Q&A: Bulgarian and Romanian immigration

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As of 1 January 2014, Bulgarians and Romanians have gained the same rights to work in the UK as other EU citizens. Here is a guide to the issues:

What's happening?

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. However, the government has rushed through legislation to toughen the rules around migrants claiming benefits.

What is the government worried about?

Public concern over immigration is running high and ministers want to demonstrate to critics, such as the anti-EU party UKIP, that Britain is not a "soft touch" or beholden to Brussels. At the same time, they do not want to deter skilled migrants who can help the economy. David Cameron says he wants to make sure people come to the UK "for the right reasons", not just to claim benefits. But there is dissension among MPs, with more than 60 of them backing a campaign to extend the restrictions for a further five years. They say the British economy has not sufficiently recovered from the 2008 recession to cope with the change and it will put pressure on public services and reduce job opportunities for British workers.

Which other countries imposed restrictions?

Apart from Britain, eight countries imposed restrictions of some kind on Romanians and Bulgarians. These all expired on 1 January 2014:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • France
  • Germany
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Spain
  • The Netherlands

How many Romanians and Bulgarians do ministers think will move to the UK?

The coalition is not making any official predictions. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has said he has no confidence in figures, published on his department's own website, predicting that about 13,000 will arrive. He knows that Labour got its fingers burned when it grossly underestimated the number of migrants expected to come from Eastern Europe in 2004, when Poland and other former Soviet bloc countries joined the EU. Pressure group Migration Watch has predicted 50,000 could come to the UK every year until 2019. It says many of the two million Romanians and Bulgarians currently working in Spain and Italy could be tempted to come to the UK - the "most lucrative destination" for EU migrants. The Bulgarian ambassador has previously estimated that only about 8,000 Bulgarians a year would come to the UK.

Will it be the same as when Poland and other Eastern European countries joined the EU?

The government insists the situation is very different this time as eight other EU countries will lift labour market restrictions at the same time. In 2004, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden opened their doors to Eastern European workers. Many Bulgarians and Romanians have already come to work in the UK since 2007 under various schemes.

So how many Romanians and Bulgarians are living in the UK at the moment?

In July 2012 there were 94,000 Romanian-born people and 47,000 Bulgarian-born people living in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics.

What benefits can Romanians and Bulgarians claim on arrival in the UK?

Romanians and Bulgarians will not have unrestricted access to UK social security benefits and tax credits, in common with all people coming to the UK from the European Economic Area - the EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. Under new tighter rules that came into force on 1 January, all EU migrants will have to wait three months before they can claim jobseeker's allowance and other out-of-work benefits. The government says they will then face a more robust residence test before any claim is approved. This will include questions about their efforts to find work and English language skills. If you pass the test, you can claim housing benefit, council tax benefit, access to local authority housing, income support, jobseeker's allowance and employment and support allowance. Under these tightened rules, EU migrants also face having out-of-work benefits cut after six months unless they can confirm they are genuinely seeking work.

Can Romanians and Bulgarians expect any more changes to their benefits entitlement?

Over the next year, the government wants to stop housing benefits for new EU migrants. They may also be kept off council house waiting lists in England for at least two years, under plans for councils to introduce a residency test. There is also a proposal to impose a minimum earnings threshold below which EU migrants would not be entitled to benefits like income support.

What other changes are the government making from the 1 January deadline?

EU migrants found begging or sleeping on the streets can already be deported, but from 1 January they will also be barred from re-entering the UK for a year - unless they get a job, Mr Cameron says.

What other measures are likely in the future?

Mr Cameron wants to bring in new charges for migrants and overseas visitors using some NHS services in England. This includes extended prescription fees, some emergency care and higher rates for optical and dental services. GP and nurse consultations will remain free, and no-one will be turned away in an emergency. Currently, anyone with permission to live permanently or temporarily in the UK is offered free NHS care. In addition, employers paying less than the minimum wage will face a £20,000 fine per underpaid worker. In the longer term, Mr Cameron says he wants to impose restrictions on freedom of movement in the EU, with new member states having to reach a certain income per head before they are allowed full access to other member states' labour markets. Bulgaria's president Rosen Plevneliev warned a move towards "isolation and nationalism" could harm Britain's image as a "global power".

What do Romania and Bulgaria think?

They have reacted with anger and dismay, particularly at media portrayals of their citizens as benefit scroungers or criminals. Officials say most are hard-working and want to contribute to British society. They also insist that most Bulgarians and Romanians who want to be in the UK are already in the country and the predicted "flood" on 1 January will not happen. Most Romanians would prefer to live in Spain or Italy, where they find it easier to learn the language, embassy officials say.

Why are those two countries being singled out for welfare restrictions?

They are not. With the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians being lifted, the government wants to tighten up benefit rules for all migrants from the European Economic Area.

What does Labour say?

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper says it is right to have conditions on benefits and public services for immigration because the system "needs to be fair and seen to be fair". However, the party has questioned why the government has taken so long to act.

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