No hiding place: the futile attempt to run away from the recession – Hard Times, Part 6
In 1854 Charles Dickens published his novel ‘Hard Times’. It held up a mirror to the social and economic concerns of its age. What would Dickens have discovered if had attempted to do the same today when, after a period of careless prosperity, the nation has once again fallen upon hard times? In a six-part series, Paul Vallely revisits some of Dickens’s themes – work, education, poverty, escapism, emotional health and migration. This week, he meets the expats who dreamed of a better life in New Zealand, Spain and France, while Poles flocked to the UK for work. Then the downturn hit and the migrants are heading home
“You must be got to Liverpool, and sent abroad.”
“I suppose I must. I can’t be more miserable anywhere,” whimpered the whelp, “than I have been here, ever since I can remember. That’s one thing.”
from Hard Times, by Charles Dickens
It had been a long day. But the journey home was what finished Sarah Bradford. The traffic was so bad it took her 20 minutes to drive just one mile to her home in the centre of Liverpool from the comprehensive where she taught English and RE. At 32 she had been almost a decade in the job. She entered the small three-bedroomed house she shared with her husband Dave. “That’s it,” she expostulated. “I think we should move.”
“Fine, where to?” replied Dave, who is a design engineer.
“Why don’t we emigrate.”
“Fine, whether to? New Zealand?”
And that was it. The decision was made. One year on they have just been granted a “skilled permanent visa” to emigrate.
There was more to it than just the traffic, of course. As there was for Sue Williams, a nurse and mother of two, in her forties, from Rugby who also began the lengthy emigration process on impulse.
“We’re rugby fans,” she says. “We go to all the internationals at Twickenham and Cardiff and we fancied going somewhere else too. So I was on the internet looking at the Rugby World Cup there in 2011 when a box popped up which asked: Have you thought about living and working in New Zealand?’” She hadn’t, but she began to, and discovered that nurses are one of the occupations the country welcomed. Twelve months on she has just lodged an emigration application.
With the clouds of recession dark overhead the thoughts of many Britons are turning to the idea of a better life elsewhere. The dream is of a better work-life balance, a lower cost of living, more affordable property prices, a gentler pace of life, a better climate and wide open spaces.
Last year Australia was, yet again, the top destination for emigrating Brits. Some 23,000 made the move. Next came the United States, with 14,500; then New Zealand with 10,500 and Canada with 8,000. Some 70 per cent moved “for a better lifestyle”, according to a survey by Emigrate magazine, while 18 per cent wanted to be somewhere they feel is safer for their children. The number of Britons heading Down Under has doubled in the past ten years.
There are always both pull and push factors involved in the decisions of those who emigrate. Sue’s husband, Tony, an IT manager, sums up the attractions. “It will be a less pressured place, with better weather, lower crime rates and more time to do family things and outdoor activities. We’re a sporty family. We dive, row, run, swim, dance. The outdoor life is a big pull factor.”
So it is for Sarah’s husband, Dave. “We’re not going to be any better off financially but it will be great to be somewhere where the outdoor life is more accessible. Here if we want to go walking or climbing or sailing we have to get up at 6am on a Saturday and rive to North Wales or the Lakes.”
But the push factors are decisive too, and it is these that recession exacerbates. “The current situation in the UK is a big factor,” says Tony Williams. “I am under huge pressure to keep 100 employees in work. It’s very stressful. For Sue disillusion with the NHS is a big factor. She’s worked there 26 years, is a qualified nurse prescriber and is halfway through a Masters degree but she is deeply undervalued. Then we look at the state of the employment and housing market and think how are our two boys, who are 18 and 13, going to find a job or ever afford anywhere to live.”
For the teacher, Sarah Bradford, the push factors are contemporary British values. “I don’t like the endless commercialisation of life here. I don’t like the WAG culture of conspicuous consumption. And there’s less of all that there.” For her husband Dave, the engineer, our perverted values are most in evidence in the workplace. “In my office you have to be seen to do 16 hours a day,” he complains. “Life is work, work, work, come home, have something to eat, do more work, go to bed knackered. I have worked in New Zealand for ten months on and off over the years. The people there are not lazy. They work hard but they keep it in perspective.”
