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.
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.
"There are lots of stories about Romanian owners of a successful construction company in England or restaurant in Spain, but also of those living out of garbage bins in Rome, too proud to come home," says Mihaela Danga, of the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest.
Still, locals here predict that when their countrymen receive their EU passports, some will be tempted to set out in search of better-paying opportunities.
"Immigration will likely come from the extremes," says Anca Ciuca, president of the Foundation for Democratic Change. "If you have no place to work where you live and see no future for your family, this is one source. The other will be among the highly educated who have little civic spirit, with no concern to help this society, but only care about a higher standard of living for them and their families."
Observers agree that broadly categorized, three groups to date have generated most migrants: laborers from devastated agricultural and industrial sectors; urban professionals in search of greater compensation for their talents (the IOM's Chauzy notes that his dentist in Geneva is Romanian); and Roma, also referred to as Gypsies.
A new source may be Moldovans. A majority of citizens in Moldova – an impoverished country that was part of Romania until 1940 – claim Romanian descent, and as many as 400,000 have obtained Romanian citizenship in recent months.
Still, the decision to go remains deeply personal.
"I'm in my dream job right now," says Boris Shirov, a Bulgarian who works in radio-satellite communications in Sofia. "I can live off my salary, I'm happy with my friends, and I can visit 10 clubs in this area without getting into a taxi. But I miss my girlfriend, because she works in Brussels. So I may try to find a job there."
Across the border in Calarasi, Romania, a run-down industrial town near the southern bend of the Danube River, a mud-splattered ditch digger named Ion Bodeanu has a different take. Recently back from Italy, where he had to work 14-hour days, seven days a week, for 750 euros a month – despite having been promised 40-hour weeks for 950 euros monthly – Mr. Bodeanu says he wouldn't discourage other emigrants.
His young colleague, Ilie Inu, says he'd do it, with one condition.
"I'd want someone whom I trust to tell me that it's OK, you go and it's safe," says Mr. Inu. "I make 200 euros here, so if I at least know what to expect, I'd do it for 700 euros."
It's young people like Inu whom Silvia Luminita Nastase would like to keep in Calarasi. Industrial collapse has reduced the population by 75 percent in the past two decades, so Ms. Nastase – the city's director of community development – says she's trying to lure foreign investors. She recently returned from a trip to China for that purpose.
"I hope we can create opportunities for young people to come back to town – or at least keep them here – with challenging, well-paying jobs," says Nastase.
Her only child, Ciprian, is surfing the Internet for college scholarships in France, where he visited last summer. There's no guarantee he would return to Calarasi, says his mother. "I'd put it at 50-50 that he stays or goes," says Nastase. "And if he goes," she says with a laugh, "maybe I'd go with him."
• Last of three parts. The first two ran Dec. 27 and 28.