What will be the effect of Bulgarian and Romanian migration to the UK?

A new report from NIESR tackles the question in-depth.

In 2007 Bulgaria and Romania became members of the European Union (EU) but, as when Poland and the other seven 'A8' countries joined in 2004, existing EU members were allowed to put in place transitional controls on the right of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to work in their countries. The UK exercised this right to impose such controls, along with a number of other EU member states. These run out at the end of 2013. NIESR's review on the potential impact of future migration from these countries has just been published.

As is often the case in debates on migration, the focus has been on numbers, with Migration Watch estimating that around 50,000 people from Bulgaria and Romania will come to the UK over the next 5 years. Amid heightened concerns about numbers, the press has reported plans for a Government campaign to inform potential migrants about life in "not so Great Britain". On releasing its figures, Migration Watch's chair, Andrew Green, said:

It is not good enough to duck making an estimate of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria. It is likely to be on a scale that will have significant consequences for housing and public services.

Our review challenges both statements: we make no prediction of numbers but still question whether migration from Bulgaria and Romania will have the impact which Migration Watch suggests.

Why no numbers?

Our review concludes that, while the volume of research on migration is not insubstantial, it is not possible to predict the scale of future migration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK numerically, for 3 reasons:

  • Migration behaviour is unpredictable: While surveys about migration intentions have been carried out in Bulgaria and Romania, these are unreliable and should not be used as a basis for policy making in the UK. Future migration is highly dependent on economic, political and social factors in Bulgaria, Romania, UK, Europe and beyond. Economic factors are particularly important, and possibly the most unpredictable, yet migration from Bulgaria and Romania is very largely for economic reasons, with the objective of improving employment prospects and living standards. 
  • Some migration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK has already happened: Significant migration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK has already taken place, around 26,000 Bulgarians and 80,000 Romanians, although this is likely to be an underestimate, as explained below. Current EU2 migration is largely confined to particular sectors -  hospitality, cleaning services, construction and trade - and to self-employment where restrictions do not apply. These existing migrants may stay put once restrictions are lifted, but may choose to work in other sectors. We may therefore see a redistribution of EU2 migrants between sectors rather than a dramatic increase.
  • There are no precise figures of current migration and how much is temporary or permanent: Data on current migration is not accurate and does not allow for a distinction between temporary migration, those who come for perhaps a few years and then return, and permanent migrants. The UK record of National Insurance Numbers (NINO) database includes migrants who register and then leave the country, while the Labour Force Survey is a sample survey, in which numbers of Bulgarians and Romanians are very small. 

Are Bulgarians and Romanians interested in coming to the UK?

Migration from Bulgaria and Romania is very largely for economic reasons, to improve employment prospects and living standards. These are higher in most other EU countries, including the UK, than in Bulgaria and Romania. Hence the potential for increased emigration is significant.  Unemployment rates are lower in the UK than in Bulgaria and about the same as in Romania and surveys in the two countries show some interest in migration to the UK. However, it is by no means top of the list and much of the interest that exists is in temporary stays rather than long-term settlement. Attempts to deter potential migrants with warnings about "not so Great Britain" where the streets are not paved with gold, may therefore be wasted effort, since economic migrants often intend to stay for short periods, to earn money and then return home.

The main destinations for migrating Bulgarians and Romanians since their countries joined the EU have been Spain and Italy, since these opened their borders earlier and have similarities in language. There is evidence of longer-term settlement in these countries which may mean they continue to be more popular destinations even after restrictions are lifted across the EU. However, unemployment is high in Spain and Italy and economic prospects are uncertain, which may restrain future migration to these countries. 

For these reasons estimates of potential migration to the UK are likely to be inaccurate and misleading and our report does not include these. We don't see this as 'ducking out' but as recognising the impossibility of accurately forecast something as unpredictable as migration. The emphasis of our report is on the potential impact of any migration which does occur and what preparations might be put in place, particularly by local authorities and Health Trusts. 

What will be the impact of migration from Bulgaria and Romania on UK public services?

Our review of the impact of migration on UK services found very little literature specifically relating to migration from Bulgaria and Romania. Anticipating that evidence would be sparse, we reviewed literature on EU8 migration, which has predominantly been from Poland. This previous episode of migration was larger than anticipated which meant that many services were not well-prepared for EU8 migration and found it difficult to cope with the increased demand. However, a feature of EU8 migration was its wide geographical spread across the UK, because of labour shortages at the time, the role of agencies and historic links between Poland and the UK. EU2 migration is less likely to be so widely dispersed across the UK. 

  • Health services are unlikely to experience a significant impact from Bulgarian and Romanian migration. Economic migrants, in particular, are generally young and healthy and, as such, do not make major demands on health services. Some research has found migrants make little use of health services because they lack information about how to access them. 
  • Education services will be affected by migration from Bulgaria and Romania only if there is significant family migration. Current migration from these countries is of individuals, rather than family units. However, any significant family migration may potentially increase pressure on school places at primary level in some areas which are experiencing shortages. Existing evidence suggests that migrant children do not have a negative impact on school performance and that, in London at least, they have contributed to improved results. However, language assistance will need to be provided, at least for any new arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania. 
  • Housing services, like education, are likely to be affected more by family migration than by migration of single people, who form the majority of current Bulgarian and Romanian migrants. Migrants are concentrated in the private rented sector and are not generally eligible for social housing. They may increase the demand for private rented housing, but this can stimulate local housing markets, encouraging renting out. As with education services, the demands on housing are dependent on whether migrants stay for short periods and remain in the private rented sector, or tied housing, or stay permanently. 
  • The welfare system experiences less demand from migrants from the ten current EU member states. Studies find them to be less likely to claim benefits than other migrant groups and that those who claim benefits, the majority claim child benefits. The review found a shortage of evidence on the impact of migrants on the welfare system which makes potential impacts difficult to predict. 

Research evidence on the impact of Eastern European migration consistently shows that impacts are relatively light because of the characteristics of economic migrants: they are young, healthy, often single and without families. This is certainly true of those migrants from Bulgaria and Romania who are already here. Eastern European migrants typically come to the UK to work, and have little time, money or energy to make demands on services. They prefer to use doctors and dentists during visits home. But while this is true of temporary migrants, the impact on services changes for those who settle permanently. So while current Bulgarian and Romanian migrants are young and without children, this may change if they find that Britain actually is Great, and decide to make it their home. It is then that they will become both eligible for and more likely to use services, including housing, education and health. 

What our report does not cover, and what we shouldn't forget, is that migrants, including those from Eastern Europe, make an invaluable contribution to public services, as employees in our health and social care services, building our houses and paying taxes. Rather than to focus narrowly on numbers and on costs, perhaps we should be more aware of the continuing benefits to being a country which can attract the skills and attributes we need - despite our high rain fall and long, cold winters. 

A Bulgarian man celebrates the country's accession to the EU. Photograph: Getty Images

Dr Heather Rolfe is the principal research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.