The scale of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration

Published: 8th Jan 2014

  • On 1 January temporary immigration restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians wanting to come to the UK were lifted.
  • The so-called 'A2 migrants' will still be subject to the same rights and rules as most other EU nationals.
  • There aren't any official estimates yet for how many have come.
  • The government now wants to reduce the 'draw' of the UK by reforming the benefits system for EU nationals.

Temporary restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to the UK were lifted at the start of 2014

Romania and Bulgaria - the so-called 'A2 countries' - joined the European Union in 2007. In doing so, their citizens would enjoy the same rights of free movement within the EU as enjoyed by other member states, and certain Romanian and Bulgarian nationals would be eligible for the same right to reside in the UK: in most cases freely for up to three months and longer if they meet immigration requirements (such as being in work or study here).

However, to protect workers in existing member states from a sudden influx of competition, transitional provisions were put in place to restrict the free movement of Romanians and Bulgarians for up to 7 years, which member states could choose to sign up to. These couldn't violate the 'general freedom to travel', only the 'right to work' in another country.

The UK imposed the restrictions for the maximum 7 years, ending on 1 January 2014. Up until then, Romanian and Bulgarian workers normally needed a work permit to work in the UK, which means a job usually needs to be lined up in advance. Low-skilled workers have been restricted to schemes in the agricultural and food processing sectors. Skilled workers have been able to come if they have a work permit or qualify for the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme.

Now that restrictions have been lifted, and Romanian and Bulgarian workers are subject to the same rules as most other EU nationals, there's a debate over the effect a new influx of migrants will have on the economy and wider society.

Since 2007, 150,000 more Romanians and Bulgarians live in the UK

Even during 'transitional restrictions', Romanians and Bulgarians have still been coming to the UK. Migration statistics from the ONS don't show how many A2 migrants have been entering or leaving the country as this is too specific, but it is possible to look at net migration of the A2 countries plus Cyprus and Malta from the figures.

On average 14,000 citizens from these countries have entered the UK each year from 2007 to 2012, and around 6,000 have left each year. So net migration from these four countries has amounted to about 8,000 a year. At the very least, this gives us a ballpark figure for what's been happening at the borders.

But estimates of migration at the borders don't reflect how the Romanian and Bulgarian population has changed - migrants can have children when they move here, and the border estimates themselves miss out people just coming for under a year.

The House of Commons Library has estimated using data from the labour force survey that since 2007 the A2 population in the UK has grown by 148,000, or about 25,000 a year.

The Department for Work and Pensions has produced larger figures: 22,000 Romanians and 14,000 Bulgarians have been granted national insurance numbers to work in the UK on average each year since 2007. Again, this estimate likely to be higher because the main migration estimates miss out short-term migrants, and the fact it's much larger than the population change suggests that many leave after coming to the UK.

"The truth is nobody really knows": There are no official estimates for how many are expected to come to the UK

Since the start of 2013, the government has made clear it hasn't published any forecasts on how many A2 migrants are expected to come from 2014 onwards. Lord Taylor stated in the House of Lords that:

"we have not prepared forecasts of likely inflows from Romania and Bulgaria once restrictions are lifted. Such forecasts are unlikely to be reliable because they are dependent on too many variable factors."

A government-commissioned analysis last year by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) on the potential impacts of A2 migration beyond 2014 also made no attempt, saying it wasn't possible to predict the scale of future migration numerically given the lack of reliable data on existing migration, among other problems. Oxford University's Migration Observatory has made similar points.

Migration Watch has however produced its own estimate, forecasting that A2 migration will add between 30,000 and 70,000 to the UK's population in each of the next five years using a number of different methods - so roughly 50,000 per year as a central estimate. In addition, about half of this (around 25,000 a year) will appear in official estimates of net migration, according to the group. 

Their estimates are mainly based on examining what's been happening already, since 2004, and how this might play out post-2014. For instance, assuming that Romanian and Bulgarian migrants come to the UK at similar rates to the A8 states (mainly Poland) who joined the EU in 2004.

Of course, as other organisations have already pointed out, there's a great deal of variation between individual states who've recently joined the EU in terms of how many have chosen to come to the UK, so there's no way to know for sure how many will end up arriving from Romania and Bulgaria specifically.

There are now indications from the government that it intends to change the rules on foreign nationals' entitlement to out-of-work benefits to reduce so-called benefit tourism.

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