Small wonder that they have all decided to take the advice of Jim Rogers – the man who, with George Soros, made billions betting against sterling when it was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday in 1992. Rogers earlier this year announced that Britannia, which once proudly ruled the waves, is now rapidly sinking beneath them. Sell the £, he counselled, and leave the country.
Emigration goes up in recessions, usually. The most recent peaks in net emigration – when more people left the country than entered it – were in 1974, 1981 and 1992, says Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, who recently made a study of the subject. Recessions affected all countries, but even so the overall flow of migration was out of Britain.
And yet, despite the example of Sarah Bradford and Sue Williams, it seems not to be happening this time. Why is this?
It is true that more people are talking about it. The Opportunity New Zealand Expo exhibition at the National Exhibition Centre in March sold 25 per cent more advanced tickets sales than in previous years. In normal times inquiries translate into action in about 5 per cent of individuals, says Andy Harwood, who runs visabureau.com, the UK’s biggest emigration agency which handles applications on behalf of the Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and US governments.
And, where they feel unconstrained by circumstances, they act. Applications to the charity Voluntary Service Overseas have more than doubled since last October and the nature of the inquiries reflects the private sector/public sector pattern of the recession. “Applicants from a business and financial background are up,” says VSO’s Catherine Raynor. “But we’re still struggling to find the number of teachers we need.”
But the numbers of people actually emigrating are down. Andy Harwood thinks he knows why. “In the past,” he says, “the way people thought was: I can sell my house in the UK, pay off the mortgage, and buy a house outright in New Zealand and have a lot of money to spare.” But that was when the currencies of popular British destinations like Australia, New Zealand and Canada were traditionally weaker than the pound.
“The fall in the exchange rate has changed that,” he says at his office in Fulham in London. “ Now people going out will probably have the same level of mortgage debt in New Zealand as they have here. Also people can’t sell their houses – or feel they have lost money on them and want to hang on until the price will goes back up. And people who have a job in the current climate want to hang on to it. Usually people feel more positive in the spring and summer, and inquiries go up, but they aren’t convinced they’ve seen the bottom yet.”
The world sees two kinds of migrants – those who leave home to earn more money and those who are in search of a different kind of life. “Brits going to Australia, New Zealand and Canada are looking for a better lifestyle not to make their fortune,” says Harwood. They are fed up of leaving home at 6am and getting back at 9pm and seeing more of the M25 than they do of their kids. For some the recession then becomes a spur. A few are even helped by it.
“It’s a very complicated business,” says Sarah Bradford. “There is a really detailed check on what you say in your application. You have to have a medical. There are criminal record and police checks. You even have to contact your old universities to get them to certify the content of the modules that you did. It all costs money and it all takes time, which is why it is worth paying a broker like Visabureau to do it.” She spent around £3,500 on the process before her visa came through. “You don’t just do this on a whim; it’s a real commitment.”
Then, after all that, she initially got a call to say that the 115 points her background earned her under the official application system was probably not going to be enough. The current threshold was 130. “There were tears,” she admits. “I’ve got a degree in Politics and English and an MA in Theology and that still wasn’t enough”. She began thinking about doing an Open University course to get the extra credits.
But fluctuations in the jobs market in New Zealand, along with the number of people applying to enter the country, changed things. A few weeks later she got a call to say that she and Dave had been accepted. “The recession had helped us. Because fewer people were applying the threshold had dropped to 115!”
Yet even the poorer financial picture at present does not put off the really dedicated. The Williams family, who are older – Sue is 44 and Tony 50 – have other things in their sights. “I’ll probably earn slightly less but the cost of living is lower so we’ll be slightly better off,” says Sue. “We should get £280,000 for our 3 bed house here in Rugby and we should get a three or four bed one for £200,000 in New Zealand. But it is the better prospects for our sons, and the gentler pace of life, we are going for.”
Their attitude is healthy. “One of the things we have to warn people about,” says Andy Harwood of Visabureau.com, is that they’ll often have to start again at the bottom of the ladder. They won’t get paid as much initially. A nurse or electrician will have to re-register and may have to pass exams which will take time and work on a lower wage till that happens. It’s important that people don’t go with false expectations about the work they’ll get, or their position or status.”
