| Rafał Cekiera, PhD |
The pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has both unexpectedly and radically transformed many areas of our everyday life. It has also brought with it a sense of overwhelming uncertainty previously unknown in such great intensity. Indeed, in referring to the socio-cultural contexts of life at the beginning of the 21st century, the term ‘uncertainty’ has been used many times. During the pandemic, however, it rose to the very top of the hierarchy of words that are the most useful and relevant in the current, highly unusual reality. With the spread of the virulent pathogen, life became uncertain in many areas. People outside their own countries are doubly affected by the resulting instability.
For obvious reasons, the pandemic consumes our attention, pushing aside reflecting upon other, often extremely important and interesting areas of social life. These include migration processes, characterised by a dynamic increase in the number of people coming to Poland (also to the Śląskie Voivodeship) in recent years to work or study. Having been accustomed for a long time to one migration direction – from Poland to the West, we are now met with a new situation. Here “we” are becoming an attractive place for immigrants seeking to improve their material status or foreign students looking for good education.
The last couple of years have unquestionably shown the importance of foreigners for the labour market, the development of companies, and the functioning of higher education institutions in the Śląskie Voivodeship. The concern to provide them with the best possible conditions of stay and mutual integration may be based on the obvious notion of hospitality – a feature often regarded as one of the region’s cultural characteristics. Looking at it from a different perspective, this concern is also in the best interest of the current residents of the region. This seems to be particularly important now, when the pandemic and the restrictions are disrupting established migration strategies.
For a variety of reasons, foreign workers are a group that suffers particularly severely, and usually first, from the repercussions of economic turmoil. The risk of economic marginalisation comes from the fact that they are often regarded as the most flexible members of the workforce – when problems arise, they are often the first to feel the consequences. Moreover, the pandemic regime, which inhibits mobility, has had a particularly strong impact on sectors such as transport, tourism, hotels and restaurants – sectors in which immigrants are often employed.
The transition to remote working has also been problematic for many foreign workers, with housing conditions and the available technological infrastructure in many cases representing significant barriers to remote working. Sharing living spaces due to economic reasons was not only an additional risk of infection, but also often contributed to additional psychological burden during lockdown. The difficulty (or even impossibility at some points) of visiting relatives in the country of origin, sometimes poor knowledge of the nuances of the local health system, all this made the commonly experienced pandemic reality even more difficult for immigrants. This assessment is confirmed by emerging research. In one of the reports prepared by EWL S.A., Fundacja Na Rzecz Wspierania Migrantów Na Rynku Pracy “EWL” (Foundation for Support of Migrants on the Labour Market), and Centre for Eastern European Studies of the University of Warsaw we can find information stating that as a result of the pandemic as many as 39% of immigrants in Poland had to change jobs, and almost 30% had to change city they worked in.
Foreign students also had to face various dilemmas. The suspension of the traditional class format at the university, but also often financial complications (after all, many of them earn their living by working in Poland), worries about relatives who are far away, suddenly as if much further away, or difficult integration with Polish peers – these are only the most obvious problems. The study trip abroad, which was supposed to have many different educational aspects, necessarily turned into isolation in front of a computer screen, spent in unfamiliar environment. The study trip has often turned into a real survival trip, into a daily test verifying adaptive abilities to a previously unimaginable situation.
The phenomena just barely scratching the surface described above seem sufficient in itself to call for an urgent and detailed scientific study. One that would not only allow for the formulation of a reliable assessment, but would also facilitate specific recommendations, going beyond just the struggle with the destructive coronavirus itself. Many different factors support the assumption that this is particularly needed in the Śląskie Voivodeship. It is not only a region struggling with the problem of a decreasing number of residents and a population age structure characterised by unfavourable parameters. It is also an area of intensive growth with regard to the number of foreign workers in recent years. Suffice it to mention the issued work permits for foreigners: in 2019 their number was 78% higher than in 2018 and almost 20 times higher than as recently as in 2015.
Also, the number of foreign students choosing universities located in the Śląskie Voivodeship has clearly grown in the last couple of years. It is not just a case of a significant group choosing to pursue higher education at the University of Silesia (in the 2019/2020 academic year – 704 people), but also, for example, the Medical University of Silesia in Katowice (643), the Czestochowa University of Technology (297), the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice (282) or the University of Economics in Katowice (189). Foreign students are an extremely valuable group both for the universities and for the places of their residence. Not only do they usually stimulate positively the quality of education and student interaction. From the perspective of the region’s development, they are usually business minded persons, ready to take on new challenges, open-minded, curious about the world, who increase the supply of qualified, competent employees if they stay in the region after graduation.
International student or employee mobility is not a temporary challenge of our times, some ephemeral phenomenon. Globalisation and demographics are just two of the buzzwords that cannot be ignored when trying to forecast future migration processes. The pandemic undeniably complicates human mobility and migrants’ life plans, but, as shown by the statistics, even in this difficult period many people have decided to work abroad. All of this should encourage the design of integration programmes and measures, with both the arriving and the hosting community in mind. Most of all, it is important to remember that each person coming from abroad is an individual, arriving with their own baggage of life experiences, expectations, and fears.
A statement attributed to Max Frisch, sarcastically commenting on the ignoring of the fundamental human dimension of integration policies “We asked for workers, but human beings came” urges us to go beyond the narrow perspective of the needs of the host community in analyses of migration phenomena. Based on this insight, we would like to give a voice to foreigners residing in the Śląskie Voivodeship, regardless of the nature of their residence, status or place of origin. Awareness of their problems and resources is crucial for good, mutually beneficial cooperation and should constitute useful knowledge for educational institutions, local governments, and business environments.
The study titled “Situation of foreigners in Silesian Voivodeship during the pandemic” is carried out by the “Pro Silesia” Business – University – Region Association in cooperation with the University of Silesia in Katowice and the BioStat Research and Development Centre. Rafał Cekiera, PhD from the Institute of Sociology of the University of Silesia is the project supervisor. Questionnaires in four language versions (Polish, English, Ukrainian, Belarusian) for employees and foreign students are available at www.prosilesia.pl.
Rafał Cekiera, PhD from the Institute of Sociology of the University of Silesia in Katowice | photo from the private archives of R. Cekiera, PhD