London Calling: Why The UK Capital Lures Ever More Migrants

London calling: Why the UK capital lures ever more migrants

By Michael Skapinker (Financial
Published: September 30 2007 19:51

Pascal Boris has left London for Geneva after 15 fantastic years. During that time, the Frenchman, who until recently headed BNP Paribas UK operation, became an enthusiastic Londoner. The locals may complain about the traffic, trains and house prices; Mr Boris, who is now running the Swiss arm of the French investment bank, has nothing but praise for the capital. London has the vibrancy of New York but the culture of Europe. Its a unique combination, he says.

Mr Boris chaired the French Chamber of Commerce in Britain and co-founded the Cercle doutre-Manche, a think-tank made up of French residents in the UK who describe themselves as culturally French and economically British. Writing in the Financial Times in January, Mr Boris and Arnaud Vaissie, the think-tanks other founder, exhorted their compatriots across the Channel to learn from the UKs openness. Britains acceptance of the world as it is means seeing globalisation as an opportunity, they wrote.

Mr Boriss 2,800 London employees comprised 71 nationalities from 97 countries of birth. His departure does not change that: his replacement, Ludovic de Montille, is a Frenchman who previously worked in Paris.

Alexandra Bednrska has no plans to go anywhere yet. A Londoner of 19 months standing, the 30-year-old Pole wears a T-shirt declaring her to be a trainee barista. Pausing to serve customers in a coffee bar on the citys South Bank, Ms Bednrska says she came to London in search of a better job. She graduated in economics at a college in Torun, close to her home town of Aleksandrow in northern Poland, but struggled to find work there afterwards. The only job she could get was as a hospital receptionist.

London, she thinks, is different full of opportunities. She does not plan to stand in front of a hissing coffee machine forever. When her English improves, she will move on to something else. Like what? I dont know yet. Im still looking. Does she plan to go home eventually? She is unsure. My country is good but when I get back to my town I think I might find it too small.

Gross international migration

London has long had its immigrants: Huguenots in the late 17th century, Russian Jews 200 years later; West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the decades after the second world war. But the city has never seen an influx of the sort it has experienced in the last 20 years. The impact of the new immigrants is set to define the city and its business culture for generations to come.

Until the early 1980s, Londons population was in decline. Boosted by immigration, it is now growing by about 50,000 a year, according to a recent report, The impact of recent immigration on the London economy, published by the City of London and produced by the London School of Economics. Although only 12 per cent of the UKs population lives in London, almost 40 per cent of immigrants to the UK start off in the city.

The study of British immigration is not an exact science. Figures are disputed and imprecise, a mixture of international passenger surveys, Home Office asylum statistics and the national census. But what is beyond argument is that the rise in Londons immigrant population has been dramatic. In 1986, London had an estimated 1.2m foreign-born residents, making up 17.6 per cent of its population. By last year, the number had risen to 2.2m, or 30.5 per cent of the total.

But the change goes beyond numbers. The LSE report, published in July, points to the truly novel feature of the recent wave of migration. Previous immigrants to London tended to come from a handful of countries, most with historical ties to the UK. The new generation of immigrants comes from every corner of the earth. In 1986, just six countries, all with long ties to the UK, accounted for most of Londons migrants: Ireland, India, Kenya, Jamaica, Cyprus and Bangladesh. By 2006, another nine had been added to the list: Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Ghana, South Africa, Pakistan and the US but also Poland, Somalia and Turkey.

Previous generations of immigrants came for varying reasons: the Huguenots and Jews were escaping persecution, the West Indians and those from the Indian subcontinent came in search of economic opportunity. Exiled government leaders and dissidents have long found London a congenial place to plot their return home. The immigrants of the last 20 years have moved to London for the same reasons. The difference is that, instead of coming in successive waves, they have all arrived together.

As the LSE report puts it: The city has long experience of playing host to cultural elites (or cultural servants of the elite), to refugees and would-be revolutionaries, to upwardly mobile people seeking an introduction to the world of affairs, and to larger numbers looking simply for work. What is novel about the present situation seems principally to be the coincidence of each of these kinds of flow, operating on a much larger scale, and from more countries of origin, than London has ever experienced before.

Not all the immigrants come with the intention of staying. There is a divide among the UKs new arrivals. Many of those from richer countries, such as the US, France, Australia and New Zealand, leave eventually. Those from poorer countries, including the new members of the European Union, tend to stay. The departing Mr Boris and the settled Ms Bednrska are typical.

