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As EU gates open, 'paradise' flows East

Bulgarians and Romanians, finding better prospects at home, are unlikely to flood westward come Jan. 1.

By Michael J. JordanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 2006


Thirty miles south of the Bulgarian capital, along winding, wintry mountain roads, Lalo Zifritov stands guard outside the skeleton of a three-story home being built in the sleepy town of Samokov. The owner pays him the equivalent of $13 per day to keep an eye on the site round-the-clock.

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His pay goes chiefly to food, diapers, and a few sweets for his three kids – ages 7, 4, and 1. They live without central heating.

When his aunt and cousins migrated to Italy last year, they invited him to join them. He declined. One deterrent, says the 28-year-old, was the cost of the passport, visa, and travel.

"Poverty ruins everything," says Mr. Zifritov, as his wife chops wood nearby. "But we're not so courageous to just move abroad."

The last time the EU opened its doors to new members in 2004, hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans pushed westward. But despite Western fears that hordes of desperate, job-seeking Bulgarians and Romanians will again flood the European Union when their countries become members on Jan. 1, many – like Zifritov – have compelling reasons to stay home.

"Some believe 'paradise' is in Western Europe, but some of this paradise will soon be coming here," says Krassen Stanchev, executive director of the Institute for Market Economics in Sofia.

Indeed, both countries expect a multibillion-euro infusion of EU aid and foreign investment after New Year's. And already, the Romanian and Bulgarian economies are roaring, growing at 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively. In addition, average salaries are on the rise – though still only about a third of Western European incomes in terms of purchasing power.

It was those higher-income economies that the 2004 wave of immigrants targeted. Uneasy at the prospect of absorbing yet another wave, 10 of the 15 "older" EU members – led by Britain, which received more than 500,000 migrants – have imposed temporary restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians freely entering their labor markets.

But the Balkan countries may have already unleashed their wave of immigrants: According to the International Organization of Migration (IOM), of the estimated 6 million who have poured into Western Europe from Eastern Europe since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, some 2 million have hailed from Romania.

"Those who had the possibility and the interest have already left," says Cristian Ghinea, a Romanian commentator.

In fact, with tens of thousands of Moldovans and Macedonians reportedly seeking Romanian and Bulgarian citizenship, respectively, and legions of others farther to the east desperate for work, EU membership could turn this Balkan pair – like Spain since it joined in 1987 – from migrant source to destination country, says Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the IOM.

"In due time, their economies will become more attractive to non-EU migrants," he says, adding that the scale of migration is difficult to predict.

Meanwhile, as Romanians and Bulgarians grow savvier about the risks as well as the rewards of leaving one's homeland behind, they no longer believe that the streets of London, Rome, and Madrid are paved with gold.