LONDON: They’re portrayed as pickpockets who will steal British jobs. There are predictions they will beg, the unruly young ones will stir up riots, and some will even try to sell babies.
For months, Britain’s tabloids have repeatedly warned of the horrors they believe will ensue on Wednesday, when work restrictions will be lifted across the European Union for migrants from Romania and Bulgaria — two of the trading bloc’s newest members. The New Year’s Day changes, the papers claim, will unleash a mass exodus of the poor and unemployed from the two eastern European countries to Britain.
“In January, the only thing left will be the goat,” a Daily Mail headline proclaimed, referring to a remote Romanian village where, the paper claimed, everyone was preparing to move to Britain for the higher wages and generous welfare benefits.
“We’re importing a crime wave from Romania and Bulgaria,” another headline declared, quoting a Conservative lawmaker who told Parliament that most pickpockets on British streets hail from Romania.
The alarming stories about a possible Romanian and Bulgarian influx, and a government scramble to tighten welfare rules, are part of the latest chapter in an increasingly bitter debate about Britain’s immigration policies and its uneasy relationship with the EU. Right-wing politicians have won over voters by arguing that foreigners, particularly eastern Europeans, are flooding Britain’s job market with cheap labor and exploiting the country’s benefits system.
The upstart UK Independence Party has seized on the anti-immigration mood to undermine support for the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron. In response, Cameron has recently stepped up his rhetoric on immigration and rushed to impose curbs on the ability of new migrants to claim state benefits.
He also angered fellow EU leaders when he challenged the established concept that there should be a free movement of workers throughout the economic bloc, arguing that it should be amended to stop mass migrations from poorer to richer member states.
“The politicians are doing it for popularity,” said Father Silviu Petre Pufulete, a priest at a Romanian Orthodox Church in London. “It’s been unfair to the Romanians and it’s just been blown out of all proportion.”
How big exactly is the potential problem?
Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 and more than 100,000 migrants from the two countries already work in Britain, albeit under work restrictions that limit their access to jobs and state benefits like health care.