In Włodawa, everyone knows someone who emigrated to the UK, or who has at least spent time living there. At last count, more than 1 million Poles were living in the UK, including a large Włodawa community in the Devonshire town of Tiverton.
On 1st May 2004 Poland and seven other Eastern European countries became part of the European Union. It was a symbolic and historic moment for the continent. After more than 40 years of cold-war isolation and economic stagnation whilst under the control of the Soviet Union, these countries had managed to improve enough to gain entry to the EU. This had a significant impact on the countries of “Old Europe” as hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans joined in one of the biggest economic migration waves since World War II.
The small Polish town of Włodawa, on a tripoint between Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, was strongly affected by the economic and social transformation programs that begin in 1989. During the communist era, the economy of the region was based on government-controlled leather and agricultural industries. Neither survived the reality of a free market. The whole region, like all eastern voivodeships (counties) of Poland, began to struggle with an economic and social decline. It is estimated that over 2 million Polish people have left the country since it joined the EU, and the main destination has been the United Kingdom. Towns like Włodawa, which still struggle with high unemployment and low wages has been most affected by the exodus. It is hard to say how many Włodawaians have moved out since 2004 as statistics are unavailable. Many have turned up in Tiverton.
Tiverton and Włodawa have a lot in common being similarly sized and rural. The Polish immigrants refer to Tiverton as the “Second Włodawa”. Although it has it’s similarities, Tiverton offers them something that they can’t find in poorer eastern Polish regions: higher wages and stability of employment. However, in 2016, 53% of Mid Devon voters choose to leave the European Union; the Leave campaign had a strong anti-immigration over-tone. They have made a good home for themselves in Tiverton, but their future is more uncertain.
This is their story.