Author Archives: Michal Siewniak

An encounter with a refugee from Afghanistan

The refugee crisis, ways in which people in often desperate need of help, should be supported, still hugely divides politicians, decision makers, families and our communities.

  • “Welcome or not welcome”?
  • If welcome, how many?
  • Support legitimate governments in war torn countries?
  • Send aid? Where to?
  • Support directly organisations such as British Red Cross?

Endless questions…There is not one easy answer. There is not one solution to solve this complex and global issue. People have always migrated. People will continue to “move around” for a wide range of reasons. Some of us have a choice of going back to our native countries, however many individuals have absolutely no choice. That choice was often taken away from them without their will. The decision to flee was “imposed” on them. Many refugees that I met since I arrived in the UK, often, didn’t want to leave their homes.

In the last week or so, I had another opportunity to meet a refugee, this time from Afghanistan. It is one thing to read a story in the paper or watch a bit of “refugee news” on TV; it really is very different when we encounter someone who had to, often overnight, leave absolutely everything.

Imagine this: it is hard, however you have a job, you work and you are able to support your family. Then, due to “external factors”; sudden change of circumstances, in order to remain safe and alive, you have to flee. You are then “parachuted” into another country, UK in this case. You are moved around; from Birmingham, Croydon, to Hertfordshire. You are given very little support. You have to find your way around a very inhumane and complex system. You might be moved again as your accommodation was given to you on a temporary basis. You have nothing; not even a buggy to move your child around while you are trying to find the best way to stay “sane”. You are tired, confused, bewildered. Endless emails, confused messages; an absolute nightmare. But, you still smile…How? I have no idea. A simple, often emotional conversation, with a real person can hugely change our perceptions on how to support refugees.

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The impact of staff shortages on the UK economy

I like my Sunday routine. I am not a coffee drinker, however I enjoy my morning walk to Welwyn Garden City Town Centre and getting my favourite vanilla latte.

In the last couple of weeks, I have noticed that one of my local coffee shops is opening later than usual. I thought that it might be a good idea to ask what causes this late opening. I was told that unfortunately; they are short staffed. This particular outlet recruited two new individuals, however one of them, I was told, resigned very quickly.

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What next for the UK HGV drivers’ industry?

The madness continues. Some politicians, including my own MP, Grant Shapps, said that Brexit is not to blame for the lorry driver crisis. Moreover, Mr Shapps said that Brexit helped to “provide a solution” to the crisis. Am I crazy or is he living on a different planet?

In the last couple of days, the Road Haulage Association said that what our Transport Minister perceives as a “success” is in actual fact quite the opposite, “illogical”. I would go further that that; it is incomprehensible. Is Mr Shapps living in some sort of denial?

The Office for National Statistics claims that …

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“Poverty of trust”

A very good friend of mine from Croatia (thank you, Hrvoje!) has recently invited me to an international online meeting, attended by 40 + different business leaders from around the world. The main theme for the session was the importance of building and strengthening the trust. The meeting, and in particular some of the expressions used, was quite revealing.

Whilst going through the process of being approved as a candidate in the next local elections, I had an opportunity to spend one Saturday morning with some of my colleagues, who are very experienced campaigners.

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Is there a role and purpose for coalition governments in the UK?

A very good friend of mine has emailed me recently to say that that he has joined the SNP. He is a supporter of an independent Scotland. He posed a very interesting questions, which I felt, is worth exploring a bit more. The members of the SNP were asked to vote whether to support a collaborative agreement with the Green Party. As we know, the agreement would create an overall majority for independence in the Scottish Parliament, push the climate debate and emphasise the importance of close cooperation with our partners in Europe.

It was really interesting to read that the SNP and the Greens decided to call it a cooperation agreement. In my view, there are very few differences and this was a tactical rather than a political move. We all know that both parties have a lot in common (referendum, green policies, attitude towards immigration), however there are also some differences. In Scotland, this arrangement might secure the second independence referendum, as the opposition will be out numbered. However, some would argue that this is not necessarily the best formula for “political harmony” as the country will be still divided into 2 camps.

As a Polish national, I am used to coalitions. I was growing up in Poland in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and I don’t remember a government formed by one party. This has changed only recently. Personally, I like coalitions. They bring different parties together, different solutions, ideas and policies to address some of the local and national issues. They “force” politicians to listen, compromise and dialogue. Coalitions are often complex political arrangement, which require patience and resilience.

