East-to-West Migration Remaking Europe
Monday, November 28, 2005
RIGA, Latvia -- The Aurora Hotel, Room 307. Toilet in the hall, shower downstairs. Cracks in the walls and sweat in the air. Janis Neulans sits on a creaky little bed, talking about the work and weather in Ireland.
"They have warm winters," he says in Russian, his powder-blue eyes sparkling at the thought.
Neulans has never heard of Galway or Guinness. In his little home town -- a snowy village of eight people way out east on Latvia's Russian border -- he learned truck-driving, not Yeats. He doesn't know what the Irish minimum wage is, but he dreams of it.
"I have to leave Latvia," he says. "There are no possibilities here. We have nothing."
His last job was sandblasting the hulls of huge freighters in a Riga dry dock, enduring icy winds off the Baltic Sea for $50 a week. So at 39, never married, with nothing to lose, Neulans sits in the lonely dullness of the Aurora Hotel with a black nylon athletic bag at his feet. He has packed one pair of pants, a shirt, a pair of no-name sneakers, three packets of instant mashed potatoes and eight cans of processed meat.
It's late October. He has a $190 plane ticket for the next night on airBaltic's midnight flight from Riga to Dublin. It will be the first plane ride of his life, a simple three-hour hop but a journey that illustrates a historic flow of people that is changing the face of Europe.
Since Latvia and nine other countries joined the European Union in May 2004, almost 450,000 people, most of them from the poorest fringes of the formerly communist east, have legally migrated west to the job-rich economies of Ireland, Britain and Sweden. Germany, France and other longtime E.U. members have kept the doors closed for now but promise to open them in coming years to satisfy the bloc's principle that citizens of all member states share the right to move to any other.
Perhaps nowhere is this feeling stronger than in Ireland, a country of 4 million people with one of Europe's fastest-growing economies and memories of how the world took in destitute Irish migrants in generations past. About 150,000 new workers -- mostly Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians -- have registered with the Irish government in the past 18 months, statistics show, although officials say that some may have already been there.
Citizens of E.U. countries do not need Irish visas or work permits, and there are no restrictions on how long they can stay or what work they can do. They are generally eligible for government health care and other services. There is no special system for them to seek citizenship.
From Dublin to Donegal, it is now difficult to find a construction site, factory, hotel or pub where some of the workers are not speaking Polish, Russian, Latvian or Lithuanian. They are changing the country's ethnic character. Multi-language newspapers cater to the job-seekers. Banks have hired tellers who speak their languages. East European grocery stores sell meats and cheeses from home, and phone companies post flyers in Internet cafes listing cheap calls to Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn.
Immigration, of course, also brings social friction and occasional violence. In Ireland, as in other once-homogenous European societies, people are struggling to accommodate newcomers with different cultures, languages and religions, and make room in already strained welfare and school systems.
But many here see the movement of workers as pure opportunity, for themselves and for the immigrants.