Employment status of London migrants

Migrants behaviour does vary: some Poles go home. Indeed, Krzysztof Trepczynski, minister-counsellor at the Polish embassy in London, argued this year that many do. But there is a stark difference between the flows of migrants from wealthy countries and those from elsewhere. In 2005, about 25,000 Americans arrived in the UK, but 27,000 left. There was an even bigger net outflow of citizens of the EU 15 the member states before the accession of the formerly Communist countries: 95,000 arrived and 114,000 left. In the same year, around 57,000 Australians and New Zealanders arrived and 82,000 left.

Overall, there was a net outflow of 52,000 from the rich countries and a net inflow of 237,000 from the poorer ones. The pattern for London, which accounts for such a large proportion of the UKs immigration, is unlikely to have been much different.

Michael Snyder, chairman of the City of Londons policy and resources committee, argues that the departure of wealthier migrants is to be expected. Many of them work for financial services groups. Their companies move them to the City and transfer them when their time is up. They are already part of international organisations and therefore its natural that they go back to their own countries, Mr Snyder says. Those from poorer countries, by contrast, come from situations that are not particularly comfortable. They can make a good living here because we are a welcoming metropolis.

Not all the immigrants from wealthy countries work in finance, of course. But the difference between those from richer and poorer countries is that the former often have attractive jobs and lifestyles waiting for them back home.

Does it matter that the majority of the migrants who leave are from richer countries while those who stay tend to be from poorer ones? What does that do to the make-up of Londons population? Tony Travers, director of the LSEs London department and one of the authors of the report, warns against regarding immigrants from poorer countries as a drain on the city. Overwhelmingly, people who move to Britain do so in order to work. Even if theyre poor people, it doesnt mean theyre not working.

Strikingly, the LSE report says that those from poorer countries are better educated than Londons native population and are often, like Ms Bednrska, overqualified for the jobs they accept. Although these may be more highly paid than the posts they leave behind at home, the question both for their own future and for the future shape of the London economy will be to what extent they succeed in moving on to better jobs in the UK and building a career. That in turn will influence how long they, particularly some of the eastern Europeans, will stay.

Those migrants working in more poorly paid jobs do have an impact on local people. The report found that the arrival of the immigrants appeared to depress wages for lower-level jobs, although their presence did not reduce overall employment another pointer to how the capitals labour market might develop.

Moreover, in areas of east London, competition for housing and resources has led to tension between immigrants and locals. While people such as Mr Snyder and Mr Travers argue that the overall effect of immigration on Londons vibrancy and international competitiveness has been positive, there have undoubtedly been strains. In May, Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking in east London (herself born in Egypt), caused a storm when she questioned whether economic migrants should receive housing ahead of families who had been living in the area for generations.

Why has the huge influx of people into London happened? To domestic critics of British immigration policy, the answer is obvious: a lack of border controls and the failure to deport those who have no right to be in the country. Government policy can make a difference. A tougher approach towards asylum seekers has seen the number of applicants fall to 23,610 last year from a peak of 84,130 in 2002, according to Home Office figures, although asylum numbers are also down for the EU as a whole.

In the US, a more restrictive approach after the attacks of September 11 2001 has led to a slowing of migration to New York but the inflow has not stopped. Indeed, the LSE report says the combination of Londons increased immigration and New Yorks slower influx means they are probably experiencing the same level of arrivals.

The movement of people is a worldwide phenomenon and probably greater than any government can control. It is the result of the increase in global economic ties, cheaper flights and better communication links. Migration, while still requiring considerable personal tenacity, is no longer the all-or-nothing risk it was.

Once, those leaving their countries feared they were seeing their families for the last time. Today, they can talk to, and see each other, on Skype and fly home for reunions. United Nations figures show that between 1980 and 2000 the number of people worldwide living outside their home countries almost doubled from 96m to 174m.

Cities such as London open, cosmopolitan and economically diverse are particular magnets. Mr Travers says the arrival of large number of migrants in London is something to do with Britains economic growth, something to do with [the use of] English.

He adds: None of this was planned, really. The answer to how it happened it still a mystery in many ways. But it has happened. Politicians find themselves dealing with the consequences, some good and some difficult especially managing public opinion.

As those migrants who stay put down roots and produce London-born children, what new shape will they give to the city? No one really knows. But Mr Travers argues that the cities that have been and continue to be magnets for immigrants London, New York, Toronto are hardly basket cases. Is there any evidence that these cities dont work well? Theyre seen as admirable places by everyone in the world. Im more optimistic than the prophets of doom.