Bulgarians and Romanians gained the right to visa-free travel to the UK in 2007, when their countries joined the EU. But there were temporary restrictions on the kind of jobs they could take. Employers had to apply for work permits and migrants for an “accession worker card”. Low-skilled workers were restricted to existing quota schemes in the agricultural and food processing sectors.
These restrictions were dropped on 1 January, having been extended to the maximum period of seven years. Bulgarians and Romanians will be entitled to claim the same benefits and NHS care as other EU citizens.
The first Bulgarians and Romanians benefiting from unrestricted access to the UK labour market arrived on the 1st of January as politicians moved to appease fears that Britain could be flooded with migrants. Romanians landing at Luton Airport were greeted by Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs select committee, who said the number of arrivals provided just a “snapshot” of those expected to come to the UK in the coming months. The UK has not released forecasts of migrant numbers, but campaigners say up to 50,000 people a year could come.
However, half empty planes and coaches arrived in Britain on New Year’s Day as the much hyped Romanian invasion failed to materialise. It appears that a mere handful of Romanians and Bulgarians have taken up the offer of unrestricted access to the UK labour market on the first day of the EU scheme. The predicted tidal wave of immigrants flooding our ports, coach stations and airports turned out to be nothing more than a trickle. Some media reports have claimed droves of Romanians would be heading to Britain to claim benefits and free access to the NHS. But arrivals areas at Gatwick Airport, Heathrow Airport, Luton Airport, Dover and Victoria Coach Station in London told a different story. Romanian car washer Spiresau Victor, one of the few to arrive at Luton Airport, in London, insisted: “I am not here to rob your country.”
Atul Hatwal, of the Migration Matters Trust, said: “It was hysteria and hyperbole made principally by UKIP and fear of UKIP. We were made to think hundreds of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians would be at the gates at midnight and it is just not the case.”
Andreas Cser, who runs the TJobs website which helps Romanians work abroad, told the BBC that the number of his countrymen seeking work in Britain was actually falling, saying: “We haven’t actually observed an increased interest especially for the UK. In fact for UK jobs we have seen a decrease in applicants over the last six months”.
Earlier in January an extension of the NHS charging regime was revealed, which will see overseas visitors and migrants charged for accident and emergency treatment in England. Migrants will also have to pay for primary care services such as minor surgery carried out by GPs, while prescription charges will be extended. Predictions for the number of new immigrants vary – with Migration Watch still maintaining their intake estimate of 50,000 a year, while the government’s figures say 13,000 for 2014.