When the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservative Party (which I supported), loads of people were convinced that the government wouldn’t last longer than 18 months. They did last 5, however the Liberal Democrats paid a huge price. With almost 60 MP’s between 2010-2015, the party ended up having less than 10 MP’s after the 2015 elections. So I do understand people who are sceptical about coalitions. I can also see coalitions usually favour bigger parties.

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Youth provision, children and their “freedoms”

The contrast was striking. It was 12:30am in the morning. Croatia is really hot over the summer and therefore a late night walk is usually a relief. It was midnight and the outdoor sport courts were full of children. Kids were playing (with some parental supervision) beach volleyball, football and basketball. Of course, I did join in! Some would say that this leaving children out so late in the night is rather naive. So was it irresponsible parenting? Personally, I don’t think so.

In Britain, I often feel that we lost the ability …

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COVID, holidays and vaccine hesitancy within Eastern European communities

If someone told me a few years ago that any other issue will divide our communities as much as Brexit did after the EU referendum, I would not have believed.

This year, I was lucky enough to travel over the summer holidays. A lot of people like me, who live abroad, are often left with very little choice. COVID restrictions, stress around planning and cost of tests is putting many people off, however there are not many alternatives if we want to see our loved ones.

The health pandemic was a central part of many of my conversations in Poland and Croatia. Although most of my friends had at least one dose of the vaccine, what are the reasons for “vaccine hesitancy” within the Polish and other ethnic minority communities?

The most recent data from the Hertfordshire County Council Public Health team shows that 69% of any other white backgrounds of residents living in the county received at least one dose of the vaccine. This is significantly lower than e.g. white British individuals (around 90%). There is still some work that needs to be done to address the issue of relatively low levels of the vaccine roll-out within minority ethnic groups.

It is also clear that there are many reasons why some people, also from my community, are hesitant towards the vaccination programme. Social media plays a big part in shaping people’s views on whether to have the vaccine or not. Targeted online campaigns, believing only in one source of information, being fed up with listening to “experts” often means that it is not easy to change people’s “fixed mind-sets”. For those living in the UK, occasional language barriers could be some of the motives of vaccine resistance.

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Remembering Srebrenica

Imagine, just for a moment, that you don’t eat for a month.

Imagine that for months, if you are lucky, you have one “meal” a day; meal meaning a watery soup.

Imagine that when or if you are lucky enough to board the plane, you have no idea where and when you will land.

Imagine that you have no choice, none whatsoever.

Imagine that you are taken, against your will, to a concentration camp, without knowing whether you will walk free again.

Imagine that you are unable, for months, to contact your loved ones.

Imagine that if you are lucky to survive, your traumatic experience lives with you forever.

Imagine that you have NO choice or freedom.

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Building platform for civic activism with youngest residents

It is wonderful that the “civic tradition” of children from the Polish Saturday School in Welwyn Garden City continues!

Last weekend, a group of children and a few members of staff visited the Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. Children had another opportunity to visit the Council Chamber, meet the Leader of the Council, newly elected Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Welwyn Hatfield.

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United with Belarus

I come originally from the South-East part of Poland. I was 10 when the Berlin Wall collapsed and I must admit that I didn’t grasp the importance of these historical events, for my native country as well as the whole of Europe. I discovered its significance later on.

In the last couple of weeks, I was reflecting on the journey of each one of the countries behind the “Iron Curtain”. Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic – they all did well and it is clear that a massive democratic transformation served them and their residents well.

However, there is one country, also a former Soviet Union republic, which has been struggling since 1990’s and which brought international attention for all the wrong reasons. Plane hijacked, which simply equals an act of terrorism, imprisonment of opposition leaders or ordinary members of the public, often as young as 14-15 year olds, lack of free speech, economical progress and recovery or inability to peaceful demonstrations; the list goes on. While completing my Master’s Degree in History, I had an opportunity to meet many people from Belarus, who were studying in my home town, Lublin. I often wonder in these situations whether there is anything I should be doing to help. But what, and more importantly how could I do that?

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The Windrush scandal – a sign of things to come for EU citizens?

For me personally, a huge advantage of living in the UK is the fact that I’ve had so many opportunities to meet so amazing (and inspiring) people, who migrated to Britain from all corners of the world. Many of them I call friends.

Due to the pandemic, I feel that we often miss some important stories. This week, my eye caught a report about the Home Office’s appalling failure to protect and support the victims of the Windrush scandal.

I wonder whether statistics (see below) show the inefficiency of the Home Office or whether they clearly demonstrate an implementation of hostile …

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What next for UK politics?

Oh boy, there is a never dull day in British politics!

It is very true that a week in politics can be actually quite long and eventful. The dust hasn’t settled yet and so much has already happened since last week’s elections. It was incredibly interesting to see how people across the country voted last week and how the election result might impact the future of the UK.

