London's Latin American population rises fourfold

By Mark Lobel
BBC News

image captionA corner of South America in south London

Nestled away in one of south London's many Latino haunts is the small but lively Tiendas Del Sur arcade, a home from home for Latin Americans whose numbers in London have almost quadrupled in the last decade.

Research by the University of London has found that there are now some 113,000 Latin Americans in London, up from 31,000 in 2001.

This includes those in the UK capital legally, illegally or those were born here.

Customers at the Lemon coffee shop, an open-plan cafe in the shopping mall's concourse, reflect the diversity of the Latin American community.

Among them is Jose Luis Arrancibia from Bolivia. As the 28-year-old leans forward to speak, his black leather jacket tightens around his shoulders, and his face seems aged beyond his years.

"When I started to live in London, I learned to claim our rights. If I can find a job, I can give a better life to my family and my daughter. She is four weeks old," he says.

Job prospects

It has been a gruelling few years for the former businessman, who left the poverty of Bolivia for better prospects abroad.

image captionIrice Godoi from Brazil and Martha Guerra from Ecuador are glad to have made London home

He is currently unemployed and awaiting a decision by the UK Home Office on his future.

Jose Luis says he was exploited by the cleaning company he worked for because he, like more than 35,000 Latinos, lives in the UK illegally.

His case is highlighted by the University of London study, funded by charity Trust for London , which calls for more protection for what they describe as a valuable but often exploited community.

Jose Luis's lack of a job is not typical.

The report says some 85% of the Latin American community are employed.

Many are often in jobs they are over-qualified for, and very few take state benefits.

Many are highly educated and come to the UK for economic reasons, yet most earn well below average salaries and live in bad housing, the study says.

The report concedes integration remains a problem.

Also at the Lemon coffee shop was smartly dressed Ecuadorean businesswoman Martha Guerra.

She has just moved to the UK from Spain, and like a third of London's Latino community, cannot speak English.

But language problems do not dim her ambitions, as she says she wants to set up a private dental practice with a friend.

But given the current weakness of the UK economy, why do people like Jose Luis and Martha want to try to work here?

"Even though the economy here is in recession, I think any professional has more opportunities here than anywhere else. Also my daughter is studying here in the UK," said Martha.

Jose Luis was also optimistic, saying he was hopeful the economic situation would improve.

Both are living with friends and said they had not received any state help.

Key workers

The rise in the Latin American population in London has been partly fuelled by the number of economic migrants from Brazil, who make up the biggest group both in London and overall in the UK.

Irice Godoi, a 58-year-old Brazilian psychotherapist, has lived in the UK for 12 years.

Over a cup of coffee, she said she believed Brazil's recent economic growth and better prospects back home could signal an end to this trend.

"I saw a lot of people go back to Brazil. They go back now," she said.

But Irice, like Jose Luis and Martha, wants to stay, as she now has a British husband.

This rise over the past decade means Latin Americans are now comparable in size to other large migrant and ethnic groups in London, such as the Polish population which numbers around 122,000.

The overall picture is of a young and highly educated community but one that faces the challenges of low-paid jobs and problems of integration, the study says.

It is clear, the report adds, that Latin Americans make an essential contribution to life in London, a view echoed by Miriam from Ecuador.

"The government needs to recognise what we contribute," the report quotes her as saying.

She wants more English courses, better jobs and more recognition for the work Latin Americans do.

London without Latinos, she says, "would be filthy".

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