It has been over four months since some in the United Kingdom steeled themselves for an onslaught of Romanians and Bulgarians, as final restrictions imposed on their right to work across the European Union were lifted on Jan. 1.
It turns out that that onslaught never came.
On Wednesday, the UK Office for National Statistics released its figures for the first quarter of 2014, the first three months that Bulgarians and Romanians could work in the country without restrictions. And the numbers show that overall, the number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK dropped by 3,000 from the end of 2013, to 122,000.
Though up 19,000 from the same period last year, it still fell far short of the masses warned of by media and politicians – particularly the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has campaigned on a perceived threat to British livelihoods.
"There was no exodus following the lifting of labor restrictions," says Mariana Campeanu, Romania’s labor minister, speaking to The Christian Science Monitor. "The number of Romanians migrating overseas has been stable each year since 2007.”
A 'tidal wave' that never came
In the months leading up to the beginning of 2014 – when the last limitations placed on Romania and Bulgaria as part of their joining the European Union in 2007 were lifted – media and politicians in Western Europe speculated over how their individual countries would cope with potentially hundreds of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians who would suddenly be granted unfettered access to their job markets and social services.
British tabloids quoted studies that suggested almost 400,000 people could be on their way, while headlines screamed: "Romania and Bulgaria migrants ‘to treble’," and "Sold out! Flights and buses full as Romanians head for the UK." Rumors, later discredited, circulated that one-way tickets on the first flights from Romania on New Year’s Day were going for as much as £3,000 ($5,000).
Yet on the first flight into the UK from Romania that day, only two Romanians arrived looking for work – to be met off the plane by a throng of journalists and several waiting politicians intent on asking them about their agendas.
It was quickly clear to many that there had been anything but a mass exodus from the newest EU member nations.
In a comment piece in the Daily Telegraph in mid-January, Romania’s ambassador to the UK estimated that less than 30 Romanians had arrived seeking work since Jan. 1, while the Bulgarian embassy in London reported they have seen “no increase whatsoever.” Even British Prime Minister David Cameron said early on that the number of migrants from the newest EU states were at a "reasonable level."
Wednesday's report brought that idea home. “[The new] figures give the lie to UKIP's scaremongering on immigration," Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the UK Treasury, said in a statement following the announcement. "The very modest numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians coming to work in Britain this year is in stark contrast to the inflammatory rhetoric of earlier this year.”
'Romania should be the one complaining'
According to experts, the new regulations were never likely to have much of an impact.
“It has been pretty easy for Romanians to travel and work overseas since 2002,” says Sorin Ionita, a Bucharest-based expert in development and local affairs, and a representative for Romania in the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). “There actually aren’t that many people strongly wanting to leave who are left,” he adds, suggesting that the problem was that many people across the EU didn’t understand what the changes in regulations really meant.
Romania and Bulgaria are the poorest members of the European Union, and for years workers have left their home nations to seek better-paid employment overseas. According to official figures, by the end of last year there were 144,000 people born in the two countries working in the UK. Many more are in countries like Spain and Portugal.
Romania has for years seen an exodus of highly skilled professionals from their workforce, with people moving overseas for better-paid positions.
Since 2007, more than 14,000 doctors have left Romania in order to take up better-paid positions in countries like Germany, France, and the UK, leaving Romania with just 14,400 doctors as of November 2013, for a population of 21 million. According to the Romanian College of Physicians there are only 70 cardiovascular specialists left in the whole country.
“Romania should be the one complaining about the situation, not the UK,” says Mr. Ionita.
Barriers to immigrants
This hasn’t stopped a backlash in Britain against new immigrants.
Speaking at the UKIP spring conference in late February, Nigel Farage, the party leader, maintained that 80 percent of the British people did not want the borders to come down with Romania and Bulgaria. He added that “[I]t is most likely the majority of Romanians who come to Britain don’t come from Romania – they will come from Italy and Spain where there are already a million Romanian migrant workers.”
Romanians and Bulgarians living in the UK have felt the negative impact of the media campaign against new immigrants arriving from their countries over the last few years.
“The reaction from the British media especially has been very aggressive and unfair – a lot of papers are presenting untrue stories or choosing one-off cases to describe all Romanians,” says Tommy Tomescu, a Romanian dentist who came to the UK in 2010 and has since founded the Alliance Against Romanians and Bulgarians Discrimination and is now running as a European parliamentary candidate for London.
“Normal people’s attitudes are changing, but it has only really been in the last few months,” Mr. Tomescu says. “And the anti-Romanian and Bulgarian campaigns have lasted for years without any major politician condemning it, so it is hard to change people’s minds quickly.”
Despite the flood of new arrivals failing to materialize at the start of the year, many of the older EU member states have put in place measures to limit new arrivals’ access to social services.
Starting from March 1, the UK put into place a “minimum earnings threshold” whereby migrants from the EU have to show that they have earned a minimum of £150 a week for three months before they are able to claim benefits.
The British government has also suspended financial aid for thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian students studying in the UK, with officials requesting fresh proof that students have been residing in the UK for the qualifying three years. In late March, the European Commission announced the launch of a formal investigation into the decision.
“I expect this preoccupation with Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants in countries like the UK to disappear soon,” says Ionita, but he adds that it was “highly unfortunate for those caught in the middle.”