In Brazil, Felipe Gonçalves was a freelance photographer, buzzing around film sets and taking assignments from glossy magazines. But when he arrived in the UK in 2010, at the age of 31 he found himself cleaning the toilets of the local McDonald’s.
“I tried to grab the first opportunity I got,” he said. “It was hard, but it gave me the confidence to move on to something better.” His free time was spent as a jobbing photographer, saving enough money to replace equipment left behind in Brazil. “It started slowly, of course,” he said, but it gave him the foothold in the UK to relaunch his career as a professional photographer.
Mr Gonçalves’ story is typical of many migrants to the UK. Beyond headlines depicting immigrants, particularly asylum-seekers, as work-shy benefit scroungers, the majority are seeking employment, according to Rafael dos Santos, founder of This Foreigner Can, a social enterprise that aims to transform migrants into entrepreneurs.
“There are a lot of people who have been here for the past two or three years, but they are stuck in jobs they wouldn’t be doing in their own country — working as pizza delivery guys, for example,” Mr dos Santos said. “Most of them have degrees and skills that they want to use.”
This Foreigner Can, born out of a campaign of the same name, aims to raise £60,000 to fund its own version of an MBA — a four-month migrant business accelerator programme. Twenty-five people have applied so far, competing for one of 10 places.
Mr dos Santos is not blind to the political implications: “I’m not trying to bring more migrants to the UK, but I’m trying to improve the lives of those who are here already. They will help the local economy and start businesses that will grow and generate jobs.”
A report last year from academics at University College London suggested European immigrants contributed more in UK taxes over the decade to 2011 than they received in benefits while a 2014 report from the Centre for Entrepreneurs and DueDil, the business information company, said immigrants were responsible for creating one in seven of all UK firms. Non-UK nationals are much more likely than Britons to start their own businesses, the report noted. Data from the 2011 census revealed that 25 per cent of working Londoners held a non-UK passport.
The British capital has a long tradition of welcoming immigrants. The East End in particular has seen waves of refugees over the centuries, from Huguenots fleeing persecution in France to Asian Ugandans expelled by Idi Amin in the 1970s.
Maite Beltran moved to the UK for the second time in 2006 to find work and improve her English. Back home in Málaga, Spain, she sold advertising space, while in the UK, she first worked in catering until her English improved enough to become a nanny.
“If you speak the language the pay is better and there are lots of jobs as a nanny,” she said. Now, she hopes the This Foreigner Can course will help her launch her own Spanish-speaking nannying agency in the UK that she would have struggled to open in her home country.
“Everyone needs an opportunity,” she said. “And in a few years’ time I hope to be able to provide jobs to more people.”