THE first Romanians and Bulgarians with unrestricted access to the UK labour market have begun to arrive despite last-ditch efforts to prevent a feared wave of fresh immigration.
Romanians landing at Luton Airport were greeted by home affairs select committee chairman Keith Vaz, who said that migrants arriving yesterday provided just a “snapshot” of those expected to arrive in the country over the coming months.
A 180-seat aircraft from Tirgu Mures only had 140 passengers on board, he said, most of whom already lived and worked in the UK.
“Just on the conversations we’ve had with people who have come here, a lot of them are returning people. They already work in Britain and they’re coming back after a holiday so they’re not people coming here for the first time,” Mr Vaz said.
“We’ve seen no evidence of people who have rushed out and bought tickets in order to arrive because it’s the 1st of January. We’d be surprised if they did so. This is, after all, only a snapshot.
“But we do need to resolve this issue in the future, and it’s an issue for the whole of the EU to resolve so we don’t get these kinds of dramas at the end.”
Mr Vaz criticised “panic measures” that were suggested ahead of temporary curbs imposed in 2005 on citizens of Romania and Bulgaria being lifted. Ninety senior Conservatives attempted to block the move in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, arguing he could invoke a clause in EU law to keep the borders shut. But ministers denied such a move would be feasible.
Mr Vaz also spoke out against the government’s refusal to bow to repeated demands to publish or commission estimates of the numbers expected to enter Britain in the face of unofficial research predicting as many as 50,000 people arriving from the eastern European countries each year.
The Labour MP for Leicester East added: “There are already 141,000 Romanians and Bulgarians living in the UK.
“The concern of the committee has always been the lack of robust estimates of people coming here and we still feel very strongly the government ought to have asked the migration advisory committee to have conducted a piece of research which would have told us the number of people who have come into this country or were coming into this country.
“We think that would have been extremely helpful. The fact that we don’t have those estimates means that we have this kind of drama at the end, which is not helpful to anybody.”
Most of the Romanians arriving on the 7:40am flight already worked in the UK but Victor Spiresau was coming to the country for the first time.
The 30-year-old, who said he earned €10 (£8) a day working in construction at home, expressed hopes of making €10 an hour here but was not planning on settling.
“I don’t come to rob your country. I come to work and then go home,” he said. “Here you pay a lot – in Romania it’s very cheap.”
Mr Spiresau said he already had work lined up washing cars in London but hoped to go on to work in the construction industry and chose to come to the UK over other European countries as he can speak the language. “I like English. I understand English,” he said.
“I don’t want to stay here. I want to renovate my home and to make a good life in Romania because it’s much easier to live in Romania because it’s not expensive.”
Mr Spiresau, who has left his wife at home in their small village, added: “She hopes to see me with a lot of money.”
After speaking to reporters, the Romanian was invited to join Mr Vaz for a coffee where the MP asked him what he planned to do in this country.
Also on the flight was Silviu Todea, who was returning to London after visiting Romania over the holidays.
He said he believed the majority of his compatriots would want to work.
Key questions in immigration debate
Q What actually happened yesterday?
A Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, meaning their citizens gained the right to visa-free travel to the UK. However, temporary curbs were placed on the type of work Romanians and Bulgarians could take.
These restrictions meant employers had to apply for work permits and migrants for an accession worker card.
The curbs are being lifted because under treaty rules they cannot be extended any further.
Q As well as jobs, what else will they be entitled to?
A Bulgarians and Romanians will also be entitled to claim the same benefits and NHS care as other EU citizens.
David Cameron has rushed through a plan to introduce a three-month wait before EU migrants can claim out-of-work benefits. But the reforms do not affect welfare payments for claimants with jobs, meaning migrants will still have more in-salary and in-work benefits than in any other major European country, according to campaign group Migration Watch UK.
Q Which other EU countries imposed job restrictions?
A Eight other countries – Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, Spain and the Netherlands.
Q What concerns have been raised?
A A range of fears have been expressed, from limiting the number of jobs for British workers to taking advantage of the benefits system, and “NHS tourism” to a predicted surge in crime and homelessness. In the face of a surge in popularity for Ukip, the government has sought to show it is not a soft touch on immigration.
Q How many Romanians and Bulgarians are expected to arrive?
A This has been one of the most controversial aspects of the debate in the last year. The government has refused to produce official estimates, but Migration Watch predicts an average of 50,000 every year for the first five years after restrictions are lifted.
Q Has Britain seen anything like this before?
A In 2004, eight other countries, including Poland, joined the EU. Unofficial estimates have placed the Polish population in the UK at more than one million.