Bad image, getting worse

Observations on eastern European migrants

Forget al-Qaeda: Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants have become public enemy number one. The one-legged roof tilers are poor and desperate, and they are coming soon to a job fair near you.

But what do all the Romanians and Bulgarians who already live here think? After all, there are an estimated 50,000 of them and many have contributed to British culture, sport, business and politics. The Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi is the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London; Angela Gheorghiu's soprano voice is enchanting Covent Garden audiences; Alina Cojocaru is one of the Royal Ballet's leading dancers; Adrian Mutu has played a part in Chelsea's recent footballing success; Bulgarian-born Ergin Cavusoglu, one of ten artists shortlisted for the Beck's Futures Prize 2004, lives in London. And the leader of the opposition in parliament is the son of a migrant from Romania.

But since the early 1990s, when British TV viewers saw images of Aids-ridden orphans and savage miners sweeping Bucharest, Romania has had a problem with its public image. "Our image here is already as bad as it can get," says Mike Frumosu, who is in charge of exports for a big Romanian wine house and has lived in Britain since 1990. "Except for Kosovars and Albanians, we have the worst reputation from all eastern European countries. If I see that people are narrow-minded, I don't even tell them I'm from Romania."

Nina, a 27-year-old Bulgarian who is here on a business visa to offer cleaning and babysitting services, thinks it will be much more difficult for her compatriots to follow in her footsteps. Getting a self-employment visa, she says, can take up to a year. Nina paid £130 to a compatriot to help her write a business plan in English. A British solicitor can demand up to £500 for this service and there is still no guarantee of getting the visa.

Some eastern Europeans think that, in their attempts to tackle immigration loopholes, the British authorities are using a machine-gun against mosquitoes. "When a thief breaks into my house, I try to stop him. I don't burn down the house to get rid of him," says Dan Ghibernea, Romania's ambassador to London.

Back in Bucharest, locals believe obtaining a UK visa, even for short tourist or business trips, will become an even longer and more humiliating process. "Embassy employees will be worried for their jobs so they will look twice at each document," says Irina Stanica, who works for a multinational software company in Bucharest and travels to London regularly. "Now we are grateful that we can travel to the UK at all, even if we have to queue for hours to get a visa."