Around 100,000 Lithuanians now officially live in England and Wales. And some think the true number could be double that. Why are our eastern neighbours so attracted to Britain?
In 2008, Saulius Meilutis made a big decision. Widowed after his wife was killed in a car accident, he found himself a single father of three children he couldn’t properly support. He had studied at the Institute of Medicine in Lithuania’s second city of Kaunas, but the financial crisis was starting to bite and he couldn’t get a decent job. There were rumours that a 30% across-the-board cut in public spending was coming and the future looked bleak. What to do? Like so many others, he took a deep breath and headed west.
With visa restrictions scrapped after Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, Meilutis could try his luck wherever he liked. He ended up in south-west England, in Plymouth, where he found work in a care home for the disabled. It was important, he had decided, to have access to a decent swimming pool, and it was well known the young diver Tom Daley had trained in the city.
Three years later, his youngest child, Ruta Meilutyte, became, at 15, the youngest gold medallist in the London Olympics when she won the 100m breaststroke. Just before Christmas, she added to her trophy cabinet after winning two golds and a silver at the world short-course swimming championships in Istanbul. She now goes to the same school as Daley, and trains alongside him at Plymouth’s state-of-the-art Life Centre.
As the Daily Mail put it after her Olympic triumph, “Plymouth girl wins swimming gold … but it’s for Lithuania.” It was an all-too-rare positive headline about the UK’s Lithuanian community, which in the past eight years has only really made the news when one of its number committed a terrible crime or when they have been exploited by ruthless gang masters.
Just a few months ago, the Guardian revealed how 30 Lithuanians had allegedly been trafficked into the country in order to catch chickens, which laid eggs supplied to a free-range brand called Happy Eggs. According to the workers’ testimonies, they were forced to work up to 17 hours a shift, bussed to farms the length of the country to catch hens through the night, sleeping for days at a time only in vans, and in some weeks not paid at all. Their merciless enforcers? Lithuanians, allegedly.
Until the 2011 census figures were released in December, no one had any idea how many Lithuanians had put down roots in Britain. It had never been a particularly hot topic. When the EU welcomed eight new countries in 2004, it was the Poles who stole the limelight.
Though Tony Blair’s government had famously predicted that just 15,000 new EU citizens would try their luck each year in Britain once the labour market was opened, two years after accession it was being widely reported that a million Poles had settled on our rainy isles.
In 2006, the Guardian ran a special supplement about Polish people in Britain, which included a guide to the strange goodies that could be bought in the “Polski skleps“, which had popped up on streets in every town – it even included a section in Polish, answering questions for Slavic readers on British culture, revealing why we are so against mixer taps and why we insist on asking each other how we are even though it’s clear we don’t care about the answer.
While the Polish incomers were accused of everything from driving down plumbers’ salaries to poaching carp for their Christmas dinners, the increase in Lithuanians has gone largely unnoticed. It was something of a surprise, then, when the latest census figures released last week showed that alongside 579,083 Poles, there are now 97,083 Lithuanians living in England and Wales – an increase of almost 93,000 on 2001 levels (figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland will be out later this year). It is an astonishing number from a country with a population of just 3.3 million (Poland’s population is 38 million).
The statistics are all the more remarkable when you consider many are adamant the true figure is much higher – before the census figures came out, the Lithuanian embassy told the Guardian they believed as many as 200,000 Lithuanians could be living in Britain right now.
Sigitas Mitkus, deputy head of mission at the embassy in Pimlico, south London, says that unlike the Poles, a lot of Lithuanians did not come to Britain as soon as the borders were opened, but following the start of the financial crisis in 2008, which hit Lithuania hard.
Official figures from the Lithuanian government show a big increase in Lithuanians leaving for the UK in 2010 when 40,901 left. In 2011, that number had dropped to 26,395.
