Razvan Ungureanu’s family opened a convenience store in an unused optician in Preston, northern England, two years ago to accommodate the growing population in his home country, Romania.
However, they close Everyday Essentials next month.
The 23-year-old said “no profit.” “Everyone is afraid of Covid and Brexit. They are going home.”
The epidemic, post-Brexit uncertainty, and the relative weakening of the pound make the country that pays in euros more attractive as more and more EU immigrants do not remain in the UK.
A lot of people have already left, and if Covid-19 travel restrictions are lifted, more people are expected to follow. The impact this will have on cities and towns like Preston will not be known until the economy is open and a declining population, especially a potential labor shortage, is felt.
The Oxford University Migration Observatory estimated that the UK’s foreign-born population fell from 1 million to 8.3 million in the first three quarters of 2020. About 481,000 of those leaving were born in the EU, which reversed the influx that began in 2004. The EU-born population in the UK is currently around 3.1 million.
However, director Madeleine Sumption warned that there is “absolutely huge uncertainty” about immigration because the UK did not generate reliable statistics and the epidemic has made statistics much less accurate.
The UK, Sweden, and Ireland are the only EU countries to allow immediate free movement in the 10 new member states (mostly poor countries in Central and Eastern Europe) that joined in 2004.
Millions of Poles, Latvians, Slovaks and others have moved to earn better wages, followed by Bulgarians and Romanians who have been given the freedom to work in the UK since 2014. The impact on former industrial cities like Preston has been great. Of the 140,000 population, about 5,000 were born in the EU, the observatory said.
The Catholic Church on the verge of closure took over a new young congregation and a Polish priest. The school roll swells. Factories, warehouses, and farms have motivated and hard-worked workers to increase productivity. New pubs, takeaways, and shops have opened.
The process is now reversed.
Sashu Ivanov:’I want to go back to Bulgaria’ © Jon Super/FT
26-year-old Sashu Ivanov is one of those heading home from Preston after spending a year packing salads for supermarkets in the UK. “This coronavirus is bad. I want to go back to Bulgaria.
“My family is not here. I want to be with them when I get sick,” he said.
Agnieszka Bleka, who owns a workforce consultant in a city looking for jobs for Eastern Europeans, said the number of immigrants fell significantly in 2019, when Brexit uncertainty peaked, and the churn continued last year.
Agnieszka Bleka:’People didn’t know what was going to happen. They were scared’ © Jon Super/FT
“People didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said. “They were scared.”
Ungureanu, the owner of the store, said it will remain now. He will help Romania’s brother-in-law, Marian Turcu, in a cleaning business contracted with a homebuilder to prepare real estate for new residents.
Marian Turcu:’England is great’ © Jon Super/FT
“I have always been looking for a better job and now I have a family business. Britain is great,” said Turcu, who arrived in 2014. “If you do well and qualify, companies will work together.”
Migrants who settled in this way want to stay more, Sumption said. By 2019, more than half of EU citizens have lived in the UK for at least 10 years.
Marcin Poltorak is one. He came to Preston from southern Poland in 2004 and now works as a security guard and doorman. His eldest son is attending a city college.
Marcin Poltorak:’Most Polish people have a stable job and family. They don’t want to go back. ‘© Jon Super/FT
“Most Polish people have stable jobs and families. They don’t want to go back,” he said.
EU immigrants from the UK could gain a settled status after Brexit, which took effect on December 31, 2020, said Paul Thorak.
He said there have been attacks on EU-born families and property since the 2016 EU referendum in and around Preston.
Anger at the immigrants who changed the composition of the old community was the cause of the Brexit vote. In Boston, Lincolnshire, where a fifth of the population is from the EU, 76% voted to leave the EU.
Poltorak runs Polskie Info Lancashire, a Facebook group for Poles in the county where Preston belongs. According to a snap poll that he gave to the Financial Times with 250 responses, 9% of respondents said they went home or are considering doing so.
Paul Swinney, chief economist at the Cities think tank center, said those who leave could return if the economy recovers from the epidemic.
“If the migrants don’t come, there could be two consequences,” he said. “As labor competition intensifies, wages can rise. Or, companies can invest in machinery to reduce their labor.”
Companies built around the immigrant community are most affected. There are six Eastern European shops on New Hall Lane, a messy road next to Preston Prison, and kebab takeaways are also advertised in Polish.
But apartments above the store and terraced houses on the neighboring streets are still in high demand, said Monika Michalska of MJ Properties, who works for local and London-based homeowners.
Monica Michalska: ’20 people have come from London since the first blockade’ © Jon Super/FT
“After the first blockade, 20 people have come from London,” she said. “There are jobs in bars and hotels that are out of business. Here we are working in factories and warehouses.”
But she added that the epidemic is making it difficult to judge long-term trends.
Recruiter Bleka is preparing for change. She said she would probably hire Romanians to target the community. Along with companies fearing a lack of staff, she planned to recruit staff from a UK agency. “They expect 2.5 million unemployed people by mid-year,” she said.
“When you get a strong recovery, your company needs employees. If people want to work, there are enough people to fill that vacancy.”
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