Wave of migrant workers from new EU countries heading for Britain


Last updated at 22:00 29 December 2006

A new wave of immigration that may bring hundreds of thousands of impoverished workers to Britain is set to begin.

Migrants from the newest countries to join the European Union, Romania and Bulgaria, will join 600,000 other Eastern Europeans who have arrived over the past three years.

Officials in Bucharest have estimated that 350,000 skilled workers from Romania alone are likely to leave their homes to look for earnings in western Europe next year.

Because of restrictions in most EU countries, a high proportion are likely to come here.

There are fears that this time the new influx of immigrants may bring a crime wave with it.

Memos leaked from Whitehall have predicted that as many as 45,000 'undesirables' will look to come to Britain - where Romanian gangs have long been linked with crimes such as cash machine fraud, mobile phone theft and aggressive begging.

Free immigration from the two new EU member countries will begin when they join the EU after midnight. Numbers coming to Britain are certain to be pushed up by restrictions on their workers which will be imposed by other western European countries.

Spain, where more than half a million Romanians and Bulgarians already work, many illegally, has said it will introduce restrictions.

France - which in six months of this year allowed just 1,545 work permits to migrants from Poland and other eastern European countries already in the EU - said that it will apply similar rules to workers from Romania and Bulgaria.

Germany, which has taken only a handful of Polish workers, and where a majority of the population are said by polls to oppose EU enlargement, is unlikely to open up its work permit scheme to show an enthusiastic welcome to immigrants from the two new countries.

Ministers acknowledged yesterday that the huge level of Eastern European immigration has had a 'transitional impact' and promised to 'manage the flow' of workers from the two new EU states.

Home Office Minister Liam Byrne said that a bigger Europe was good for Britain 'but we need to understand the transitional impacts from the last round of accession before we take the next step'.

He added: 'Measures in place from today will allow us to manage the flow of workers from Bulgaria and Romania as part of this process.'

However, critics are scathing about Labour's plan to curb migration levels by restricting numbers of low-skilled workers granted work permits to 20,000 a year and otherwise allowing in only those with high skills.

From the moment the two countries become EU members, their 29.5 million citizens will have the right to travel freely to Britain, and there will be no bar on those who wish to become self-employed in this country.

Sir Andrew Green of the Migrationwatch think tank said: 'The measures cannot possibly work.'

He added: 'Nobody has any real idea how many people will come from Romania and Bulgaria. The real problem is how much more is to come in what has been the largest wave of immigration in 1,000 years.

'It is vitally important that politicians focus on an effective policy to get the huge numbers down.'

The estimate of 350,000 Romanians leaving to country to work elsewhere has been made by the country's Labour and Social Affairs Ministry.

If that level were to be matched by emigration from the other country joining the EU on Monday, 100,000 Bulgarians would be job-seeking in Western Europe.

The British Government has made no prediction of numbers. One of the reasons that the Home Office has lost credibility on migration figures is that before Poland and seven other Eastern European countries joined the EU on 1 January 2004, it predicted 13,000 new migrants would come each year.

That has proved a 25-fold underestimate. One indication that large numbers of Romanians plan to emigrate is that 600,000 of its 21.7 million people have applied for passports in the last six months. Five years ago, only one million people in the country had a passport at all.

Considerable numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians are thought to have come into Britain in the past two years, many taking jobs in industries like construction.

Some are thought to have worked and paid taxes after exploiting the loophole which has allowed illegal immigrants to get national insurance numbers without immigration officials ever being alerted.

Former immigration minister Beverley Hughes was forced to stand down in April 2004 after she admitted failing to tell the truth about immigration policies that allowed in supposedly high-skilled or well-financed workers and businessmen from Romania without any checks.

There are also signs that industries in Romania are looking to attract immigrants from the Far East to fill gaps in their own factories after their workers head west for better paid jobs.

Textile employers' federation head Maria Grapini told the Reuters news agency that member firms would need 35,000 new workers because 'EU entry will intensify the labour market crisis.'

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