Ściągnąć (Poland)

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Ściągnąć 🇵🇱
Poland map.png
Location: Poland
Definition: Term denoting a migrant bringing over another person to join them in a foreign country
Keywords: Poland Europe EU CEE Migration Diaspora Migrant networks Personal connections Personal network Kinship Ethnicity Immigration
Author: Anne White
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

By Anne White, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Ściągnąć (imperfective form: ściągać) means to ‘bring over’ (literally ‘pull down/off from’). The term is used when somebody brings over another person to join them in a foreign country, like pulling down an apple from a tree or pulling in a fish on a line. This is a colloquialism, not mentioned in the 200,000-word Oxford-PWN Polish-English Dictionary. Informal migration networking in Poland is part of a wider culture of migration and has its own vocabulary.

As Castles (2010: 1579) points out, ‘one of the most widely accepted innovations in migration theory since the 1980s has been the adoption of network theories, which focus on the collective agency of migrants and communities in organising processes of migration and incorporation.’ Researchers agree that migration cannot be understood without the lens of informality, even if governments choose to ignore the fact that migrants around the world prefer to go where they have family and friends. Governments aspire to ‘immigration control’ — making migrants use official channels to go where they are told. However, walls do not stop migrants, and attempts at immigration control almost always end up with the triumph of informal practices (Pécoud and de Guchteneire 2007).

This article is based on numerous conversations and 232 interviews about Polish migration since 2006, especially 115 interviews with women without higher education (both non-migrants and former migrants) conducted by the author in Poland and the UK (White 2017). The examples are of speakers from locations across Poland, with different population sizes; working-class people across the country use informal networks to migrate. Jaźwińska (2001: 124) contrasted the provinces, where social networks remained strong, with Warsaw, which has weaker migration traditions but where formal institutions could take the place of social networks. However, in my sample even migrants from areas without traditions of international migration used the verb ściągnąć. Places of origin are indicated in brackets in the examples below.

The mechanisms of migrant networking have been more extensively studied in the countries of destination than in the countries of origin, where it is often assumed that would-be migrants initiate the use of informal networks as a resource. However, the ściągnąć concept suggests that migration might not occur without an invitation from an existing migrant.

A massive number of people already have friends in the UK, and one person brings over the next (jeden drugiego ściąga). (Renata, Pabianice)

The way it works, one person goes first, and then other people will bring each other over (się ściągną) too. So, they went to Manchester and later brought (pociągnęli) some other people from Sosnowiec. They brought them over to be with them (ściągnęli do siebie). (Jagoda, Sosnowiec)

Usually one person collects (zabiera) someone else. Mostly a woman collects her best woman friend, or a man his male friend. That’s how the chain is formed as one person pulls in (ściąga) the next… Sometimes you say, ‘When you get there, look out for something for me.’ Then suddenly the link between us breaks, as if they didn’t want me to have a better life, just for them to have it better… I used to request sometimes, and it turned out to be a non-starter; they didn’t want to hear what I was saying, so I came to feel that it wasn’t worth asking, humiliating myself. (Celina, Grajewo)

Ściągnąć is sometimes used side-by-side with kusić, which means to tempt, and which allows the speaker to blame the original migrant for the migration act. In the next quotation, for example, the speaker excuses her husband for leaving their baby daughter to work abroad by blaming the brother-in-law who ‘pulled him away’. In the second quotation, low income is offered as an excuse for allowing oneself to be tempted:

The better earnings tempted us (kusiły). You know, to earn for the flat, and for a car, well, that was something you wanted (chciało się). Particularly since his brother was there already, so he brought him over (ściągnął). (Ewa, Grajewo)
One person will bring over another (jeden drugiego sciągnie), they’ll pull them after themselves (pociąga za sobą). If someone gets an offer of work, they think it over, and off they go. Not many people refuse. Perhaps only graduates, people with very good jobs, such people won’t even be tempted (nie kusi się). But people like us will let themselves be tempted (u nas jest takie środowisko że jednak się kuszą). (Magda, Sanok)

Many other interviewees portrayed invitations as opportunities not to be passed up:

His brothers simply brought him over (go ściągnęli). We hadn’t really thought about migrating. But it just happened that my brother-in-law phoned, and he said, ‘You know what, there’s a job you could do, come if you like.’ And my husband said ‘OK!’ and off he went. (Jolanta, Grudziądz)

However, use of ściągnąć does not always mean that the initiative comes from the person abroad. For example, Bernadeta, originally from Elbląg, reported that ‘My brother did want to come [to the UK] recently, but we told him it’s too hard to get work, for us to bring him over (żeby go ściągać)’. Nonetheless, the fact that the process was reported as the migrant potentially pulling the non-migrant establishes a hierarchy, with the migrant in control.

Eagerness to take advantage of invitations is linked to the belief, particularly held in some parts of Poland with a tradition of strong informal networks to the USA, that, ‘if you go abroad, you must go to someone you know (do kogoś)’ (Edyta, Grajewo). Conversely, you must never migrate w ciemno, ‘into the dark’. It is preferable to wait for an invitation:

There was always someone in the family…who could pull you out of Poland (ściągnąć z tej Polski)… It was my cousin who took me (zabrał mnie) to Sweden. You earn some money, come back to Poland and spend money on all sorts of things, including helping someone out, and you end up without a penny and there’s no work here, so you wait for a lucky chance to go abroad. That’s how it works… You don’t go into the unknown (w ciemno się nie jeździ). (Leszek, unemployed builder, Grajewo)

Some university graduates interviewed for later projects described themselves as migrating w ciemno, but they had more cultural capital and less need to rely on social capital. For instance, Rafał from Lublin reported that ‘I went completely into the unknown’. However, he continued by reporting the standard behaviour, using standard vocabulary: ‘I brought over (ściągnąłem) all my friends… Since I was in England, I always helped someone get work. Well, I was on the spot, so it was easier to fix something up for a friend.’

It was curious that interviewees never condemned the use of informal migration networks to find work abroad, while almost universally complaining that it was hard to find a job in Poland because of widespread nepotism. This bears out the truth of Materka’s observation about the related concept of kombinowanie or kombinacja, finding ingenious unofficial ways of accessing resources. ‘Kombinacja used by “us” was cast in a positive light; kombinacja used by “them”, the perceived competitors, was cast in a negative light’ (Materka 2017: 49).

Morawska (2001: 70) has suggested that, in the 1990s, the use of informal migration networks helped to perpetuate communist-era habits of doing things informally and was thereby harmful for democratisation in Poland. Even in the period since EU accession, reliance on networks may be damaging levels of generalised trust since, in sections of society and geographical locations which depend on help from members of informal migration networks, actual instances of being let down readily contribute to widely circulating warnings about Poles behaving ‘like wolves to other Poles’ (White and Ryan 2008; White 2018); Garapich (2016: 241-51) refers to the ‘myth of the Polish conman’. However, it is also the case that hundreds of thousands of Polish families have bettered themselves thanks to their use of informal migration networks, promoting a degree of prosperity in less economically developed parts of Poland and relieving pressure on the state to provide more generous welfare benefits.


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Garapich, M. 2016. London’s Polish Borders: Transnationalizing Class and Identity among Polish Migrants in London. Stuttgart: Ibidem

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