LONDON — Nikolaj Prokop is typical of many East European immigrants who flooded into Britain in recent years. Lured by the prospect of better wages than he could earn at home in small-town Poland, the strapping 23-year-old moved to southeast England two years ago and found work with a construction company, helping build homes to meet the British housing boom.
Now, the boom has turned to a bust and the economy is in a slump. Britain's leaders say the country appears to be moving into a recession for the first time in 17 years.
Prokop, like many other economic migrants from Eastern Europe, is considering going home. In Britain as elsewhere in Western Europe, there are growing signs of a slowing — some suggest an outright reversal — of the biggest migration in Europe since World War II.
Work has slowed to a trickle for his employer in recent months, and much of the staff has been laid off. Many of his former co-workers — men in their 20s and 30s from Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic — have left for home or jobs in countries such as Sweden. Standing outside a Polish shop in London's Hammersmith neighborhood, Prokop said he's thinking about doing the same.
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"The pay here is more," he said. "But there are not so many jobs now. London is expensive and English money is not so strong in Poland as before."
Ania Heasley, who runs an employment agency for East European immigrants in London, has heard similar stories from her clients. She said that many young immigrants only intended to come for a few years of work in the first place, never intending to settle in Britain. But the economic situation and weaker pound are expediting their returns.
"They decided to cut their losses," she said.
The surge in migration began in 2004 after a cluster of new states in Eastern and Central Europe joined the European Union. That gave their citizens the right to work visa-free in other EU member states that had relaxed their immigration rules. Britain and Ireland, whose economies were roaring at the time, both opened their doors to new immigrants, many of whom jumped at the chance to earn more money.
Iceland, a European country that's not in the EU, also welcomed them to supplement its tiny population amid an economic boom. Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and others snapped up jobs doing construction, cleaning homes, driving trucks and processing fish.
Precise numbers are hard to come by, but some reckon that as many as 1 million Poles, the largest group of Eastern European immigrants, arrived in Britain. In London, the influx of immigrants has transformed areas such as Shepherd's Bush, Hammersmith and Ealing.
Roman Catholic churches, once dying out in Britain, are packed. Those that offer Polish-language masses are so full that people stand outside during the services, kneeling in unison with the congregation inside when they hear the bells. Immigrant children cram into Catholic schools and private "Saturday schools" — there are 86 such schools in Britain teaching Polish on weekends. An assortment of newspapers is published in London in Eastern European languages, including six papers in Polish.
Now, though, the signs of a shift in the immigrant population — more departures as well as a slowdown in new arrivals — are apparent.
"The number has dropped dramatically," said Wiktor Monzczynski, a spokesman for the Federation of Poles in Great Britain.
He reckons that there are 600,000 to 700,000 Poles in the country now. As many as 500,000 have registered for the government's national insurance plan in recent years, but others stay largely out of sight in the "grey economy" — paid under the table to avoid taxes. Lithuanians, Slovakians, Latvians and Czechs also have notable populations in Britain, but the Poles are by far the biggest Eastern European group here.
Monzczynski points to three key reasons why the number of existing economic migrants and new arrivals in Britain is shrinking.
First, the British pound, which was worth about seven Polish zlotys in 2004, has fallen to about five zlotys this year, meaning immigrant workers' pay buys less for them and their families back home.
Second, the British economy is slumping, meaning pay is stagnant and there are fewer jobs to be found. Similar downturns are affecting economic migrants in Ireland and Iceland.
Third, there are better opportunities for work in Poland and other countries than in years past. Qualified engineers, for instance, are a hot commodity in Poland now.
However, there are fears that Poland's economy may not be able to ride out the financial storm. In recent weeks, its stock market has fallen sharply and its currency is losing value.
Britain recently announced an effort to control immigration with a new points-based system for people from outside the EU that's scheduled to take effect by the end of the year. One goal of the program is to target workers whose skills are needed, without depriving Britons of jobs. While Monzczynski said many migrants have taken low-paying work that most locals don't want to do, he expects that tougher economic times will add to the pressure on his community.
"People are more frightened about their jobs," Monzczynski said, "and undoubtedly there will be more community tension."
(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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