Romania dismisses UK 'invasion' fears

Image caption Bulgaria has been a member of the EU since 2007

The Romanian foreign ministry has dismissed talk in the British media of an "invasion" when work restrictions are lifted on Wednesday.

"The UK for now is not even the preferred destination for Romanians," said spokeswoman Brandusa Predescu.

Some British newspapers have predicted migrants will make the journey to claim benefits and even steal scrap metal.

Ministers have refused to predict how many migrants from Romania and Bulgaria might arrive.

Both countries joined the EU in 2007 but since then, their citizens have been able to work in the UK only under certain conditions, which come to an end on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the Sun newspaper claimed the first coachload of migrants had boarded a bus bound for the UK, with some of them intent on begging for a living or living off the state.

Ms Predescu told the BBC some of the media coverage had bordered on racist and there had been an "outright campaign" against Romanians and Bulgarians.

"There isn't going to be an invasion of Romanians as of two days' time. Not all Romanians, young and old, are going to get on a plane.

"We don't have estimates, you don't have estimates. The UK will [not be] and is not the preferred destination of Romanians."

The Labour government vastly underestimated the number of people who would come to the UK after eight nations joined the European Union in 2004.

It used a prediction of 13,000 arrivals - a figure which was exceeded many times over with a peak net migration figure, from the EU and elsewhere, of 252,000 in 2010.

'Aggressive begging'

This time, with eight other EU countries - including France, Germany and Spain - lifting restrictions at the same time, ministers say forecasting numbers is difficult.

Campaigners for tighter laws have said 50,000 Romanians and Bulgarians a year for the first five years could come to the UK. The Bulgarian ambassador has previously estimated that about 8,000 migrants a year from Bulgaria could come to the UK.

Professor John Salt of the migration research unit at University College London said that data from Bulgaria shows that for the first three months of 2014, the number of advance airline bookings is down on the same period last year.

But he conceded there was a risk that services in the South East could be put under pressure if large numbers arrive.

The leader of Westminster Council, Philippa Roe, echoed this concern and said Roma people had caused disruption in central London by aggressively begging and pickpocketing.

The government is tightening the rules from 1 January to ensure that migrants cannot claim out-of-work benefits for three months after arriving and will only qualify for support after six months if they had a genuine chance of employment.

Overseas visitors and migrants are also to face new charges for some NHS services in England.