research indicates that Settled migrants are mainly drawn from those who migrate with families, so this reduces the overall odds of mixing. It is often said that having children is an accelerant to integration among migrants, but this research does not obviously confirm this assertion.

Interaction with one’s own kind is often driven by where people live, so it is not so surprising to see in-group connections develop in Polish-heavy areas of settlement (e.g. Ealing, Bradford, Rochdale, and so on). The tendency towards living among one’s own is more marked among worker categories (Circular and Temporary), and this pattern may in turn be driven by proximity to particular kinds of jobs. Family, Student and Adventurer migrants, meanwhile, tend to live in less Polish-concentrated places, although it is possible that they merely think of their areas in these terms.

Some policy implications

This evidence carries implications for why migrants stick together as well as for measuring their interaction and cohesion across the rest of society. Staying together is not, it seems, just a function of time. It is also shaped by migrants’ motivations, and intentions. And it is affects by opportunity structures such as schools that link migrants to others beyond their own ranks.

There are two other findings that have significant policy implications. The first is that the new model of migration – based around the free movement of labour – has brought in new cohorts, in particular women and younger people who are now heavily represented in various forms of non-economic migration but also make up a big slice economic migration, save for the circular kind. Technology and communications allows them to make relatively well-informed decisions as well as iterate their calculations based on new information. And language skills, per force, stand out as the most portable kind of capital in this new environment.

The upshot is that migration has pluralised in its characteristics and composition. Migrants will bring a range of skills and attributes with them beyond merely a raw desire to work and survive. The most important policy implication is that an important slice of migration is better thought of as an option open to various groups. Migration, therefore, is not so much about humans on the move but increasingly particular kinds of people choosing to be mobile for particular reasons.

Finally, the idea of frictionless migration also comes with the hint that when people move their presence often brings risks to the cohesion of their destination society. Friction is merely a jargonistic way of saying that they can be met with wariness or hostility, and the potential to set off a chain reaction of mutual suspicion. So it is important to assess if recent Polish migration holds any opportunities to manage or reduce that tension.

The research finds that economic outcomes for migrants should not be viewed in isolation from their subjective perceptions of social integration outcomes. These are different sides of the same migration coin. The most telling, and perhaps unsurprising, is that Poles who planned to remain in the UK are more positive in their feelings towards the UK. Their counterparts who were in the UK temporarily had the least positive social outcomes.

In policy terms does this mean that permanent settlers are more desirable than temporary arrivals? Not quite. It suggests that issues of friction are not just about host society reactions but also involve the basic motivations and intentions of different categories of migration. Friction is often thought of across the board in relation to migrants as a whole, whereas this research shows that very particular characteristics tend to generate isolation, separation and poor interaction with the larger society. Diversity of background and trajectory carries implications for how these migrants progress, how they navigate their options and, no doubt, their future reputation in the UK.