European immigration: PIGS can fly


  • Some European economic migrants are more welcome than others

AT FIRST glance, the scene in the courtyard behind the Journeys hostel in King’s Cross resembles a gathering of backpackers anywhere in the world. Young men and women from various European countries lounge on wooden benches, rolling cigarettes, sipping beers and chatting. Yet it soon becomes clear that, a pair of bemused Swedes aside, they are not tourists. Rather, they are immigrants searching for flats and jobs.

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British politicians and the press fret about Romanians and Bulgarians, who will soon gain the right to work in Britain. But a far bigger migration is under way from the older member states of the European Union. Since 2010 the number of national-insurance numbers issued to southern and western Europeans has shot up (see chart). For the past year more “old” Europeans than “new” Europeans have worked in Britain. Yet these new migrants are attracting little hostility. Their experience says much about British attitudes to immigration in general.

Until recently, migrants from countries such as Italy were few in number and affluent, says Beppe Severgnini, an Italian journalist based in London (who has in the past written for The Economist). Most came with jobs in hand, in London’s banks, hedge funds and consultancies; others came to study at Britain’s most celebrated universities. The 2011 census showed that, like the French, Italian and Spanish migrants were most concentrated in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, London’s wealthiest boroughs. Many others lived in Oxford and Cambridge.

The new wave is different. Southern Europeans are moving in partly because of the opportunities London offers, but largely because of the ones that home does not. Josep Maria Cagigal Soler, a 24-year-old business graduate from Barcelona, is typical. He moved to England six months ago after spending a year failing to find a job in Spain, booking a few days in a hostel. He then moved into a shared flat in the East End (“It’s not the best, for what it costs,” he gripes) and found work, first at a Costa Coffee and then at LycaMobile, where he fields inquiries from fellow Spaniards.

Some skilled immigrants are doing well. Spanish web developers can command high salaries; Italian economists work in the Treasury. But, like Mr Cagigal Soler, most new arrivals tend to start out in poorly-paid work and live in the cheaper bits of inner London. Getting professional qualifications approved is expensive and finding good jobs takes time. Work in the catering industry, by contrast, is plentiful. Britain’s Italian restaurants, which have long been staffed by eastern Europeans, are once again hiring Italian waiters.

Those who do not speak good English or are otherwise poorly prepared end up in the grottier end of Britain’s informal labour market. Francesco Ponzo, a 25-year-old Italian who speaks excellent English, says that the first job he was offered was in a hotel at £25 ($40) for an eight-hour shift, about half the legal minimum wage. Daniela de Rosa of the Italian Project, a consultancy, worries about dodgy agencies that promise to arrange jobs for Italians in advance and then fail to deliver.

Oddly, the British either have not noticed or do not mind this influx. This may be because the newcomers are not visibly competing for public services. Unlike Poles and Lithuanians, Italian and Spanish women are not yet sending children to Britain’s schools. Most Spanish people find the NHS baffling, says Jorge Ruiz, who runs a Spanish-language blog in Britain. They tend to go home for medical or dental treatment. Though some claim benefits, this is not easy, nor is the British welfare system particularly generous.

A big difference between this migrant wave and many previous ones is that it is likely to go out again. Few southern Europeans expect to stay in Britain permanently. The cost of housing is too high; the weather is too miserable; the pull of family and friends at home can only be resisted for so long. If the euro-zone economy recovers, many will return home, their résumés strengthened by a spell abroad. Indeed, one group of similar migrants is already less evident in London. Until a few years ago it was hard to walk around Clapham on a Friday night without tripping over drunk Australians. Now they have been replaced by Italians.

From the print edition: Britain

Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola is aNaija247news' Southwest editor. He's based in Lagos and writes on the Yoruba Nation political issues, news and investigative reports

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