Down and out in London

Many of those struggling to get by in the British capital are former immigrants from Eastern Europe

When the European Union expanded its borders eastward in 2004, more than half a million Poles took advantage of the newly opened border to pack up and move to Britain. They were joined by thousands more Czechs and Slovenians, and after the EU expanded again in 2007, migrants from Bulgaria and Romania.

Many thrived. Suddenly traditional English pubs were staffed by servers with Eastern European accents. The new arrivals were so ubiquitous in the trades that “Polish plumber” became a catchphrase.

Inevitably, however, thousands have also floundered. Estimates vary, but a disproportionate percentage of homeless in London are from Eastern Europe, most of them Poles. And when they do stumble, they fall harder than the locals. Migrants who have not worked full-time for more than a year do not qualify for many social assistance programs, such as housing benefits. Last year, a charity worker found homeless Poles roasting rats.

In response, the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham—home to many rough-sleeping Poles—hired Barka, a Polish charity that works with homeless people and others with alcohol and addiction problems. The charity set up a British branch in 2007. Today, it works in eight London boroughs.

“They were the Communist generation,” Barka U.K.’s head Ewa Sadowska told Maclean’s, referring to Eastern European migrants in Britain. Many can’t speak English, are cheated by unscrupulous employers, and drink too much.

“They were totally unprepared for this challenge: a strong, capitalist, liberal society such as the U.K., and with no safety net for those who were weaker.”

Barka provides struggling East European migrants with counseling and vocational training. This takes place during two- to three-week education sessions back in Poland. Those with more serious addiction problems are helped to return to Eastern Europe and enroll in lengthier rehabilitation programs. More than 1,500 have done so since 2007.

Barka has also expanded its operations to Hamburg, and other German municipalities have contacted the charity, as have several cities in Holland.

When the European Union moved east in 2004, Germany and Austria opted for a seven-year transition period before allowing citizens from the new member states access to their labour markets. That period expired in May.

“As prevention, they want to establish some measures, some safety nets, before people come,” says Sadowska.

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