Tony Williams is sanguine about all that. “With the pressure of my job here,” he says, “a few steps back down the career ladder is itself quite attractive in its way.”
It was not the search for a cushier life that brought the great influx of Polish migrants to Britain over the past decade, in the final years of the boom before the great banking crash. It was the search for money.
The Poland they left had unemployment of 16 per cent, more than treble that of the UK at the time. And the exchange rate was such that every pound they sent home would buy four loaves of bread. Polish workers came to Britain in such numbers – an estimated 450,000 – that supermarkets opened Polish sections, the M6 had road signs in Polish and even that most xenophobic of British newspapers, The Sun, launched a Polish edition, though with somewhat less racy content.
But all that has changed. The fall in the exchange rate between sterling and the zloty is so great that a pound sent back to Poland now only buys a single loaf of bread. Polish plumbers and builders, like Jarek Djano, who over the past seven years has been much in demand by the residents of middle-class Twickenham, could once make a good living working a five-day week; now they are now having to work six or seven days.
Many of them have decided to go home. The number of migrants returning to the Eastern European part of the EU has doubled. Things have changed in Poland. The credit crunch has not had the same impact there because Polish banks did not lend to recklessly. (Half of all Europe’s entire credit card debt is owed by the British.) Poland is enjoying a construction boom as the country prepares to host the Euro 2012 football championships. It is spending billions of EU grants on stadiums, roads, rails and airports and tourist facilities. Builders are going back – building company profits are up two-thirds – and so are many hotel and catering staff .
Unemployment is down from 16 per cent to six per cent – two points lower than in Britain. Salaries in Poland have risen by up to 15 per cent in the last year. Companies in Poland are contacting Poles in the UK with offers of well-paid jobs. Local authorities in Poland are holding recruiting fairs in Britain to entice Poles home. Even the Polish army is sending a roadshow to London because it wants English-speaking recruits.
“In Poland the situation is much better and I can earn three times more than I could two years ago,” Ryszard Multan, 26, told a London newspaper two months ago, taking a break from his double shift in a Paddington restaurant. “That, combined with the exchange rate means it’s not worth staying.” He has now gone.
For some the journey to Britain is still attractive. Salaries are higher, even if they buy less if the money is sent back to Poland. New entrants were down 53,000 in the last three months for which there are official figures but 44,000 still came. But middle class Poles know that, though their salary back home may be 10-20 per cent less than their London wage, the lower cost of living will allow them to live in a flat four times bigger.
Even blue collar workers are returning to Poland in large numbers. Mirek Szubzda, 40, was a fork-lift truck driver in Harrow earning £625 a month, quadruple his pay in Poland. But he spent two years sharing a four-bedroom flat with six other Poles. When the recession started to bite in Britain just over a year ago he decided it was time to go home. Now working in a steel company to the north of Warsaw he is earning less but is much happier to be back with his wife and daughter. “Money,” he says, “cannot buy you everything.”
In Dubai the police have towed away 3000 abandoned cars in recent months, many of them from the airport carpark. They have been left there by expats who have been made redundant as recession has bit fiercely on one of the world’s richest states. With no prospect of finding another job in the Emirates despairing employees are walking away from their homes in the city, driving to the airport and abandoning their cars with keys in the ignition. The Poles are not the only people who are going home.
Builders are still at work on the Burj Dubai, which will be the world’s largest building when it is completed later this year. But work on virtually every other major building project has come to a standstill in the city which over the past decade had become one of the world’s leading financial centres. Cranes and lifting gear stand motionless across the city. The expensive new publicly-financed metro system is still under construction but the traffic jams it was designed to relieve have all but evaporated, even during the early-morning rush hour which once brought traffic to a standstill. Taxi drivers are making a quarter of what they used to earn and the price of luxury cars has fallen 40 per cent in the city’s glitzy showrooms.
Everywhere foreign workers – from top bankers, estate agents, aviation employees as well as many of the million Indian labourers in the United Arab Emirates of which Dubai is the main city – are losing their jobs. And under UAE visa regulations they are all forced to leave the country within three months if they are made redundant and cannot find another job, which is nigh-on impossible with the almost total shutdown of the finance and construction industries.
