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

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

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

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.