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Britain's allure fades amid downturn

Polish migrants return home in ailing economy

By Henry Chu
Los Angeles Times / April 5, 2009
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LONDON - For targeting your audience, you can't beat the billboard at one of London's airports welcoming freshly arrived Poles with an offer of a bank account designed just for them.

But for placement, the ad by Natwest Bank doesn't score as high.

These days, it might reach more Poles if it were in the departures lounge.

For most of the last five years, Britain shone like a beacon for the people of Eastern Europe, a land bursting with opportunities for anyone with marketable skills or simply a willingness to work hard.

Newly allowed to live and work in other countries of the European Union, as many as 1 million Easterners fetched up on these shores - the largest, most concentrated wave of immigration Britain has ever recorded.

Most of the newcomers were Poles, and although the "Polish plumber" and the "Polish builder" became almost instant icons in the popular imagination, the migrants fanned out throughout society, landing jobs in shops, hospitals, information technology companies, investment banks, restaurants, pubs, painting businesses and the like.

But now that Britain has fallen headlong into recession and the pound has plunged in value, some of the Eastern Europeans who came in search of better prospects have started heading for the exits.

At the same time, the number of new arrivals has dropped drastically amid forecasts that Poland's economy will outperform Britain's this year. Some Polish employers and towns and even the Polish Army have launched campaigns to lure home their compatriots.

"There are more going back than coming in," said Jan Mokrzycki, who heads the Federation of Poles in Great Britain.

The organization has been around since 1946, but its scope and profile increased dramatically after Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and Britain became one of three EU countries, along with Ireland and Sweden, to throw open its doors to Polish workers right away.

The federation's online "survival guide" to life in Britain is now in its fourth edition.

The Polish language is now heard everywhere: on buses, on sidewalks, and in establishments that were once known for hiring backpackers and other young people from English-speaking countries of the British Commonwealth looking for temp jobs.

"In London, you used to go into a pub and you were likely to be served by an Australian. Now it's a Pole," said Tim Finch, the head of migration-related projects at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

That may be less likely these days. Last year, 165,000 Eastern Europeans - most of them Poles - registered to work in Britain, a 24 percent drop from the 218,000 new arrivals the year before.

More tellingly, the number of migrants during the last quarter of 2008, when the British economy already had entered full-blown recession, was down 47 percent from the same period in 2007.

"There are still economic opportunities if you want to look for them," Finch said, but "the consensus is the trend that's already started [will] continue, that you'll see fewer people registering, fewer people coming in general."

Those who do make the move will find a different world from the one Piotr Maslak encountered as a member of the leading edge of Eastern Europeans who came here in 2004.

"I came on 19 March, and 20 March I started a job," said Maslak, 30.