Romanian and Bulgarian migration to Britain: facts behind the fear

Is Britain on the verge of another mass-migration, as with the Poles? Behind the rhetoric on Romanians and Bulgarians set to flood the country, sucking up jobs and benefits, the actual expected impact of the lifted restrictions has gone unspoken.

Franck Düvell
28 March 2013

In January 2014, seven years after Romania and Bulgaria were admitted as member states to the European Union, temporary migration and employment restrictions of their citizens will be lifted in nine other EU member states: Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxemburg, Malta, Netherlands, Spain (only Romanians), the UK and Switzerland (European Commission 2012). All other EU countries lifted restrictions at an earlier stage.

In the UK a moral panic broke out over ‘tidal floods of new immigrants’ (MEP Bloom, UKIP) from Romania and Bulgaria. The Telegraph warned that ‘Britain [is] powerless to stop tens of thousands of Bulgarians and Romanians moving to UK’. The Sun lamented about ‘Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants ...threatening to swamp Britain — and flood our overstretched jobs market’. And an e-petition implies that as many as 600,000 could come, often to seek benefits (HM Government 2013). In a desperate move politicians considered a negative image campaign to deter migrants from coming  (See this comic but disturbing piece, Britain and Romania: a short history of a troubled romance).

One focus is immigrants’ access to welfare benefits. For instance, Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, argued that ‘people shouldn't use the free movement rules just to travel around, looking for the best benefits they can get’ (quoted from Migrants Rights Network 2013). In Germany, the debate is more nuanced. On the one hand, migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, notably the highly skilled, are welcomed to fuel the economy (Der Spiegel). On the other hand, a discursive ‘threat’ framing on ‘poverty migration’ (Sueddeutsche Zeitung) has emerged. The Focus ran the headline ‘Poor Romanians and Bulgarian immigrants attack Germany’ and the Spiegel highlights poor immigrants from the A2 countries congesting homeless shelters and other social services.

In this context a number of issues need to be raised:

-          What is the historical context of the current debate?

-          What is the migration potential of Romania and Bulgaria?

-          Where would they go?

-          Would they claim benefits?

-          What is the discursive purpose of this debate?

The context

Initially, Germany and Britain, both currently under conservative/liberal coalition governments, opted for restricting access to employment for citizens of Romania and Bulgaria. Their starting points, however, differ significantly.

First, in 2004, when Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and others joined the EU only the UK, Sweden and Ireland opened its borders to migration whilst Germany and all other EU member states imposed restrictions to employment. As a consequence, around 900,000 A8 citizens moved to the UK. In 2011, there were still 579,000 Polish and 97,000 Lithuanian residents in England and Wales (ONS 2011). In Germany, in 2010 there were 690,000 registered A8 nationals (BAMF 2013), almost as many as in the UK though numbers had built up over a longer period of time.

Second, in 2004, when the borders opened for free movement from the A8 countries, academics predicted that fewer than 20,000 people would come to the UK, a ludicrously low estimate, and that's what the government told the public. But in the end many more came and the public felt misled by the government. This is a kind of ‘moral trauma’ which all parties aim to avoid repeating. In Germany, restrictions were kept in place and no such sudden influx or trauma occurred.

Third, the UK is still in an economic crisis; unemployment stands at 2.5 million, around 8 percent (BBC) whereas Germany enjoys constant economic growth and a record low of unemployment, 2.9 million, or 6.8 percent (HAZ). Thus whilst the UK’s policy goal is to reduce net migration Germany rather wants more immigration in response to population ageing and skills shortages.

How many people would or could migrate from Romania and Bulgaria?

Romania has a population of 22 million and Bulgaria 7 million, 29 million in total; less than Poland’s 39 million people. Both countries have ageing and shrinking populations and the lowest fertility rates in Europe (Hoff 2011). The cohort of young people who are most likely to migrate is shrinking; there are around 6.5 million Romanians and 2.1 million Bulgarians in the age group 20-39 (CIA 2013a; CIA 2013b), 8.6 million in total. So far, 1.9 million Romanians and 0.35 million Bulgarians have already emigrated to other EU countries (Eurostat 2010, OSI 2011), including 80,000 Romania-born persons to the UK (ONS 2011) and 160,000 to Germany (BAMF 2013). Meanwhile, labour and skills shortages are reported from Bulgaria and in both countries some immigration as well as return migration has been observed (OECD 2012). But how many more would come?

Migration Watch (2013) simply suggests that just because the income difference between Romania and UK is 1:8 this would trigger annual migration of 50,000 people. Serious migration studies, however, are aware that the drivers of migration are much more complex and that migration systems, migration networks, migration politics, opportunity-constraints structures, social and human capital, perceptions and imaginations, individual characteristics and emotions play crucial roles. Thus, the 50,000 people per annum coming from the A2 as claimed by Migration Watch is a mere theoretical product based on a simplifying mono-causal economic model; instead one would need to deduct from the results of this model the various other diminishing factors as listed above (though admittedly these are hard to measure).

Second, due to shrinking and ageing populations the emigration potential is almost naturally limited and will soon or has already been exhausted, notably in the age group 20-39. This trend is reinforced by improving economic conditions. Indeed, OSI (2011) found that migration from Bulgaria has been significantly decreasing since the peak in the early 2000. It is also noteworthy that Denmark, with its growing economy and generous welfare state, opened its borders to A8 nationals in 2009, yet in 2010 only attracted about 2,500 Romanians and 1,200 Bulgarians but no ‘floods’ (OECD 2012).