The Dubai dream has come to an abrupt awakening. Before the bank crash many expats enjoyed the kind of life they could only have imagined back home. It was a life in the sun, with tax-free salaries, attractive relocation packages, a cosmopolitan lifestyle, good schools and smart restaurants and hotels. Here secretaries from London could find themselves editing magazines and shopworkers from Mumbai ran real estate companies. It was a place where profit and work-life balance were not incompatible.
How it soured. Today most Dubai hotels are 60 per cent empty. Its business community is racked with stories of how leading companies are not paying their suppliers, with even small invoices for a few hundred pound going unpaid for months. Firms are slashing their employees salaries by 30 per cent and then making them sign “non disclosure” agreements to keep the fact from becoming public. Rents have been slashed by 25 per cent over a single month as many properties are just unable to sell.
One of the cars left in Dubai’s airport car park belonged to a New Zealander, Nicholas Down, 43, who only started work at a Dubai real estate company last year. The first villa he sold was in the city’s luxurious Palms development. The buyer paid 60 million dirhams (then worth £15 million) in cash. It took, Down says, three whole days to count.
But then the business all dried up. His bosses brought in Russian estate agents, who tried to entice potential buyers using prostitutes. When Down objected he was given a month’s notice. He, his wife and two children emptied their Dubai apartment and drove to the airport and got the plane home. At least he, when he got back to New Zealand, posted the car keys back to his employer.
Back in his home town of Hamilton on north island Nicholas Down went on unemployment benefit until he was able to find work. That is a phenomenon which is worrying the New Zealand government. And the same thing is happening in Australia where returning workers are up by almost a third as Aussie expats lose their high-paying jobs abroad and return home in search of firms which have weathered the global economic downturn better. Many have, and provide jobs. But rising numbers were being forced to join the employment queue.
All this will cause additional problems for Britons seeking to emigrate. So will the pressure the returnees are putting on the housing market, keeping prices firm.
New Zealand, like Australia, in a normal year sees huge numbers of its own young population head off each year to travel the world. “The Kiwi dream was: university in New Zealand, make your fortune in London, and then come home to an early retirement,” says the migration expert Professor Dorling. “New Zealand is six months ahead in its academic year which begins in February and it has seen a massive increase in numbers staying on at school or university. Others have flown to London for their gap year, found there are no jobs, and flown home again because Mum and Dad can’t fund their credit card for a year.” The number deciding to defer their travel is large, the country’s social development minister, Paula Bennett, said last month.
All this limits the space for potential immigrants from the UK and elsewhere. And competition for that space is increasing. For the first time in a generation, the citizens of Ireland are actively looking at living and working overseas. After 15 years of migrants returning to the Irish Republic the number of those leaving Ireland has, over the past 12 months, doubled compared with five years ago. The options for Britons looking for a better life elsewhere are narrowing.
Julian Urrutia is standing in the doorway of his shop in the little village of Eymet in rural France having a cigarette. Despite his Basque surname he is an Englishman and therefore not temperamentally disposed to flouting the rules about not smoking inside the premises. He is smoking a Marlboro Lite.
Eymet is a Bastide market town in the heart of the Dordogne. But it is also a little bit of England. A quarter of the population of Eymet – some 200 families – is British. The town has a cricket team, an English pub and once even had a fish and chip van. L’Epicerie Anglaise there sells HobNobs, Heinz Beans, Kellogg’s Cornflakes and a range of Twinings Teas.
It is an ambiguous phenomenon. The downside for the French is the feel of colonisation. The upside is that, as Julain Urrutia puts it, “the Brits have brought literally billions of pounds into this area, buying property, refurbishing and revitalising it”. Around 17 per cent of all the Britons who move to France for good, not to mention those with holiday homes, buy houses in the Dordogne region.
