How migrants really live

Margaret Hodge thinks newcomers to Britain take housing which should go to the indigenous population

A bitter wind creates a mini-tornado of litter on the high street in Cricklewood, a grey, somewhat grimy suburb in north London. On a corner of the street stands a group of six men, dressed in dark blue jeans and thick workmen's jackets, collars pulled up around their necks and chins to protect them from the 7am chill. They are all eastern Europeans. And they are literally "work whores" - fit young men hoping to be picked up by a passing contractor or foreman and driven to a nearby building site to do a hard day's graft for a cash-in-hand pay packet.

One of them, Dimitar, 22, is Bulgarian. He lied his way into Britain two months ago. Following Bulgaria and Romania's accession to the European Union on 1 January, the Home Office imposed heavy restrictions on the movement of low-skilled workers from these new EU countries into the UK. So Dimitar - "low skill but very hard worker", as he describes himself - paid "a friend" the equivalent of £250 for documentation that showed he was self-employed and that gave him more leeway to come here. "I didn't want to start with a lie, but I have no choice," he says, as old crisp packets and sweet wrappers blow around his paint-freckled boots.

Dimitar is one of many eastern immigrants who live below officialdom's radar, part of a growing shadow population of "illegals". His life, and those of thousands of others from Romania and Bulgaria, are nothing like the fantasy described by the MP for Barking, Margaret Hodge, when she claimed that new im migrants were being offered priority access to social housing over indigenous families. Dimitar lives in a hostel for the homeless. Last September, the charity Homeless Link found that more than 15 per cent of 4,356 homeless people surveyed at day centres and night shelters in London over the course of a single week were eastern European.

Dimitar has no access to social housing, but dreams, he tells me, of moving from the hostel into a privately rented flat or shared house with other Bulgarians, though he realises "that costs a lot of money". Most of his friends fork out large chunks of their wages on rent to private landlords for overcrowded flats and houses.

Hodge's scaremongering would have raised concern at any time. But it was doubly off the mark, coming six months after Britain imposed stringent regulations on the entry of people from Romania and Bulgaria - regulations that have created a layer of new illegal immigrants, who often have no choice but to take low-paid work and pay exorbitant rents.

We hear a lot about the American dream; it is harder to imagine that anyone might have a British dream. But Dimitar did. From a poor rural region of eastern Bulgaria, he has spent the past three years learning English. He planned, upon Bulgaria's accession to the EU, to "come to England, work on buildings, and send money home". When the new Labour government decided at the end of last year to place a block on the free flow of low-skilled labour from the new EU member states, Dimitar was "how you say? - upset". He has had to scale down his British dream. Now he aims to make enough to pay off his £250 documentation debt (which is accruing interest) and find steady work that will allow him to move out of the homeless people's hostel.

The Home Office's attempt to limit the flow of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria has given rise to a new layer of second-class Europeans such as Dimitar: people who, despite being fellow citizens of the EU, are forced to sneak in to the UK, where their ill-defined status leaves them open to being exploited. In order to "manage the flow of new workers" from Romania and Bulgaria, the government severely limited the right of the low-skilled to come here. The aim was to provide workers from the two new EU countries with "gradual access" to the British labour market. Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, says this decision "made a mockery of the ideal of free movement of labour in a united Europe".

The number of low-skilled Romanian and Bulgarian workers who can get UK work permits has been capped at 20,000 a year. All workers from both countries have the standard EU citizenship right to enter Britain for three months. However, in order to work here, they have to get a special "work authorisation document". Those who meet the criteria for skilled labour are far more likely to qualify for this document than low-skilled labourers. The low-skilled must apply for a six-month work authorisation under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. Those who fail to meet the requirements of the scheme, or who, like Dimitar, had grand plans to move to Britain for a long period of time and make a decent wage, are moving here illegally, often with the help of fraudulent "friends".

Stanmore is a London suburb. It is half leafy streets where the well-off live and half streets of terraced housing inhabited by working-class families. There has been an influx of eastern immigrants over the past three years. At bus stops and on street corners, you hear animated conversations in Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian. Local newsagents sell Polish- and Romanian-language newspapers alongside copies of the Irish Post and Jewish Chronicle, showing that the new easterners are making their mark here just as other immigrant groups did before them.

One street is referred to as "Little Romania". In a tidy but cluttered house-cum-commune where five immigrant workers live, 32-year-old Eugen from eastern Romania is sipping a cup of tea. He came to Britain as an illegal four years ago. He had travelled from Romania to Lyons in France, where he lay low while waiting for a man to deliver false papers and a passport. He paid £1,500. A qualified painter and decorator, Eugen says he has worked in Britain pretty much non-stop since he arrived. The personal costs, however, have been high. Because he has what he calls a "specially made passport", he has not dared to travel back to Romania. He has missed weddings and funerals. And he has not seen his wife and seven-year-old son in four years. The strain was too much for her. They are now divorced.

