Saturday, January 14, 2006


A tide of new immigrants is sweeping England, to the applause of some and concern of others that the country’s demographic makeup is changing.

The newcomers are mainly from ex-communist Eastern and Central Europe, and often arrive in teams of skilled workers carrying their own tools.

Some stay a short time, completing plumbing contacts and head home with a handful of hard cash to countries still coping with painful adjustments 15 years after the end of communism.

Others remain, usually encouraged by the authorities and the supportive press. However, by staying, they create added problems including housing shortages, crowded classrooms, and neighborhood enclaves of foreign food and atmosphere in parts of British cities.

The London Daily Telegraph described the situation as “a challenge we have never faced before,” and apparently becoming a major political issue.

“The number of immigrants arriving in Britain outstrips previous emigrations by a large margin greater than any in our history,” said a recent a government statement.

Official figures show an inflow of 223,000 immigrants — temporary and permanent in 2003 — 72,000 more than during the preceding year. Incomplete statistics for 2005 indicate an even greater influx, which some compare to “a tidal wave.”

When the Labor Party took office in 1997, net immigration was about 50,000 a year.

Opponents of the “tidal wave” point out that Britain is one of only three European Union countries that allow unlimited immigration from eight formerly communist EU countries. The other two are Sweden and Ireland.

Cheap, skilled labor

Some of those who came in previous immigrations succeeded in blending into British society but most of the newcomers remain on its margins, often blamed for racial disturbances and growing crime.

The new arrivals are mostly Christians, indistinguishable racially from the natives and offering Britain skills that have became expensive and hard to obtain.

Poles lead the influx with a majority of EU immigrants. They now comprise a community of more than 100,000 residents, in addition to those whose parents remained in England when Polish forces under British command were demobilized here after World War II.

Most of them are plumbers, electricians, construction workers and carpenters who are willing to accept lower pay than native workers, provoking union complaints that their presence in Britain is pushing wages down.

In general, Polish job seekers are willing to accept any job in order to learn the English language and British ways. There are also professionals with rarer special skills — 300 physicians, 125 dentists, 10 circus performers and 35 musicians.

“My barber is a Pole, just as is my cleaner, cleaning woman and dentist. They are taking over the country,” quipped a young naval officer, showing mock concern.

Government unconcerned

The government appears unconcerned by the new influx and apparently welcomes it, because 600,000 more immigrant worker will be needed to keep the British economy on an even keel. British unemployment is one of the lowest in Europe: 4.7 percent.

Thus, in an unusual turn of affairs, the British Embassy in Warsaw has begun delivering brochures about work prospects in England at Polish unemployment centers.

Even more unusual was a recent ad in some Polish newspapers and on the Internet, seeking Polish Muslims to work as butchers for Islamic “halal” slaughterhouses in England — the equivalent of kosher Jewish butcher shops.

The pay is the equivalent of $12 an hour, and the work week can be 60 hours. At halal meat stores, the candidates must be “Muslims who respect the principles and religious practices of Islam, including five daily prayers.”

Ninety-five percent of the people in Poland are Roman Catholics. The newspaper ad was aimed at an estimated 20,000 Polish Muslims — many of them descendants of Tatars who arrived in Poland centuries ago, mainly in the northeastern part of the country.

Statistics for 2005 are still incomplete, but in 2004 the number of immigrants to Britain from other EU countries was 97,000, compared to 30,000 from the former British colonies of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. After the Poles, the most numerous European arrivals were Lithuanians, Slovaks, Latvians, Czechs and Hungarians.

London is popular

As with previous “post-colonial” immigrants, many of the newcomers tend to remain in London and vicinity. British press has been reporting that one in four inhabitants of London was born abroad.

A reporter for a popular tabloid wrote that in some areas of London, “Polish is heard on the streets almost as frequently as English.”

In such enclaves, shops selling Polish “kabanos” sausages and “pierogi” dumplings are proliferating.

Ryszard Wolski, a Polish entrepreneur, says he distributes 26,000 bottle of Polish beer every week in London as well as 10,000 takeout lunches consisting mostly of sausage and cabbage.

According to Jan Mokrzycki, chairman of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, the 12 Polish-language Catholic churches in London are filled to overflowing on Sundays. There are also long waiting lists for entry to Polish kindergartens and Sunday schools he said.

Eastern ‘brain drain’

Some Poles are concerned about a “brain drain” from the increasing departure of skilled workers from Poland and other East European countries.

“Eastern Europe is being stripped of talent before it has managed to adjust to capitalism,” said Maja Parket, a Polish counselor on emotional problems of immigrants from Poland and other former communist countries. As time goes by, the magnet of England’s hospitality is likely to grow.

In a somewhat unusual aside, the mass-circulation Daily Mail newspaper recently opined that the “Poles are terrific people, and foreign workers tend to work harder than — for example — Scots.”

Meanwhile, however, the brain drain affecting some East European countries is growing. According to the Polish National Medical Chamber, about three percent of some 100,000 doctors practicing in Poland are open to the idea of leaving the country. In some specialties, such as radiology, anesthesiology and pathology, the number is expected around 15 percent.

With its population growth due mainly to immigration, Britain is bracing itself to absorb 7 million more newcomers, bringing its population to a total of 67 million by 2031, and adding more pressure on expenses for public services and pensions.

The question asked by press organizations and politicians is whether the growth of the population due mainly to the foreign work force can continue without irrevocably changing Britain.

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