But the global economic downturn is ruining the expat lifestyle. Those on fixed incomes – such as pensions or interest from savings held in British banks – have seen their spending power reduced by a third in less than a year because of the fall in the value of the pound against the euro. Those relying on dividends from stocks and shares are even worse off. Those who commute to work in the UK each week or month have seen their costs rise and their income fall. The exchange rate which has sent so many Poles home is now threatening to do the same to the British.
“Everywhere you see people economising,” says Julian Urrutia. “They are turning their gardens into vegetable patches, not eating out, not having ice-cream or coffee at the end of a meal, not doing up their house or garden.” Those with local businesses, or who depend on renting out gîtes to tourists, are badly hit. “So are those French businesses which relied on Brits for a large percentage of their business. A year ago flights to Bergerac from UK were full but they are half-empty now.”
The locals are slashing their prices to win back business. But a reduction from €900 to €600 for a week’s rent in high season isn’t much of an inducement to holidaymakers paying in sterling; it just reduces the cost to what it was last year, before the pound fell in value. And everything else in France is still a third dearer to the tourist.
There are similar reductions, and more, in house prices. But the British buyers who previously drove prices up, have all but vanished. “You can buy a €400,000 house for half that price now,” says Deborah Brett, a director of Anglo-French Removals of Ashford in Kent. “Prices have halved all over France.”
Even so some British expats are being forced to sell at those reduced prices and move back to the UK. “A year ago our lorries were full going out to France with the occasional part-load coming back,” says Brett. “But for the past 12 months it has been almost entirely a one-way traffic with hardly anyone moving out to France.” Work almost completely dried up from October to the end of January. “It was a real struggle for those months. We’ve been sending out lorries completely empty to bring someone back”. The firm is bringing back around four families a week.
The fall in the pound – which dropped to a low of 97p for €1 at the end of last year – is only one factor. Another was President Sarkozy’s decision to change the law so that people couldn’t get medical cover if they hadn’t lived in France for five years. “Most of those returning are people who retired early and now find they just can’t live on their pensions. Some have sold up. Others are trying to rent out their homes, because no-one will buy them.”
Julian Urrutia almost gave up himself. He originally went out to France as a tree surgeon but two years ago opened a business in Eymet selling stone for flooring and patios. “The last six months of last year was shocking beyond belief,” he recalls. “So when I went back to the UK for a wedding and someone offered me a job I was tempted. But when I looked into it, with the amount it would cost to rent in Weybridge, I’d have had to be earning £60-70,000 to make it worthwhile. So I decided to hang on, and it was the right decision because business has picked up, perhaps just because it took two years for people to clock that I was here.”
In any case, the things that brought him to Eymet remain attractive. “It’s safe here for kids. And you know they’re not being stuffed full of the wrong values like they are in the UK. The houses are four or five times bigger than in Britain and they typically come with a hectare of garden. There are no traffic jams or speed cameras. Crime is low. People don’t live on debt; people only buy what they can afford and pay off their credit cards every month. There’s no status with cars, everybody drives the same three kinds. Unlike that…”
He pauses as a spotless Jaguar XJ purrs past his shopfront. It has English plates, but the suits hanging neatly in the back are as much of an identifier of its owner’s nationality.
Julian Urrutia is not the only one to be mildly more optimistic. “In the past few weeks business has begun to pick up again,” says Deborah Brett as Anglo-French Removals. “We’ve had quite a few phone calls from people wanting to move to France who have sold or rented their house in the UK and want to put their furniture in store and then go to France to hunt for a bargain. Our lorries are now fully booked for the whole of July. I think we might be through the worst now and things are getting better.”
They are not so sure about that in Spain. The Costa del Sol and its environs has been for a decade the favourite destination of Britons wanting to retire abroad. Around 380,000 Brits are registered with the Spanish authorities but the Foreign Office reckons there are double or treble that number there.
Many of them melt into the Spanish community in the picturesque villages in the hills that rise from the coast. Others can be found in expat havens like the British Society in Benalmadena, about half an hour’s drive down the coast from Malaga, where they can enjoy a Mama Mia Night with other Brits for €14, take part in a Classic Car Meet with Luxury BBQ for €15 or meet up for the regular Sunday Carvery Lunch. If they can afford it.
