After the 'Polish plumber', Britain fears new eastern influx
A decade after concerns soared over an invasion of "Polish plumbers", Britain is gripped by fresh fears that a new wave of immigrant workers will arrive after restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals are lifted on January 1.
As the tabloid press increases the pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron with alarmist headlines, the government has rushed through legislation restricting EU migrants from claiming unemployment handouts.
Ministers refuse to give any official figure of how many Bulgarians and Romanians it expects to come to Britain, but estimates vary from 30,000 to 70,000 a year.
The issue is highly sensitive in Britain, which hundreds of thousands of immigrants have made their home since the European Union expanded to eastern Europe in 2004.
The Labour government in power at the time vastly underestimated the number who would come and admitted it should have done more to limit the influx.
The biggest group came from Poland. Around 640,000 Poles live in Britain, according to official statistics released in 2012, but the Polish community estimates the real figure might be as high as one million.
"We had a pretty difficult experience when the eight countries joined a decade ago," Nigel Mills, a lawmaker from Cameron's Conservative Party, told AFP.
"We had forecast 13,000 coming and more like a million came. It was pretty disastrous."
Mills has submitted a parliamentary motion calling for the restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians to be extended by another five years -- time, he says, for the economic gap between Britain and the EU's two poorest countries to close.
"There is a real concern about what could happen again, especially when our economy and our employment market have not recovered anywhere near completely from the recession," he said.
People from Romania and Bulgaria, and eight other European countries who are currently only allowed to undertake a limited number of jobs, will have free access to the labour market from January 1, 2014. Around 140,000 work in Britain already.
Most Romanians have traditionally chosen to move to Mediterranean countries in the past.
But as the concerns grow that many will opt for Britain this time, and the anti-immigration party UKIP gains in popularity, the government has hastily ushered in legislation preventing all EU migrants from claiming unemployment benefit payments in their first three months in the country.
Cameron has also said he wants to see limits on the free movement in the EU, provoking anger in Brussels.
British police have even sent a team to Romania to try to discourage jobless Romanians from coming to Britain.
Fears shared in other countries
In a country renowned for its multi-culturalism, attitudes towards immigration seem to have hardened.
A majority of Britons are opposed to the lifting of the restrictions. Fifty percent want to see them extended, according to a YouGov opinion poll in September, with the figures steadily growing in polls since then.
But business leaders welcome the influx of labour -- and The Economist magazine addressed an open letter of welcome to Romanians and Bulgarians this week.
The fears of large movements of Romanian and Bulgarian workers are also felt in Germany.
The Bild tabloid was up in arms when it was revealed that nearly 39,000 people from the two countries are receiving unemployment payments in Germany this year, a figure that has doubled in two years.
Hans-Peter Uhl, a senior figure in the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, said recently that "anyone who has no chance of getting a job is not covered by the free movement of workers... and should be excluded from the welfare system".
In France, authorities have accused the Roma minority who have flocked to France from Romania and Bulgaria of being responsible for a rise in petty crime.
Romanians feel victimised
Back in Britain, Romanians who gathered at their well-appointed cultural centre in London for a Christmas party said they deeply resented being stigmatised.
"Most of the Romanian people here in London or in England don't really understand why they are being victimised," said Nicolae Ratiu, the centre's treasurer.
"They see themselves being painted as lazy people, just coming here to steal English people's jobs and take benefits off the state.
"They find it rather confusing and... insulting because they work hard and they pay taxes," he said, adding that he had seen statistics showing that Romanians claimed fewer state benefits than Britons and other nationalities. Most are aged under 35 and so in good health.
Monica Madas, who blends gypsy music with the Romanian folk songs of her youth in her band Monooka's Caravan, has been living in Britain since 2007. She said the lifting of the restrictions cannot come soon enough.
"Now I can apply to have better jobs -- I can apply for a job as a music teacher or drama teacher because I graduated in theatre. I'm really happy," she said.
© 2013 AFP