I am not a famous political strategist, however it is true that the political landscape in the UK is changing, that’s for sure. The “Red Wall” collapsed. The by-elections in Hartlepool showed that the Labour Party can’t automatically count on votes from the working class people. Would it be fair to say that it is now the middle-class in bigger cities, which “saved” the Labour Party from a total disaster (London, Liverpool, Manchester). Is it also true that the Labour Party has lost its “political identity”?

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Local elections and the “Festival of Local Democracy”

Embed from Getty Images

Well…I might be a bit weird, however I am really excited about tomorrow! Why? It is an election day, which gives us ALL another wonderful opportunity to shape our local communities by electing District and County Councillors. There are also significant elections in Scotland, to the Scottish Parliament and in Wales, to the Welsh Assembly. Tomorrow will be a busy day for voters and quite a nerve-wracking day for all the candidates!

We often don’t realise but it is very true that even the smallest elections to the parish council affect the way we live our lives.

I often wonder what makes us vote, particularly in the local elections? is it because we want to see a real change in our neighbourhoods? Is it because we want to positively influence the so called “status quo”? Or is it simply because we simply like a particular candidate?

Is our voting based on our political alliances? Would we vote for any candidates of the main political parties in the local elections only because we support their national policies?

Do we vote tactically?

Or do we vote because we passionately believe in democracy and we want to be part of the civic process?

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The Cost of Local Democracy

I often wonder what could be done to reduce the cost of democracy, particularly now when the public finances are stretched to absolute limits and when the national debt is rapidly rising. When I was a serving Councillor, someone who originally comes from Poland, where the political system is different, I often questioned the election cycle in the UK and I never really understood why it is that we need to have elections every year; either to the Local or County Council.

My “election cycle scepticism” was magnified when I was told that it cost annually on average £100,000 to set up and run the local elections in Welwyn Hatfield. I thought that if, for example, the elections were to take place every other year, the taxpayer would save £500,000 in one decade only. It is potentially a lot of additional resources for one Local Authority. This significant amount of money could support a number of projects in our neighbourhoods.

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A simplified, open source guide to UK democracy

I am sure that most readers would agree with me if I said that, often, in order for us all to make a tangible difference in our communities or influence change at a local or national level, we need to be politically educated. As a European national, it seems to me that this has never been more important.

Today, I am delighted to be able to share with you a fantastic Open Source Election Guide, which was produced by the New Europeans UK and POMOC (Polish Migrants Organise for Change) amongst other great partners working in the field.

Why is it so important? It is important because this open source provides a very informative democratic tool, which, in a simple language, explains the way in which the UK’s democratic system works. However, crucially and most importantly, it tells us why voting is so important! Although the democratic system in the UK is quite complex, this open source election guide simplifies the whole political process. It is a must read!

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Why so many Poles have already left Britain?

I was delighted to receive an email this week from a good friend of mine, Roger Casale, founder of the New Europeans and also a former Member of the UK Parliament.

Roger emailed to say that one of his colleagues, Peter Conradi, who is Sunday Times Europe’s Editor, was running a story this weekend about the reasons why so many Poles have already left the UK. I was really pleased that I had an opportunity to speak to Peter and that the article itself was published in yesterday’s paper. It was a fascinating conversation, which, probably for the first time, helped me to pause and reflect on the causes of the Polish nationals’ departure from the UK. This trend has already directly affected many of my fellow countrymen and countrywomen.

It is estimated that almost a million Poles lived in the UK before the Brexit vote. Some, mainly anecdotal evidence, suggests that around 200,000 members of the Polish community have now left the UK. It is a significant exodus of Poles, which, in my view, might continue in the future. So what are the reasons why people have left or are leaving?

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VIDEO – European nationals and the importance of the local elections 2021

Local elections 2021, Thursday, 6th May

The UK has now left the EU, however did you know that:

  • You can still vote in the local elections as a European citizen?
  • Your vote hugely matters?
  • You can continue shaping the future of the local communities?
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The Home Office and EU Settled Status Scheme

I am sure that most of us, who know, work with or have friends and family members from Europe, heard of so called EU pre-settled or settled status scheme. The scheme is crucial and it ensures that all Europeans living in the UK can continue to receive the same entitlements they had until the transition period ended at the end of December 2020.

The Home Office has published this week (week ending 14th February) the latest data in relation to the EU Settled Status Scheme. It is encouraging to see that such a significant number of EU nationals have already submitted their applications. It is fair to say that overall, the process is relatively simple and straightforward.

