As Latin American children play in the front room of an office in Brixton in London’s southern borough of Lambeth, their parents are equally raucous in the back, attending a February 2015 workshop hosted by a U.K.-based NGO called the Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation (IRMO). There isn’t enough space in the low-ceilinged, dimly lit room to contain the crowd, which spills over into an annex. The workshop is focused on the complexities of British bureaucracy: tax obligations, labor laws and how to access services and welfare.
It’s the kind of information that Irene Loneza would have found helpful a few months earlier. Loneza, 43, is originally from Ecuador, and arrived in London via Spain in 2014. The same year, she went to the emergency room at a local hospital when her gastric band broke. But with no Spanish-language interpreter at the hospital, communication was hopeless.
“When the doctor told me I needed an operation, I didn’t understand, and did not sign the papers,” she recalls. Luckily, an Italian priest—who happened to be volunteering in the hospital— explained the situation and the registration process in Italian, which Loneza understood well enough to finally receive proper treatment.
Loneza’s difficulties with British bureaucracy are not unusual. The number of Latin American immigrants living in London has increased by nearly 400 percent in a decade, from an estimated 31,000 people in 2001 to about 113,500 in 2011, with more than 186,000 Latin American immigrants living in the U.K. as a whole.1 Many moved from other European countries for economic reasons after the global recession. Often, these immigrants do not speak English— and do not know their rights and obligations. But local governments have not kept pace with the demand for services in Spanish and Portuguese.
Compounding the difficulties, Latino immigrants say their embassies in the U.K. provide little assistance to new arrivals. Community organizations like IRMO and the Latin American Women’s Rights Service have stepped in to fill the gap, while pointing out that obtaining funding is increasingly difficult without the official recognition of Latino immigrants as a group by local authorities.
IRMO belongs to a group called the Coalition of Latin Americans in the U.K. (CLAUK). Established in 2011, CLAUK is lobbying for Latino immigrants to be included in the government’s procedures for “ethnic monitoring,” the collation of statistics on the size of different ethnic populations so that social services are better informed about the communities they are serving and the challenges they face.
“One of the biggest problems is language,” says Liliana Mora, a social welfare advisor who runs the IRMO workshop in Brixton. “This causes all the other problems with housing and other services.”
Edna Garcés agrees. Now a resident of Croydon in South London, she emigrated from Colombia in 2014 to find better work prospects and quickly faced a maze of incomprehensible regulations governing her access to health care, employment and enrolling her two sons in elementary school.
“Even if you could eventually find a [school], I found you needed documents on proof of housing and so on, or the schools only provided entrance exams in English. There was no help from authorities,” Garcés recalls.
After several months without education, her sons are now back in school—Groups like IRMO work to close the gap in Spanish-language services. but the closest one with openings was an hour and a half from home.
The latest research on the Latin American community in London—conducted by Cathy Mcllwaine, Juan Camilo Cock and Brian Linneker of the Queen Mary University of London in 2011—found that 20 percent of Latin Americans in London had never been to a doctor in the U.K., and only 20 percent were receiving some form of state welfare, although about half of Latino immigrants were in low-paid and low-skilled jobs. Without awareness of local laws and rights, Latinos also face exploitation. According to the same research, some 40 percent of respondents to a survey experienced workplace abuse, and one-third lived in overcrowded accommodations. 2
Loneza and her nine-year-old son, for example, live in a five-room house accommodating 18 people.
Meanwhile, the Latino community’s contribution to the economy and society is rarely acknowledged. According to the Queen Mary University study, more than 85 percent of Latinos in London are employed 3 —higher than the citywide 73 percent employment rate.4 More than half, however, are in low-skilled jobs, even though about 70 percent have a post-secondary education. 5 Loneza, for example, is a qualified nurse, but she’s working as an office cleaner in London.
Mcllwaine, who carried out the 2011 research, says the lack of official recognition makes it easier to ignore the specific problems faced by members of the Latin American population—many of whom may have escaped violence in their home countries or now live in poverty in London but still send remittances abroad. “[It means] the community can’t access justice, legal aid, welfare, employment rights, education, or information at job centers, and the government can’t monitor access to public services, despite the huge demand for them,” she says.
Outside London, Latino immigrants congregate in the southeast—for instance, in the city of Brighton—and in northern cities such as Manchester and Newcastle. CLAUK has found that they suffer the same problems as their London counterparts. They can also feel greater isolation.
Yet attaining official ethnic recognition continues to be an uphill battle in London and elsewhere. Out of the 32 boroughs in Greater London, only London’s Hackney, Islington, Lambeth, and Southwark borough councils recognize Latin Americans as an individual ethnic group with specific needs—including better access to services, protection from abuse in the workplace, assistance with landlord- tenant disputes, and help finding jobs commensurate with their education levels. In Lambeth, there are 9,800 native speakers of Portuguese and 7,100 native speakers of Spanish, compared with 6,400 Polish speakers, 1,400 Arabic speakers, 600 Turkish speakers, and 3,700 speakers of South Asian languages (such as Urdu, Bengali and Hindi).6
Lobbying by CLAUK resulted in Lambeth’s decision in 2013 to update its policy to include “other ethnic group—Latin American” in its ethnic monitoring. CLAUK says it’s a welcome step—but only a first step in providing practical assistance. “This is an ongoing process,” Lambeth Council’s deputy leader, Imogen Walker, acknowledged in an e-mail to the author. “We are always looking at how we can improve the way we work with our communities.”
Meanwhile, the north London borough of Haringey rejected a request by CLAUK for ethnic monitoring in late 2014.7 The council insisted the Latino community was not big enough to justify the change in policy; but as CLAUK pointed it out, it’s impossible to reach such a conclusion without officially tracking the size of the population. That’s why, CLAUK argues, the kind of monitoring done by some local governments should be mandatory for all—precisely to prevent the community from sinking into invisibility.
There has been some indication that change may be on the horizon, with London’s highest administrative assembly, the Greater London Authority, supporting a motion in 2014 for public recognition of the size of the city’s Latino community and encouraging boroughs to include Latin American immigrants in their statistics.
But until more London boroughs heed that advice, Garcés, Loneza, and hundreds of other families will remain adrift in one of the world’s largest cities, among many voices speaking a foreign tongue.