For economising is the menu al dia here too. “People are eating out a lot less,” says Barry Jenkins, 64, the society’s president. “They are shopping at Lidl and Aldi. They are putting spending on their house and garden.” They have been hit by the same double whammy as the Britons in Dordogne: low interest rates have wiped out their monthly income and the fall in the exchange rate has made things even worse. “People who were on pensions of €600 a year ago are living on just €400 a month now. And they don’t know exactly how much they will be getting from month to month, until the money drops into their account at whatever the exchange rate is that day.”
Some are throwing in the beach towel and retuning to the UK. “Over the last 12 months the vast majority of inquiries have been for people moving back,” says Julie Fitzgerald of the removal firm Ramsey Douglas which has operated between UK and Spain for 20 years. “Some of them were from people we’d moved out to Spain only within the last 12 months. Things are very tough here. The numbers going back have at least doubled.”
Most are hunkering down and holding on to what brought them in the first place. “I was standing one day at the French windows of my home in Burnley looking at the rain and wind sweeping across the moors and thinking: ‘What are we doing here?’” says Barry Jenkins, who now can see Africa from his bedroom window. “I’d rather be less well off in the sunshine than in the rain.”
But others disagree. “The sun is nice but it doesn’t pay your bills, that’s the bottom line,” says Richard Shears, who works in the devastated real estate sector on the Costa del Sol. After seven years in Spain he and his wife are now planning to return to London . The area once had one of Europe’s most flourishing property markets. It is desperately flat now, as is the region’s once booming construction industry. No new homes have been built for six months by any major developer.
Tourists are down, officially, by 16.3 per cent year on year, but many locals know it is far worse than that. Major hotels stood in ghostly silence for the first part of this year. Bars and restaurants are empty even though some of them are doing two meals for the price of one.
Those whose incomes have been ravaged have no way of making up the difference. “There is just no work to be had,” says Brian Mallinson, who left his self-employed work as a contract carpet cleaner in Harrogate last year to move to the hilltown of Cómpeta where he and his wife had two years earlier enjoyed a holiday idyll. “The area is full of English builders, plumbers, brickies, pool cleaners all desperate to find anything.”
But there is no work. Unemployment in Spain is 17 per cent – more than double the European average. Thanks to the collapse of he building industry that part of Andalucía accounts for almost 25 per cent of Spain’s four million people without a job.
Those unable to speak good Spanish, like many of the expats Brit, have even less chance of finding work. Which is why the British Embassy in Spain has posted on its website advice for those who want to return to Britain, many of whom need to re-apply for status as a UK resident. Many of them also need catch-up advice about everything from satellite television to supermarket cashback and where all the NHS dentists have gone.
Some of those who return are agreeably surprised. “The price of food is much better in the UK,” says pensioner Teresa White back in Devon after 12 years with her husband John, a retired policeman, in Frigiliana, the prettiest village in Andalucía according to the Spanish tourist authority. The pueblo blanco may sit high on a mountain ridge overlooking the sea with spectacular panoramic views but, Mrs White says: “There is much more choice in the shops in the UK. People are friendlier. I’m more comfortable here.”
Migration is not a subject which makes many people comfortable. Immigration is particularly controversial. It is, after all, what others do to us, whereas emigration is merely what we do to others.
All the statistics show that recession reduces immigration. “The most recent Department of Work and Pensions figures suggest immigration rates have declined since the onset of recession,” says the migration academic, Danny Dorling. But with immigration facts do not always matter. It provokes so many atavistic fears about the Other that perception becomes its own political reality.
Britain’s departing Poles speak with feeling about our nation’s growing resentment against foreign workers as the recession, and the anxiety of what it may yet bring, grips the national psyche. Wildcat strikes have pressurised employers to replace Polish workers with local men at a liquid gas site in Milford Haven and elsewhere. The victory of the far-right British National Party in the European elections is more evidence, as is the hounding of 100 Romanians from their homes in Northern Ireland in recent weeks.