The figures show that, up to the end of January 2021: 5.06 million applications were received, 4.68 million applications were processed. Across the UK, 4.57 million applications were received from England, 252,400 applications from Scotland, 83,800 applications from Wales and 81,800 received from Northern Ireland. 2,497,600 (53%) were granted settled status and 2,039,800 (44%) were granted pre-settled status, thus showing more than 4.5 million grants of status.

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What is the future of the farming industry in the UK?

Although I come originally from a city called Lublin, in the South-East part of Poland, as a child, I spent a lot time visiting my cousins and grandparents’ in relatively large village close to a city called Rzeszow. I remember Polish harvest, I remember watching my uncle, my grandmothers’ brother, who used to leave the house very early in the morning and who was coming back home very late; often tired but also happy, as the job enabled him to feel closely connected with nature. 

Looking back, I think that farming has been always strongly rooted in the “working culture” of the Polish nation. Today, the situation has changed as young people move to cities to seek and enhance their life opportunities. I remember how hard everyone had to work to feed their families and earn a decent (?) living. My mum tells me that when she was a child, before going to school, she also had to support her parents with e.g. feeding the cows or cleaning the stable. I also remember visiting my auntie in Italy, who was working on the farm. It really was a hard job. I have it easy these days, don’t I? 

I’ve recently come across a very interesting article published in Emerging Europe about the impact of Brexit on UK farming industry. I often wondered what will happen to some sections of the economy when the transition period ends? It is good news that the UK government has increased to 30,000 the number of visas to seasonal workers, who will be able to come to Britain for up to 6 months. Unfortunately, this is where the good news end. This new ‘visa arrangement’ comes with a heavy price. Each work permit will cost £244, which for many interested individuals might be simply too expensive. What is even more interesting is that citizens from some countries e.g. Turkey or Macedonia will pay less (£55) than seasonal workers from other countries e.g. Romania, Bulgaria or Slovenia. Reason? Some countries are not members of the Council of Europe’s Social Chapter. 

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Time to predict the political future of the UK post-Brexit?

I love sport, football in particular. Although I had an opportunity to serve as a local councillor in Welwyn Hatfield, I occasionally feel that I am a “spectator”, not a “player”, when it comes to my voting rights in the UK. In a way, it is a shame that although I have been living here for almost 16 years, I have always paid taxes, I have always worked and I have not been a “burden”, I have never had a chance to cast my vote in GE or, more importantly, in the EU referendum. When I first visited the Houses of Parliament, I was told that “taxation equals representation”. Really? I don’t think so.
I don’t have any predictable abilities or a magic wand. I am also aware that we have only a few days ago ended the transition period and therefore the “dust has truly settled yet”, however if someone asked me to guess what will happen in the UK in the next 5-10 years, I would say that:

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What did the freedom of movement mean to me?

A couple of years ago, my daughter had a non-uniform day at school. She wasn’t sure what to wear, however at the end, she picked a Polish football top, with my nickname on it (ksiadz, which means in English priest), and a Croatian scarf (see the photo).

My kids were born into a truly European family. I am Polish and my wife comes originally from Croatia. Yes, I know; their European identity and sense of belonging to different cultures and traditions won’t be taken away, however it might affect our and their lives in the future. When I asked my daughter about the choice of her non-uniform day clothes, she simply said: “I like to call myself a foreigner”. I was pleasantly surprised.

I remember my life, as a student in Croatia, before Poland joined the EU. I remember that every once a month, I had to visit a local police station to prove that I was a genuine student. When we were living in Italy, my wife had to wait quite a long time for the study and a work permit.

The freedom of movement has been part of our lives for many years now. We have always cherished and appreciated the opportunity to live in different parts of Europe. Each experience opened up our horizons and made us more “rounded individuals” (at least, that’s what we both think!). The freedom of movement has played such a vital part in our lives. In actual fact, it was the WAY OF OUR LIFE. it enabled us to:

  • Travel freely without any restrictions
  • Work
  • Study and participate in a number of scholarship programmes
  • Gain additional qualifications
  • Enhance our live chances
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The life after Brexit – what next for the EU migrants?

The British people have voted. It was close however the message was clear – ‘we want our country back, we want to control our borders, we will be better off outside the EU’.
I found out about the result on sunny morning in Rome where I was attending an interesting meeting of people who are involved in public and civic life. As you can imagine, I was inundated with questions from people from Italy, Spain, Argentina, Slovenia or even South Korea.

As an EU migrant, someone who doesn’t hold the British citizenship, I have been part of the referendum debate …

Posted in Op-eds | 17 Comments
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