LONDON, UK — When Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, the terms of their accession imposed migration restrictions within the union for another seven years.
Now that they’re being lifted on Jan. 1, Britain is scrambling to block new residents’ access to state services amid fears about a flood of new immigrants.
On Monday, the government announced it would start charging immigrants and foreign visitors for emergency room visits and some other uses of the National Health Service.
A more aggressive proposal to charge foreigners for basic doctor visits was dropped, ministers said.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister David Cameron rushed emergency legislation through parliament that will block EU migrants from applying for unemployment benefits until they’ve been in the UK three months.
He also threatened to veto the admission of any more states to the EU until the rules governing free movement — a key tenet of the union — are changed.
“These new restrictions will make the UK a less attractive place for EU migrants who want to come here and try to live off the state,” Cameron said. "We will not welcome people who don't want to contribute."
But critics of the new measures say it’s far from clear what will happen after the EU restrictions are lifted.
Labour Party parliamentarian Keith Vaz called the emergency room charges “yet another panic measure,” echoing critics who say that Cameron’s stance is more about managing the political fallout of Britain’s burgeoning anti-immigrant sentiment than the actual economic impact of migration.
Some of the fears are driven by previous experience. Although experts predicted 15,000 Poles and others would settle in Britain a year after a wave of EU accessions in 2004, half a million Poles eventually ended up here.
Despite the restrictions against them, however, many Romanians and Bulgarians have already been able to seek work outside their home countries since they joined the EU.
Skeptics of mass-migration claims say that those who wanted to leave have already left, and those who do choose to migrate under the new laws are more likely to choose one of the eight other countries besides the UK that will open their borders Jan. 1.
“If someone wanted to leave, they’re already gone,” said Maria Stoyanova, a former Bulgarian parliamentarian and Council of Europe representative.
“I’ve been engaged in politics for 16 years,” she said, speaking from her home in Sofia. “I’m sure there will be no immigration wave after the first of January.”
The government has refused to publish statistics about the number of migrants expected.
Estimates from outside sources vary widely. The anti-immigration research center MigrantWatch estimates 50,000 arrivals in each of the next five years.
In contrast, Bulgaria’s ambassador to Britain, Konstantin Dimitrov, said in November that the UK should expect only 8,000 new immigrants from his country annually.
In a poll published this week, two-thirds of Brits said they’d welcome Bulgarian and Romanian migrants — as long as they speak English, pay taxes, work hard and assimilate into local communities.
But with alarmist tabloid headlines and many Brits genuinely concerned about employment in a shaky, post-recession economy, it’s an issue the government can’t afford to ignore.
Cameron’s government has been politically threatened by the emerging UK Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing, anti-immigration party that has attracted many working class Conservative Party voters.
However, UKIP leader Nigel Farage was caught up in his own issues this past weekend after he publicly called on the government to admit refugees from Syria. Supporters exploded at the unexpected statement, with many taking to the party’s Facebook page to brand Farage a “sellout” who had lost their vote.
“Sorry nigel dont agree,” a Facebook commenter named Karin Robertson wrote. “This country is full now but with more scum headed our way in a few days.”
Immigrants say such attitudes are inaccurate and hurtful.
“I’m upset. I’m so upset,” said Valentina, 31, a Bulgarian living in London. “People like me, we are serious people. We want to work and make life here.”
Valentina, who asked that her last name not be used, moved here in 2010 to work for a family friend’s cleaning business. It wasn’t her first choice — she says she would have preferred Spain or another sunnier destination — but it was the one place she had a firm offer of employment.
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Friends from home inquired about immigrating when she moved here, but after they learned about her initial salary — a meager $50 per week — and the high cost of living, they lost interest. A brother and sister-in-law came to visit, but left unimpressed.
Valentina says she doesn’t know anyone back home who wants to move here when other destinations are more attractive.
“In Germany, they have the same salary, but the rent is cheap. The food is cheap,” she said.
Germany also hasn’t seen the same public outcry against EU immigration.
“That’s why a lot of people just don’t want to come here,” Valentina said. “They feel a disconnect. Discrimination. They don’t tell you face to face, but you can feel it.”