Comment: Busting the myths of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration

By Sunder Katwala

Over 100,000 people from Romania and Bulgaria already live and work in the United Kingdom, under work permit rules and immigration schemes introduced since the two countries joined the European Union.

However, the end of transitional controls on January 1st next year, so that those from the two most recent EU members have the same rights as citizens of the other western and east European member states,  has created a heated political debate about immigration from the two countries, which is likely to run on into next year’s European elections.

Headlines suggesting 29 million might come here are overblown, but even a few tens of thousands more Romanian or Bulgarian immigrants could throw the government well off course from its ambition to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 by 2015. That already appeared a very difficult target to meet without this additional factor, though migration numbers have come down a little, including a fall in student migration, the largest category accounting for a third of immigrants to Britain (though not one that evokes much public concern).

At one level, the question of Romania and Bulgaria is part of the broader debate about whether we want to be part of the European Union club or not. If we decide that staying in the EU is good for Britain, then free movement is part of that deal. The prime minister’s commitment to a referendum makes it likely that the public will get the chance to decide about that. 

There is no credible prospect of a renegotiation which would make it possible to pick and choose, so that Britons can go to Spain but other EU citizens cannot come here. 

There is no real world option of refusing entry to EU citizens while we are in the club.  Some of those campaigning against the dangers of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria acknowledge this. Andrew Green of Migration Watch told the Observer that the EU treaties meant that access could not be refused, so proposed a focus to ensure benefit rules were not abused.

So what could be done to manage migration effectively?

The government must prepare properly, by providing the most robust estimates it can.  Next year, the effects are unlikely to be on the scale of 2004 – because Germany and France have to open their borders too. Polish immigrants didn't have that choice because Britain was one of just three EU countries which decided it would be better to adopt free movement earlier than other EU member states. There is little doubt that the impact of immigration after 2004 caused more anxiety because it was unexpected, and was much higher than the government’s estimates of just a few thousand.

It is also important that there are good preparations to identify local areas which might face most churn or change. There are net benefits of immigration, studies show that migration brings economic gains, but those will be easily disregarded if people don’t see effective responses to ensure schools or doctor's surgeries in areas which might face most churn can cope. If once-a-decade census records are used to allocate funds, then the areas which face most rapid change do not get the fair share of resources. Using quarterly records from surgery lists and annual school admissions could help ensure there are rapid responses.

Another issue that raises concern is the idea of ‘benefit tourism’. The reality is that EU migrants overwhelmingly cross the continent to work, not to claim benefits. Of over half a million Poles living in Britain, fewer than 14,000 claim unemployment benefit. The DWP study of ‘benefit tourism’ found those born abroad were considerably less likely to claim benefits than those of us born here. Overall, those born abroad make up 13% of the British workforce, but only 6.5% of those claiming benefits. (Those eligible are most likely to be naturalised British citizens, who may have been in for many years or decades).

However, there are changes the government could pursue. For example, child benefit being paid to children who remain in other EU countries is an issue. Though often said to be a consequence of EU rules, this is something that could be changed. It would, however, depend on a wider reform of child benefit rules so that eligibility depended on residency, rather than employment.  Changing from one system to the other could be an expensive reform – and in practice would probably cost more than the savings made – but removing this perceived anomaly is possible.

Richard Branson launched the government’s ‘Britain is Great” campaign at the British Embassy in Romania. The idea that they should now run 'Britain is Rubbish' adverts is daft – and would damage our economy, credibility and self-respect.

Many of those who have come from Eastern Europe work, pay taxes and return home. Others will stay, so that they and their children will become British.

If we want them to integrate positively, as the vast majority do, then we should deal with real pressures that arise from immigration sensibly, but we should also watch our language and avoid stigmatising people who want to play by the rules, work and contribute.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future. Follow him on Twitter.

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