The 2010 spike was probably caused by austerity measures introduced in 2009, in which public spending was cut by 30% across the board, including slashing public sector wages 20 to 30% and reducing pensions by as much as 11%. The prime minister at the time, Andrius Kubilius, took a pay cut of 45%, while raising taxes on alcohol and other goods. He was recently voted out of office, a defenestration blamed on his ruthless cutbacks.
Against this grim backdrop, it is unsurprising that so many Lithuanians looked to Britain. It’s not hard to find Lithuanians here, largely because they tend to gravitate to the same places. Unlike, say, Germans, Lithuanians are not evenly spread around the country, but are disproportionately likely to live in the east of London or the east of England.
Take Boston in Lincolnshire. When the 2001 census was carried out, there were just six Lithuanians living in this unremarkable agricultural farm town in England’s flatlands. Then, Boston was 98.5% white British. Ten years later and that lonely sextet had swelled to 1,861 people, according to data released from the 2011 census. Over 10% of the town’s population now comes from “new” EU countries.
Many people in the town believe that number substantially underestimates the true eastern European population, citing figures from patient registration data and national insurance number issue as “proof”. Others, a report from the town council noted recently, “openly share their belief that many migrants were deterred from completing census forms by landlords”. The town’s main shopping strip, West Street – now dubbed East Street – is littered with shops selling eastern-European goodies. A traditional British pub has been converted into NV Baltic, which runs Lithuanian and Latvian music nights and serves up shashlyk, a sort of kebab popular in former Soviet states.
But if you want to seek out Lithuanians near you, look for your nearest basketball court. As Mitkus from the Lithuanian embassy puts it: “Basketball is Lithuania’s second religion.” He even claims Lithuania is the only country in the world where basketball is the No 1 sport. And, like all Lithuanians, he believes basketball helped little old Lithuania break free from the Soviet Union. It’s a long story, but essentially: Lithuania’s basketball side beat a combined team of former Soviet republics at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, becoming symbols of the country’s independence movement and giving Lithuanians the courage to believe they could go it alone: a documentary called The Other Dream Team tells the tale.
If Britain’s French community is based around the Lycée Français school in South Kensington, then the Lithuanian community hub is arguably the Sydney Russell Leisure Centre in Dagenham. This somewhat depressing sports centre in the far reaches of east London is home to the British Lithuanian Basketball League, which now should really be in the plural as it has now grown to encompass two leagues – seven teams play in the 1st, a further 12 in the 2nd. Over 500 people are members.
On a rainy Thursday evening when I went along, two teams were practicing: Sparta and London Žalgiris, named after Lithuania’s most famous team, Žalgiris.
Kestutis Dobrovolskis, a 35-year-old builder from Kaunas, started the league seven years ago. “It was a way to bring Lithuanians together,” he says under the harsh strip lights of the changing room. Conscious that many immigrants can be vulnerable when they arrive with no friends, he believes basketball can keep them on the straight and narrow. “I’m trying to stop them from drinking and taking drugs in their spare time. They can come here two nights a week and make friends. It keeps them busy. Maybe they don’t know anyone at all in the UK but as soon as they join here, they have 500 new friends straight away.”
One team in the league is Kyborgai, comprised entirely of Lithuanian bankers working in the City. Ask around any financial-services firm in London and you’ll find a gaggle of high-flying Lithuanians, says Raminta Dereskeviciute, head of the networking and social society the Lithuanian City of London Club.
“We are everywhere,” she says, over coffee near St Paul’s Cathedral, near where her law firm is based. “My colleagues always joke we’re the Lithuanian mafia, with links to every business in town. My hairdresser is Lithuanian, my personal trainer is Lithuanian, so is my dry cleaner. The manager of the Gordon Ramsay restaurant upstairs [the Bread Street Kitchen] is married to a Lithuanian.”
It was wrong to assume that all Lithuanians come to Britain simply to make money, she says. “Perhaps some people think all Lithuanians come here as economic migrants, but I’m not an economic migrant. I’ve not fled home. I want an international life, and London is a major financial centre.”