Racism is on the rise in France, too, with the English there on the receiving end. “Ill-feeling towards the British, which wasn’t there before, is creeping in,” says Julian Urrutia in the Dordogne. “Here it’s always been French First; if an Englishman and a Frenchman are up for the same work you know who’ll get it.” But Urrutia, whose French is fluent, sees something more overt now. “It’s just the odd snide remark, in the market, or the hospital or a lot of mumbling about the English or road rage directed against a lorry I’ve just imported which still has English plates. It didn’t used to happen. But local people are feeling squeezed because of the recession.”
The mood has just got a lot worse in Spain in Brian Mallinson’s village of Cómpeta where a 49-year-old British roofer named Stephen Mallon, who has had a holiday home there for six years, was last month killed by falling, or being thrown, from a 15 feet high terrace in a bar-room brawl between English and Spaniards. The fight began when the dead man’s son began chatting up a local girl but the attack on Mr Mallon as he left the bar was by a 30-strong group armed with coshes, planks of wood and broken bottles and was said to have been rooted in anti-British feeling among some locals angry at the number of expat houses in the village.
Yet even setting aside such extreme responses, it is clear that across the world the recession is feeding a range of xenophobic reactions. “As unemployment rises governments will feel more pressure from unions, some politicians and others not to admit so many immigrants,” says Andy Harwood of Visabureau.com. “The Australian government has in recent weeks cut the numbers it is to admit.” It had already reduced the number of its desired professions from 82 to 52.
Looked at objectively immigration is less of an issue than we all believe, insists Professor Danny Dorling who recently reviewed migration statistics taking a longer view based on what happens in sets of individuals’ lifetime rather than on year-to-year shifts. “What you find is that big fluctuations tend to cancel each other out over time,” he says. “The key determinant is the birthrate. If it is low in a particular generation or cohort then migrants who come will tend to stay. But when the birthrate is high they tend to move on.”
There may be some wild cards this time. The decline of the financial sector in the UK could well mean that the overall population falls, though the immigrants who go will tend to be those the British do not regard as immigrants, the Americans and Western Europeans. And it is not yet clear what impact the rise and rise of English as the dominant world language might have. “But the overall lesson is that it is not worth worrying too much,” says Dorling. “Over the past 150 years birth rates, immigration and emigration have pretty much balanced themselves.”
That may be the lesson, but do not expect anyone in the febrile world of modern politics to learn it.
In the end what people are buying, when they uproot themselves to seek a better life elsewhere, is a dream. Sometimes, sadly, dreams become nightmares, which is what happened for Brian and Debbie Mallinson. “We had fallen in love with Cómpeta on holiday and decide to move there,” he recalls. “It took us two years to get it organised. We sold our house in Harrogate and put the money in a high interest account having decided we’d rent for a year till we got established.
“We went out with a couple of phone numbers of people who ran similar businesses to mine, and who had too much work on. But when we got to Spain and rang them one had returned to the UK for lack of work and the other didn’t have enough work to keep themselves going. We should have done more homework and set something definite up before we arrived,” he concludes as he takes a break from cleaning a hotel carpet back at his old business in Harrogate.
“We moved at the worst possible time,” adds Debbie. “The local economy just collapsed. Half the village were out of work. And the cost of living was astronomical. The only things that are really cheap there are cigs and booze but you can’t live on them. We were living off our savings. We got through about £20,000 before we decided to come back.”
The crunch came for no apparent reason. Brian just woke up early one morning and looked out from his balcony. “I just looked at this fantastic view and thought: ‘This isn’t going to work. It’s ridiculous.’” So they came home.
“It had been lovely to be there,” says Debbie wistfully. “We went out so excited and full of hope but it was a disaster. We didn’t foresee the recession. But for that it would have worked.”
Sue and Tony Williams are convinced that it still will work for them. “We’d be very disappointed now if they turned us down,” says the nurse from Rugby. “We’ve invested a lot of time and emotional energy.”
“But it wouldn’t be the end of the world,” adds her husband carefully. “We’d have a chat about it as a family. We’re very much glass-half-full people. If we hadn’t been we wouldn’t have gone for it.
“If we don’t like it? We haven’t really thought about that. We can always come back. At least we’d have had the opportunity to try it.”
Men in exile feed on dreams of hope, Aeschylus famously said. But so, it seems, do the rest of us. Recession just makes both dreams and hope more necessary.