Why ‘economic migrants’ really come here

The assumption that Eastern Europeans only come to the UK to work is wrong – many simply come here to live

by Andreja Mesaric

The lifting of work restrictions for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens in January once again sparked debate on Eastern European economic migration to the UK. But what does the term ‘economic migrant’ actually tell us about the lives of real people? Five Eastern European migrants spoke about their experiences of London.

It is widely believed Eastern European migrants come searching for work, if not welfare benefits, to escape poverty at home. Even people who have no objections to these new migrants often reflect this view by asking, upon meeting one, if they have come here to work. Many consider this polite chitchat, but this innocent question reveals a tacit understanding that foreigners, especially if they hail from Eastern Europe, have come here because they were drawn by the promise of jobs.

While finding work represents an important factor in many people’s decisions to move, it is far from being the only one. Economic poverty as a push factor should not be overestimated.

Alex, who moved to London from Serbia, acknowledged that the country’s political and economic situation encouraged his decision to leave, but added: “I would have come to London in any case, even if everything had been perfect [in Serbia].”

To put it plainly, many people who live in Britain did not come to find work. They came because they wanted to live here – and work is just something they need to do in order to make that happen.

Marzena quit her job in Poland to move to London: “I had a good job, well paid, but I decided to change something in my life. It was too boring, too narrow, living in Poland.”

Photo by Andrea Falletta

There are many migrants who come to London for the experience of living in a global city and the fringe benefits that come with it, like the opportunity to explore art galleries, club scenes and everything in between. Some come because they find the political or social climate they are living in too stifling and need a bit of a breather. Others simply want a bit of a change and think London might be a good place to start.

Egle came to London after living in Canada and Amsterdam. Explaining her decision to leave her native Lithuania, she said:

“One of the reasons is I really don’t like the mentality and after travelling a little bit you understand how bad, how unattractive the country is. It’s the cultural life and just a different atmosphere that attracts me and when I started travelling, I started realising how many fun things there are to do.”

Bojana, a dual Bulgarian and Serbian citizen, described her first encounter with London as love at first sight. She moved to the UK after two years working in Japan:

“There is something in the air, you feel a certain freedom that doesn’t exist in Serbia, doesn’t exist in Japan and I’ve never felt it anywhere else.”

Maja’s reasons for moving were certainly not tied to work, as she kept her previous role (as a freelance translator for Slovenian clients) after moving to the UK:

“I was bored, that’s the honest truth, I was bored. I was living in Ljubljana, I was independent, I had a job making good money, I didn’t have a boyfriend so I wasn’t tied down, and I thought why not, if not now then when?”

These stories highlight multiple reasons Eastern Europeans choose to come to the UK that are often lost in media discourse and the public imagination. Many people are attracted to London by the variety of lifestyles it enables, or by the very possibility of choosing a lifestyle of their own. And this is what makes so many people feel at home here. Marzena sums it up when talking about her new life:

“It’s much more colourful, you develop by meeting different people. I share a house with people of different nationalities. You share your life with someone who grew up in New Zealand or someone who grew up in Italy, and the difference in culture doesn’t stop us sharing our lives together, which is beautiful and that’s what London is about, isn’t it?”

Let us not forget that.


Related posts:

  1. A cap on economic migrants: what impact on London?

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