Dereskeviciute studied in the US on a Fulbright scholarship and came to the UK for a job four-and-a-half years ago. She says no one at her international firm bats an eyelid about her nationality. But generally, she says, “I think Lithuanians are fed up with not feeling part of the UK community. Sometimes it seems that you are only accepted as an asset [rather than a drain] if you pay 50% tax, have a good job and can afford to send your kids to private school.”
Sometimes the Lithuanian City of London Club is referred to as the “unofficial government of Lithuania”, says Dereskeviciute – because so many members have been called on to consult for ministers back home. One of the club’s founders, Mykolas Majauskas, lived in London from 2004 until 2008, when he was headhunted by the then-prime minister, Kubilius. Majauskas had been working as an investment banker for Barclays Capital when Kubilius offered him a job as his chief economic and financial adviser.
Majauskas insists that while emigration has had a big effect on Lithuania, it is not all negative. “The way I see it, what we have experienced so far is not so much a brain drain but a cycle of five to seven years, whereby Lithuanians leave, carry out their studies, work, maybe raise start-up capital and then return to Lithuania with money and experience. It is only now, at the end of this first cycle, that we are starting to reap the benefits of this foreign experience.”
At the Lithuanian embassy in London, officials believe more and more of their compatriots will return home as the financial situation improves: currently the budget deficit is around 3% of GDP, compared with a dire 9% in 2009. Reverse migration is already in swing. Embassy figures show that 6,000 people returned from Britain last year, compared with just 1,000 from Norway.
In September, the Lithuanian government and other state agencies launched a pioneer project called the Junior Professional Programme, or Kurk Lietuvai, which offers paid internships in the heart of government ministries. The project is aimed solely at young Lithuanians with degrees from the best foreign universities and will undoubtedly woo some of the brightest back. But with unemployment still at 13%, the Lithuanian population of Britain will not dwindle much yet.
From beer to babies: a guide to Lithuanians in Britain
Do not confuse Lithuanians with Poles Many hate that. Not least because the Poles have fought a number of wars with Lithuania, most recently seizing Vilnius in 1919.
They are not Slavs, but Balts The Lithuanian language is nothing like Polish. The former has 32 letters, including cool ones like ? (that squiggle is an ogonek) and ? (that’s a macron).
Do not confuse the Lithuanians with Russians either and assume they all like vodka (they prefer beer). The Soviets occupied Lithuania until 1990 and the wounds have yet to heal.
British life has started to influence Lithuanian culture A few years ago a song called Londone Lietus – London Rain – was a hit for Pikaso. It told the story of a lonely man watching rain run off the roof of his London flat as he dreamed about his beloved back home.
Don’t believe the bad press Lithuanians are not especially prone to criminality compared to other nationalities. Statistics from the Lithuanian embassy in London show that between January and October last year, 181 Lithuanians were arrested and prosecuted for a crime in the UK. The year before, the number was 277.
Lithuanians are not yet contributing much to the UK’s rising birth rate Embassy statistics show 516 Lithuanian babies were born last year up until October. In 2010, there were 509; in 2011, 434.
Where they live: Lithuania’s UK hotspots (2011 census)
8,348: Newham (2001 population: 360)
4,028: Barking and Dagenham (2001 population: 80)
3,712: Peterborough (2001 population: 29)
3,500: Waltham Forest (2001 population: 121)
2,827: Redbridge (2001 population: 93)
1,979: Greenwich (2001 population: 45)
1,861: Boston, Lincolnshire (2001 population: 6)
1,738: King’s Lynn and West Norfolk (2001 population: 40)
1,651: Fenland (2001 population: 21)
1,332: Lewisham, (2001 population: 97)
1,292: Ealing (2001 population: 97)
1,206: South Holland, Lincolnshire (2001 population: 20)
1,140: Tower Hamlets (2001 population: 102)
• This article was amended on 7 January 2013 to clarify that Lithuania competed at basketball against a unified team of former Soviet republics at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and not a Russian team as originally stated.