Focus: Flood into Britain? Not when jobs are expanding in our own countries

The new Europeans: The potential incomers
Click to follow
Indy Politics

There is little evidence that the picturesquesquares of the Czech capital, Prague, will echo to the sounds of a rush to claim British benefits or jobs after it and seven other post-communist countries join the EU on 1 May.

Jana Maserosova, 30, who spent a year in Britain 10 years ago as part of her university languagestudies, believes very few Czechs will seek jobs abroad. She said those that do "certainly aren't going with the intention of claiming benefits. They may work in Britain or another country for several years but they eventually return [home]."

Maserosova, who works as atranslator, subsidised her stay by working as an au pair in London. She was surprised at how little British people knew about Central and Eastern Europe. "People asked me whether we had electricity in my country and some even asked whether we ate with our hands or used cutlery," she said. "I had hoped that people would have learned more but many are still ignorant."

Pavel Sidlo, a 26-year-old sound technician for television and radio, also said he knew of few people who wanted to go elsewhere for a job. "British people should not be scared that they are going to be invaded by East Europeans," he said. "People from the Czech Republic, especially from areas where there is high unemployment, will be looking for jobs but they will not be going for benefits." Surveys show that Czechs are notoriously reluctant to leave the towns where they were born to seek work elsewhere in their own country, let alone abroad. Michal Meduna from the Czech Labour and Social Affairs Ministry said: "Czechs do not travel abroad to work permanently. They stay one or two years, return and make use of the experience they gain."

Lucie Kubeskova, a marketing coordinator, said: "During communist times I used to dream of living abroad. But since 1990 we have been able to travel freely and have seen many improvements in our country so the desire to move has diminished." She is disappointed that promises of free movement of labour within an enlarged EU have been replaced by fresh travel barriers. "Many East Europeans feel we are being treated like second-class citizens," she said.

Kubeskova said: "We have a lot of people who are very skilled. If they are trying to get jobs in other EU countries they will contribute enormously."

Michal Weiss, 28, a computer technology specialist, said none of his friends wants to leave the Czech Republic but people might come from poorer countries such as Poland and Slovakia seeking unskilled work. "The idea that they will travel all that way to get welfare is ridiculous," he said. However, like many, Weiss thinks the exception could be Roma people. Most live in such desperate economic circumstances that some will inevitably try to improve their lot, he said.

Alice Matejkova, 32, works as a travel agent and has travelled widely. She understands British concerns about a mass influx of East Europeans but thinks they are founded on ignorance. Matejkova said: "We like our country. Very few Czechs will want to live permanently in Britain. On the contrary, joining the EU brings dangers for us. Our culture may be overwhelmed by other EU countries."

The assimilated: Vegetable picker who put down his roots here

By Harvey McGavin, West Midlands

Six years ago Slawek Manzel was a vegetable picker on a Midlands farm, newly arrived in Britain on a short-stay visa. His intention was to go back home after he'd improved his English and earned some cash.

Today, he runs his own business, earns good money and, when Poland becomes a full member of the EU, will swap his business visa for permanent residency papers. He's even picked up a Birmingham accent in which to speak his excellent English. As economic migrants go, his story is no different to the hundreds of thousands of Britons who have gone abroad to make a living.

Life wasn't so easy when he first arrived. "I started working on a farm, picking onions and beans," he recalls. "It was terrible." Manzel earned £150 for a 50-hour week and lived with "a couple of people I knew from Poland". After two months he quit and found work in a warehouse, preparing and packing vegetables for supermarkets. He soon became team leader and started studying for an NVQ in warehousing. He realised then that "probably there were more opportunities here than in Poland".

Evening classes improved his English, and Manzel decided to go it alone and set himself up in business as a courier delivering computer equipment. After three years he was offered the chance to train as a technician, installing the equipment he was delivering. Today he works as a contractor for major IT companies such as Hewlett Packard and Xerox. He has renewed his visa twice "without any problem" and is intending to apply for permanent resident status as soon as he is eligible. He's still working the same number of hours each week as he did when he was picking vegetables, but now his earnings are twice or - on a good week - three times as high.

"I can't say I'll move anywhere in the near future. You don't know what's going to happen. I came here for three months, and six years later I'm still here."

The outcasts: Dover's Roma wait for the knock on the door

By Zuzana Janeckova, Dover

A small Roma woman in her fifties stood at the door of a terraced house in Dover, Kent. It wasn't until she heard me speaking Czech that she smiled. "Ah, a fellow countryman," she said, pulling me inside. The living room was overheated, with colourful pictures of Catholic saints all over the walls. On the mantelpiece was a collection of porcelain figures and three photographs. They were of the children, who were now watching the Czech version of The Simpsons.

It is four years since Aranka Minova, her husband, and their daughter Beata, eight, left Bohemia and followed their eldest son, who had come to Britain in 1997. In their region unemployment was high, and, if you are Roma, not having a job was almost unavoidable. The family is, according to a stream of excitable newspaper stories, the advance guard of a Roma invasion set to hit Britain. No one knows how many will come, and the pedlars of scare stories are free to pluck numbers from the air. And they do, telling howthousands will invade our shores.

When the family came here it was different. They arrived as asylum-seekers, claiming racial persecution. For them, it worked, but in 2002 the Government declared the Czech Republic a "racist-free zone", and the number of successful applications plummeted. Social benefits are low. A single mother with a disabled child, seeking asylum, receives £100 a week and free accommodation. Minovaknows that even if she is allowed to stay, she will have to change her lifestyle dramatically.

Such an amnesty will probably mean that benefits will end unless a claimant can point to a period of employment. However many Roma arrive, a good few will be making their way back.