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The UK’s new Europeans: Progress and challenges five years after accession

The recent enlargement of the European Union (EU) has fundamentally changed migration patterns to the UK. Over the past five years, it has brought hundreds of thousands of new EU citizens into the UK’s society and labour market. The new migration poses distinctive new challenges for those who work to promote equality in the UK. An estimated 1.5 million workers have come to the UK from new EU member states since May 2004, and the number of eastern European nationals resident in the UK has increased to about 700,000. Not only have eastern Europeans made up about half of labour immigration in recent years; they also differ substantially from the UK’s previous immigrant groups. The catch-all term ‘eastern Europeans’ refers to a heterogeneous group of migrants who come to the UK for contrasting motivations and for varying time periods. On average, however, these individuals (and especially Polish people) are young and work for low wages in low skill jobs, even if they are highly educated (in other words they ‘downgrade’ and have a lower return on their education achievements than other migrant groups). Unlike other groups they work across the country in diverse and dispersed locations. EU freedom of movement has given recent migrants substantial flexibility, and this is reflected in their patterns of work and mobility. The new EU citizens’ migration strategies have often been distinctively informal. Many rely on recruitment agencies and strong social networks for employment, while often exhibiting ‘circular’ or ‘shuttling’ movement to and from the UK. Many come without knowing how long they will stay, while some move between the UK and their home country on a regular basis. A large proportion have found work in unskilled occupations, often in areas that have not typically attracted substantial immigration. The recent migration is still in flux, and we should expect continued change and fluctuation in its nature and volume; not least in response to the economic crisis.