More Bulgarians, Romanians in UK, but has a new wave really started?

By bne IntelliNews August 20, 2013

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Jobs in Bulgaria are increasingly hard to come by, though even by today's standards the decision of the 54-year-old former prime minister Boiko Borisov to register as professional football player in August is perhaps a bit extreme. Moving abroad to find a job, however, is not such a stretch - something that's exercising the minds of people in the UK as the country prepares to lift restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians living and working there from 2014.

August saw the hysteria level over potential immigration from those countries reach a crescendo, as data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed the number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK rose by nearly 26% to 141,000 between April and June from 112,000 in the previous three months. The rise was 35% over the year-earlier period. Romanians and Bulgarians have had the right to come to the UK without a visa for seven years already, and at present they can work in Britain only if an employer has supported a visa, if they are self-employed or come on a temporary basis for tasks for which there is a labour shortage.

The data was seized on by those who worry that the UK faces another wave of migration following the one experienced in 2004, when it threw open the doors to the new Central European members of the EU. Despite the government of the time insisting that migration from places like Poland would be moderate, over half a million Poles moved to the UK in the years after Poland joined the EU. They now make up around 1% of the population - even more than Irish-born residents.

Migration Watch UK, an NGO that campaigns for tighter controls on immigration, said the figures were in line with its estimate that net migration from Romania and Bulgaria would stand at about 50,000 a year for the next five years. "We hadn't expected this early uptake... nine months before our labour market is open, and I think it does suggest that there's a good deal of interest in these countries in coming to work here," Migration Watch's chairman, Andrew Green, told the BBC.

In an op-ed for De Volkskrant newspaper published on August 17, Dutch Social Affairs Minister Lodewijk Asscher called on the EU to focus on the "negative consequences" of labour migration from Romania and Bulgaria. "In the Netherlands, a 'Code Orange' is issued as the water in the rivers reach an alarmingly high level. It is now time for a similar alarm, namely about the sometimes negative consequences of the free movement of persons within the EU," Asscher wrote.

Picking fruit

This reading of the figures is, unsurprisingly, disputed. Some of the increase is certainly down to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, under which 21,250 Romanians and Bulgarians have been allowed to work on farms and in food processing for up to six months. The ONS figures include Romanians and Bulgarians doing this seasonal work in the UK for less than six months, unlike the government's official migration figures which only include people migrating to the UK for at least a year.

The rest of the increase, it is postulated, could be down to people from Romania and Bulgaria arriving early in order to secure any work before others are free to do so from January.

Carlos Vargas-Silva, an economist and senior researcher at the University of Oxford who specialises in migration issues, says that while the data is certainly interesting, it doesn't provide any real evidence of what will happen after January 2014, it simply shows what is happening now. "Rather than showing that the new wave of immigrants has suddenly begun, what the data actually shows is that increasing immigration from A2 countries [those in the EU] has been taking place regardless of the labour market restrictions," he writes in The Guardian. "But will the lifting of labour market restrictions lead to a sudden increase in immigration from these countries? It's simply not possible to say, and this latest data doesn't provide any answers to that question."

A cross-party lobby group, Migration Matters Trust, reckons that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians who will arrive in the UK next year could be as few as 20,000. Migration Matters says its analysis is based on historical EU migration patterns, macro-economic factors such as the impact of the recession on the UK, and limited job opportunities in areas such as manual labour. Referring to figures cited by Godrey Bloom of the UK Independence Party, a rabidly anti-immigration party, of 1.5m potentially arriving over five years, Atul Hatwal, director of Migration Matters, accuses the anti-immigration lobby of crying wolf once too often. "Their claim is that as many as 300,000 new migrants will arrive from Romania and Bulgaria over the course of 2014. In truth we believe that figure will probably peak at around 20,000," Hatwal said in a statement.

"While it is likely there has been some rise in the numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain, the scale of the rise and its value as a predictor of migration in 2014 following the end of transitional controls, is much more uncertain," he said.

What all agree is that the trend over time has been one of increasing numbers of Romanian and Bulgarians coming to the UK, regardless of the labour market restrictions. The government itself has so far refused to put a figure on the likely influx, clearly not wishing to repeat the mistake of the previous government, which was held hostage by its woeful underestimation of the numbers. Currently 96% of ministers are no doubt hoping that remains the case.

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