Third, both countries enjoy economic growth (World Bank, 2013), rising GDPs and decreasing unemployment levels, 6.6 percent in Romania, well below the UK level (7.7 percent), though  unemployment is still at 12.4 percent in Bulgaria (Eurostat, 2013).

In any case, the migration potential from the A2 countries is limited to a small percentage of the 8.6 million people in the age group 20-39 and their dependents. If one would assume that 10 percent of this cohort would migrate - and this is an arbitrary scenario - either all at once, which is unlikely, or over the course of five years, as in the case of Poland, this would amount to 860,000 in total or 172,000 per year over a five-year period. They would be dispersed across the seven top EU and three non-EU destination countries (for a list see below). So, an average of 60,200 potential migrants would move to each of the top seven EU destination countries, no more than 12,040 annually over a five years period, more to the top and fewer to the other destinations. A further 25,800 would to move to non-EU countries. The main uncertainties are (a) the behaviour of the discriminated against Roma population, 3-10 percent in Romania and 6-12 percent in Bulgaria (of this age group) and (b) the potential of secondary migration within the EU. So far, no quantifiable observations have been made.

In sum, the era of mass emigration from the A2 countries is over; instead all A8 and A2 countries already begin to attract immigrants. Current perceptions are informed by past experiences and it is time to adjust old perceptions to new realities. Nevertheless, some secondary migration within the EU will occur but on a low level and mostly of the highly skilled variety.

Where would they go?

Romanians traditionally migrated to other neighbouring and southern EU countries where jobs are available in the shadow economy but also for linguistic reasons; Romanian, Italian and Spanish are similar languages. The top destination countries are Italy, Spain, Hungary, the United States, Germany, Portugal, Canada, Austria and France, while the United Kingdom only comes eleventh. Bulgarians mostly migrate to Spain, Germany, Greece, Italy and Portugal followed by Canada and the US but not the UK (e.g. IOM 2008, OSI 2011). It is often assumed that immigrant populations trigger a network effect and facilitate more immigration, in the same order as listed above, hence the UK is one of the least likely destinations. On the other hand, immigrant communities suffering from economic hardship also discourage further immigration and thus the network effect diminishes (as observed in case of Algerian migration to France, see Collyer 2005). This can result in some diversion to less prominent destination, like the UK, Denmark or the Netherlands; however, the lack of social networks, language barrier as well as unfavourable economic conditions set limits to this potential. These limitations also apply to the potential for relocation to other EU countries.

Are Romanians and Bulgarians benefits claimants?

Several sources claim that benefits are a major driver of migration, which is usually supported by numerically small ad hoc observation. This is based on the crude so-called ‘benefits magnet theory’ (e.g. Brueckner, 2000); meanwhile, however, it has been shown that social services and benefits are rather an extra that inform decisions for labour migration (Razin & Wahba 2011). Accordingly, OSI (2011) found that 73 percent of Bulgarians and even 84 percent of the Roma went abroad for working, the remainder were mainly students. Indeed, it is usually found that migrants’ net contribution to the fiscal system is either neutral (e.g. Rowthorn, 2008) or positive (Dustmann et al. 2010). In addition, migration increases employment of the domestic work force (Ortega and Peri 2011) and thereby tax revenues. So even if some migrants eventually claim benefits the overall net contribution of all immigrants is normally positive.

The old game: blaming the immigrants

The current debate (1) links the suffering of the British people and in particular the working class from the economic crisis, welfare cuts and lack of jobs to immigration and blames immigrants for perceived congestions in these areas. It thus moves the focus of attention from the true perpetrators, governments and banks and the politics of deregulation that paved the way for the banking and financial crisis. (2) It diverts attention from the governments’ failure to provide sufficient services and create jobs and instead in a Malthusian twist alleges there are too many people, job seekers and claimants. These are de facto xenophobic (in German ‘ausländerfeindliche’) politics. And (3), notably the British debate, links unwanted European immigration to ‘the EU’ and blames European law for undermining the UK’s capacity to control migration. This is then used to further fuel an already heated anti-European, protectionist and nationalist agenda (see Düvell 2011). Hence, these discourses exploit the alleged large-scale arrival of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants for policy goals that have little to do with migration.

Conclusion: Concerns over migration from Romania and Bulgaria reveal class and welfare issue

The European Union has created a space of free mobility, thus a European market for labour, education and business has been created. The current controversy over migration from Romania and Bulgaria, however, illustrates that those who work, in particular the highly skilled, are rather welcomed whilst the poor and potential benefits claimants are not. The underlying suggestion is that the poor should stay put whilst only the highly skilled are welcome to migrate. However, EU law does not make class, income or skills a condition for enjoying the right of free moment and instead insists that this is a fundamental right to be enjoyed indiscriminately by everybody.

Thus, this controversy reveals three major problems, (1) gross social inequalities across the EU which compels people to seek residence elsewhere, (2) the lack of a European welfare model that would provide sufficient benefits to all EU citizens wherever they live and (3) the incomplete enforcement of minority and fundamental rights for Roma.

Hence, in order to reduce the internal European migration pressures social inequality and deficiencies in welfare politics must be addressed.

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