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East Europeans Boost Britain's Population

The national headcount tops 60 million for the first time. But many of the immigrants from former socialist nations don't plan to stay.

September 17, 2006|Tom Hundley | Chicago Tribune

LONDON — While most European nations fret about declining birthrates and shrinking populations, the British government last month announced a bit of good news: Britain's population has nosed past 60 million.

The historic high was achieved not because of the slight increase in the number of births over the previous year, or the marginal dip in the number of deaths, but rather because of people like Ania Kocinska and Gosia Cwiakala.

The two Polish women, who work as waitresses at an upmarket restaurant in the suburbs of London, are part of a rising tide of immigration to Britain from Eastern Europe.

These days, it sometimes seems as if half the waitresses, cleaners, cooks, car washers, bricklayers and truck drivers in Britain are from Poland. Or Slovakia. That's an exaggeration, of course, but according to Home Office figures, Britain has absorbed about 427,000 new workers from the eight former socialist countries that joined the European Union in 2004. More than half -- 264,560 -- are from Poland.

Counting dependents and others who did not register to work, including many who are self-employed, the true figure is closer to 600,000 new immigrants, officials say. Demographers are calling it the largest single influx of foreigners in Britain's history.

When the EU took in 10 new members two years ago, only Britain, Ireland and Sweden kept their doors open to workers from the east. Ireland, too, has received record numbers of immigrants; the flow to Sweden has been smaller.

Immigration remains a touchy subject across Europe, and with Romania and Bulgaria set to join the EU next year, alarms are starting to sound in Britain.

The Labor Party is listening to trade unions, which fear that cheap immigrant labor undercuts their membership's livelihoods, while the Conservatives are worried about losing votes to the anti-immigrant parties of the far right.

"Romanians Will Swamp Britain," one tabloid said in a front-page headline.

Open Europe, a conservative research institute, predicts that 450,000 Romanians and 170,000 Bulgarians will head for Britain within the first two years of EU membership.

But other analysts say those high estimates are as dubious as the government's lowball forecast of two years ago.

It does seem unlikely that Romania, with a population of 22.3 million, would produce nearly twice as many immigrants as Poland, with a population of 38.5 million.

Neil O'Brien, Open Europe's director, acknowledges that the numbers are "pretty shaky" and that there is no way to predict with certainty a person's likelihood of moving to a new country.

O'Brien says Open Europe's numbers are based on the relative income disparities between Britain and the East European countries. Romania, with a per capita gross domestic product about 40% lower than that of Poland, is thus forecast to generate nearly double the number of immigrants.

But other factors come into play. Poland has the EU's highest jobless rate -- 15.7%; Romania's rate is a healthy 6.2%. Historically, some national groups -- particularly Poles and Slovaks -- have a strong habit of migrating for work. Others, including Czechs and Hungarians, tend to be reluctant to move.

Hungary and neighboring Slovakia have similar economic profiles, but Slovakia, with about half as many people as Hungary, sent four times as many immigrants to Britain.

Language and the availability of low-cost air travel also influence immigration choices, said Danny Sriskandarajah, an analyst with the Institute for Public Policy Research, a London think tank.

Romanians applying for work permits in the EU already have signaled a strong preference for Italy and Spain, apparently because they find Romance languages easier to cope with than English.

At the same time, Ryanair and other low-cost carriers have paved the way between Britain and Poland with numerous cheap flights not only to Warsaw but also to secondary cities like Wroclaw, Lodz and Szczecin. Ryanair does not fly to Bucharest, Romania; or Sofia, Bulgaria.

The new arrivals from the EU are different from the waves of immigrants from South Asia and other parts of the former British Empire that came before them. It might not even be correct to call them immigrants.

John Eade, an immigration specialist at Roehampton University, describes what is happening as "circular migration" -- young, often well-educated Poles or Lithuanians see Britain as a place to work for a year or two, accumulate some savings, polish their English and then return home. Surveys indicate that more than half the new arrivals expect to stay no more than two years.

Kocinska and Cwiakala, the two Polish waitresses, are typical. They are both 25 and knew each other from school in Opole, a small city in southeastern Poland.

Kocinska, who has been working in Britain for more than a year, originally came on a three-month summer "holiday" to check out job opportunities. After finding work in a coffee shop, she decided to stay.

"It was a chance to earn in a week what I could earn in a month at home," said Kocinska, who has the equivalent of a college degree in physical education.

She persuaded Cwiakala to join her. They share a rented room in Cobham, an affluent London suburb.

Kocinska says the money she earns has allowed her to become financially independent of her parents. Cwiakala says she is happy to save for the future and also send money home to help her family.

Both Kocinska and Cwiakala say they expect to return to Poland in a year or two.

"I am Polish, not British," Cwiakala said.

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