Britain braces for influx of Bulgarian and Romanian workers as rules change
A decade after concerns soared over an invasion of "Polish plumbers", Britain is being gripped by fresh fears that a new wave of immigrant workers will arrive after restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals are lifted on January 1.
As the tabloid press increases the pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron with alarmist headlines, the government has rushed through legislation restricting European Union migrants from claiming unemployment handouts.
Ministers refuse to give figures on how many Bulgarians and Romanians are expected to enter Britain, but estimates vary from 30,000 to 70,000 a year.
The issue is highly sensitive in Britain, which hundreds of thousands of immigrants have made their home since the EU expanded to eastern Europe in 2004.
The Labour government in power at the time vastly underestimated the number who would come and admitted it should have done more to limit the influx.
The biggest group came from Poland. About 640,000 Poles live in Britain, according to official statistics released last year, but the Polish community estimates the real figure might be as high as one million.
"We had a pretty difficult experience when the eight countries joined a decade ago," Nigel Mills, a legislator from Cameron's Conservative Party, said. "We had forecast 13,000 coming and more like a million came. It was pretty disastrous."
Mills has submitted a parliamentary motion calling for the restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians to be extended by another five years, which he said would allow time for the economic gap between Britain and the EU's two poorest countries to close.
People from Romania and Bulgaria, and eight other European countries who are allowed to undertake a limited number of jobs, will have free access to the labour market from January 1, About 140,000 work in Britain already.
Most Romanians have traditionally chosen to move to Mediterranean countries in the past. But as the concerns grow that many will opt for Britain this time, the government has hastily ushered in legislation preventing all EU migrants from claiming unemployment benefit payments in their first three months in the country.
Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev yesterday warned Cameron that his tough rhetoric and policies on immigration risked damaging Britain's reputation and leaving it isolated.
Plevneliev told The Observer newspaper that Britain should see itself as "a great global power that pioneered integration" and resist nationalist calls for hard laws to limit immigration.
"Isolating Britain and damaging Britain's reputation is not the right history to write," he said.
A majority of Britons are opposed to the lifting of the restrictions. According to a YouGov opinion poll in September , 50 per cent wanted to see them extended, with the figures steadily growing in polls since then.
But business leaders welcome the influx of labour - and The Economist magazine addressed an open letter of welcome to Romanians and Bulgarians this week.