"I lost everything to come here, everything," he says, almost spitting the words out. "And all I ask for is recognition that I work hard and that I am a human being." Eugen was bitterly disappointed when restrictions were imposed on the movement of Romanians and Bulgarians. "I thought that when Romania joined the EU I could become legal. I thought my Romanian friends could come here. But many are still having to pay money and tell lies to come here."

That includes Andrei, 22, a friend of Eugen's who arrived in Britain two weeks ago. He lives in a nearby flat above a shop - again, it is privately rented accommodation. Andrei and his entire family drove in a van from Romania to Italy two years ago. There, he learned "perfect Italian", he tells me, while working first as a builder and then as a waiter in a restaurant. He was biding his time in Italy, waiting until Romania officially became part of the EU, so that he could make the journey to Britain and "earn a good wage". When Romania joined and Britain imposed its restrictions, "I was very sad." So, like many other Romanians, Andrei has exercised his EU citizenship right to visit Britain for three months, but with secret plans to stay for longer - to blend into British society and to work surreptitiously, mostly for cash in hand. "I know it's risky, but I want to do it," he says.

Eugen has encountered prejudice. "People think if you are Romanian then you are a gangster, a criminal, a gypsy. They say you are coming to steal jobs and houses from British people." A claim by a minister of Hodge's high profile, that immigrants are racing ahead of indigenous families in the social housing stakes, can only make Eugen and his friends more vulnerable.

Two-tier system

Many Romanians and Bulgarians are deeply dis appointed by the UK government's double standards. The first accession of eastern states occurred in 2004. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined, and their workers were largely free to come to Britain. Last summer, it was revealed that, between May 2004 and June 2006, the British authorities approved 427,095 work applications for eastern immigrants, around 62 per cent of which - or 264,560 - were granted to Poles. There was a tabloid frenzy about Britain being "swamped" . The Home Office promptly announced that Romanians and Bulgarians would be given less freedom to move between their home countries and Britain.

"The government gave in to pressure, both from the press and also from conservative business representatives, such as the CBI," says Phi lippe Legrain. "By giving in to this pressure, the government made a nonsense of the idea that 'we're all Europeans'." Ministers have given credence to the "poisonous prejudice that Romanians and Bulgarians are even more backward and barbaric than other eastern Europeans".

Others are struck by the irrationality of the UK's decision. Zaki Cooper is director of Business for a New Europe, a lobby group supported by leading companies that campaigned in 2006 for no restrictions on the movement of labour from Bulgaria and Romania. "There's plenty of anecdotal and empirical evidence to show that eastern workers have been beneficial for the British economy," he says. "They're young, hard-working, motivated; very few claim income support. They've plugged gaps in the labour market that domestic workers have been unable or unwilling to fill."

Marina, a Bulgarian who previously worked in Spain, is a cleaner at a primary school in south London. She's another of the "three-monthers" - someone who perfectly legally came here for three months, but who stayed on illegally in order to work. She lives in a flat with another Bulgarian and a Pole. "I wanted a new life here," she says, "but I feel like I am in hiding. I think you British do not trust me."

By raising the drawbridge only halfway to Romania and Bulgaria, the government has done a great deal to undermine the idea of a free and united Europe. It has helped to give rise to a two-tier system, under which certain states are seen as trustworthy and others not. When I spoke to him, Eugen asked me: what kind of union is it where some members move freely while others are forced to move around under cover of darkness and dodgy documentation?

And yet, as they move from eastern Europe to southern Europe and finally to Britain, working along the way and learning languages, the new migrants make the dream of a united Europe a reality. And they seem far more optimistic about Europe than many over here.

"I know one day Romania will be a full and respected member of the EU. Then we will be happy," says Eugen.

The names of illegal immigrants have been changed to protect their identity

Housing and "foreigners": the true facts

Asylum-seekers arriving in the UK are not eligible for social housing or full benefits until they have been granted leave to remain. With fewer than 5,000 successful asylum applications in 2006 and with 1.6 million households in total on the waiting list for social housing, people granted asylum account for a very small percentage of those in the social housing system. They are assessed against the same criteria as everyone else for the limited housing that is available. Only 18,461 new social housing units were built in England last year.

Most immigrants arriving in the UK do not go on to live in social housing. Priority for social housing is allocated using a points-based or banding system, depending on the council. Demographically, immigrants who come to the UK to work are likely to be young, single and without dependants - all factors that place them firmly in a low-priority group; 82 per cent of accession immigrants registered for work in the UK since May 2004 have been aged between 18 and 34, and 93 per cent stated that they had no dependants.

The Home Office says between May 2004 and December 2006, immigrants from accession states made up an average of 0.06 per cent new local authority tenants. In the same period, immigrant households represented only 0.3 per cent of those deemed eligible for homelessness assistance from a local authority. Downing Street claims that in 2005/2006 foreign nationals received 1 per cent of social lettings.

Jonathan Pearson