The government blames migrants for most of society’s ills, saying they come to use the health service or undercut wages. Raymie Kiernan spoke to four people who have come to Britain to find out the real reasons why they live and work here.
‘For me, people come in search of a new life. There’s nothing to fear from that,” said Daniel, a Polish migrant who lives in Hammersmith, west London.
“It’s rubbish when people say migrants come here to take ‘our’ jobs. People should blame the employers for a lack of jobs not foreigners.”
Much of the recent anti-migrant propaganda is about workers from other parts of the European Union (EU) who have the legal right to travel and live anywhere in the union.
In the summer Ukip’s Nigel Farage tried to ramp up the tension. He said Britain could be swamped by 29 million people from Romania and Bulgaria when these countries get full EU membership next January.
It turned out that this would only be true if the entire population of both countries moved here. But it is part of a virulent rising tide of mainstream anti-migrant propaganda.
The Tories have used every opportunity to scapegoat migrants to divert attention from their own unpopularity and the austerity cuts making everyone’s life harder.
This month they are trying to ram through a vindictive new Immigration Bill. Despite what the likes of the Daily Mail might say, living a life on meagre state benefits is not what migrants look for in Britain.
“I had a good telecoms job in Poland that paid quite well, so I came to meet new people and for the experience while I was still young and before I settled,” said Daniel.
But Piotr, a Polish car mechanic who lives in Fulham, west London, had a different experience.
He found life very difficult in Poland because of low wages. “My brother was working here and told me about his life,” he said. “I came for a better standard of living.”
Ioana agreed. She and her husband moved from Romania, where rents were high and wages low because they “hoped for something better”. They live in East Ham, east London, and she works as a cleaner.
The truth is that many migrants move depending on what work is available. Often people return to their country of origin when work is available there to be close to family and friends.
Nacho is from Spain. High levels of unemployment there forced him to move in search of work. He said, “I’ve been living in Britain for five years on and off now. I’ve been back to Spain a few times to try find work.”
He currently lives in Birmingham and is a qualified Spanish teacher but in general he has only been able to get work in catering here.
He pointed out that while life in Spain is very hard, it has not always been easy living in Britain.
At the end of 2011 Nacho returned to Britain after another unsuccessful attempt to find work in Spain. “But, I couldn’t find any work when I came back to London. I had to sleep on the streets a lot,” he said.
“I went to Birmingham with the promise of a job but it didn’t work out so I was homeless again for a while before I got a job in a factory.
“I worked 40 hours a week on minimum wage—that is hard to survive on.”
Many migrants face exploitation and low wages as employers take advantage of their insecurity.
Ioana works for a large multinational firm. She works evening shifts, 40 hours a week. She says her bosses tried to divide and rule her colleagues—but they fought back.
She said: “It used to be minimum wage but we organised strikes and stood up for ourselves and now we have better wages.
“I didn’t know about unions at first. But without the union we wouldn’t be where we are now—we’ve achieved more respect for our jobs.”
Facing discrimination can be a daily part of life. Ioana described how she felt when she continually got rejected for jobs she knew she was best qualified for out of all the candidates.
She felt it was because she is from Romania.
Daniel confirmed this feeling and believes the impact of the economic crisis has made things worse.
He said: “Ten years ago when I first arrived it felt freer, like no one was watching you. But now with the lack of money there’s more suspicion of you.”
Nacho thinks “capitalism is to blame”. And he is wary of hearing right wing anti-migrant arguments in Britain. It sounds familiar to him. “The far right here, like the English Defence League, want to blame foreigners for the problems just like they do in Spain.
“The more unemployment has risen there since the crisis the more fear there is. Before the crisis the right wing would make these arguments about migrants taking jobs and that they were to blame for unemployment.
“But there are now fewer foreign workers in Spain because there are fewer jobs—but unemployment is even higher.”
The hypocrisy of anti-migrant arguments is not lost on people. Daniel says the politicians making anti-migrant arguments are “shallow thinking”.
“It’s rich to hear the British government making arguments about migrants coming and stealing things from the British considering their history in places like Africa,” he said.
Piotr makes a similar point. “British people go to live in other countries, should they be told they’re not allowed to go there? I live here and I work, I pay taxes. My life is here in Britain. I’m Polish. So what?”
Ioana agrees, “We are not animals—we are human beings. We come here to work and contribute, and benefit from things just like everyone else.”
The racist bile produced by the Tories and Ukip makes things worse. Ioana said, “People like Nigel Farage don’t know what our lives are like.”
She pointed out, “Romanians and Bulgarians are here building houses. They are keeping the environment clean. And they are nurses and doctors in the health service.”