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.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.