Page last updated at 11:16 GMT, Tuesday, 29 May 2007 12:16 UK

Migrants' road to UK integration

Gintaras Parutis
Gintaras Parutis believes language is the key to good relations

One in four Eastern European migrants in the UK spends no time with British people, according to a new report.

But what do immigrants themselves think are the barriers to integration?

When Gintaras Parutis first came to London from Lithuania, he admits he did not fit in easily at first.

With scant English and little opportunity to socialise, his first months in the UK capital were lonely.

'Express myself'

But the 28-year-old waiter now says this experience convinced him that he needed to learn to converse with his neighbours and play a full part in British life.

"To begin with I was quite depressed," he says six years on, fluently. "But I felt that if I were to have gone home I would have failed.

Laura Dzelzyte
When we can speak to each other, we realise we are all the same underneath
Laura Dzelzyte

"The language barrier was the biggest difficulty, and after two years I started to get more confident about being able to express myself.

"And although I'd like to go back eventually, I feel that I'm welcome here - I have plenty of English friends and definitely feel that I'm integrated."

Gintaras's experience is echoed by a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study into East European immigration and community cohesion, based around interviews with migrants in Brighton and Hove and the London boroughs of Hackney and Harrow.

It found only 35% of recent arrivals said they felt "very strongly" or "fairly strongly" a sense of belonging in their neighbourhood - but this rose to 72% among long-term residents.

More than two-thirds described their English skills as "none" or "basic" upon arrival in the UK.

Although 40% said they arrived with a university degree, one in five reported working for less than 5 an hour and were likely to be working in low-skilled jobs.

Lithuanian Laura Dzelzyte, 25, who has lived in London for five years, hopes their training can be put to better use.

A business consultant who advises both British and Eastern European firms on overcoming cultural barriers to trading with each other, she believes both sides need to overcome their preconceptions about each other.

"British people will always assume Russians have black market connections, while Eastern Europeans often think that the British are out to overcharge them," she says.

I think that frankly they haven't got the time if they are working a 12-hour day, seven days a week
Dr. Jan Mokrzycki
Federation of Poles in Great Britain

"But I think that there's a class dynamic, too - in my profession people welcome my skills, but on a factory floor there might be resentment that incomers were taking British people's jobs.

"Ultimately, the key is language - when we can speak to each other, we realise we are all the same underneath."

'Helpful and tolerant'

Although Laura believes Eastern European women are better equipped to fit into British society, the report found they had less sense of belonging, earned less in wages, and had lower levels of improvement in English - despite arriving with better English than men.

Dr Jan Mokrzycki, president of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, says migrants need more help if they are to gain the language skills necessary for integration.

I have a great understanding of the culture here because I made an effort to speak the language
Michelle Hayes, Finland

"I think that frankly they haven't got the time if they are working a 12-hour day, seven days a week," he says.

"When they get home they are dog-tired.

"Also, the government in their wisdom have decided to reduce the funding for Esol [English for Speakers of Other Languages] classes."

Ultimately, however, it is the goodwill of both incomers and the indigenous population upon which community cohesion depends.

And Gintaras believes there is no host community better equipped to ease that process.

"I think British people are very friendly, helpful and tolerant," he says.

"I feel that I'm welcome. No-one's ever told me I should go home."

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