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‘We are not immigrants, we are EU citizens’

Romanians demonstrate in London

Romanians and Bulgarians demonstrate in London, December 2013. David Holt under a Creative Commons Licence

Ovidiu Sarpe’s restaurant in the northwest London suburb of Burnt Oak caters mainly to the local Romanian community, which has grown in this area in recent years. Asked about the predicted ‘invasion’ of new migrants from Romania into Britain, Ovidiu responds: ‘I don’t think my business will be affected. Everybody who wanted to be here is already here.’

On 1 January 2014 nine European countries, including Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, lifted restrictions on Romanians’ and Bulgarians’ right to work that had been in place since the two countries joined the European Union (EU) in 2007. Citizens of the two former Eastern Bloc countries could travel and reside freely in any EU member state, but were required to obtain work permits. In Britain, employers had to apply for an Accession Worker Card on the worker’s behalf, save for some categories where there exists a shortage of labour, such as domestic work and the health sector. EU legislation also allows its citizens to establish their own self-employed business in any member state.

Three million Romanians and Bulgarians have already settled in other EU countries. According to the Office for National Statistics, in July 2012 there were 94,000 Romanian-born people and 47,000 Bulgarian-born people living in Britain; however, the actual number is thought to be higher. British mainstream media, particularly the popular tabloid press, have continued to fan fears of a fresh ‘invasion’ of Eastern European migrants. One contentious issue was the potential rise in crime, based on exaggerated figures that account for the number of arrests (not all of which resulted in a charge) rather than of individuals arrested.

The media hysteria reflects a growing wave of euroscepticism, not only in Britain, but also across Europe. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron rushed through some last-minute measures to restrict access to benefits for all migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) in an effort to show his hard-line approach to ‘benefit tourism’ – and stem the rise of anti-EU party UKIP (the UK Independence Party), which has been eroding the Conservative Party’s electoral base. Research findings, in the meantime, show how migrants from EEA countries paid 34 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits over the 10 years from 2001 to 2011.

Mariana Baldean decided to move to Britain in 2011. After losing her job in Romania, she spent two years looking for one to no avail. ‘Because of my age and because I am a woman it was very difficult,’ she says. A former sales and marketing professional with 15 years’ experience in the field, she moved to London as an au pair. She later started working as a cleaner, first through an agency in the hospitality industry and then as a self-employed professional.

Despite existing regulations on temporary and agency work, there have been reports that labour agencies have been illegally employing Romanian workers by passing them off as self-employed, even though their position in the company was no different from that of any other employee. They didn’t have some of the freedoms usually associated with self-employed work, like being able to employ someone else to work on their behalf. Their self-employed status deprived them of paid leave and other benefits which an employee would usually enjoy.

‘People have been struggling and working in the lowest jobs, because we didn’t have the legal right to work in any other sector,’ says Elena Oana Manolache, a student and waitress who moved to Britain from Romania in 2010.

If freedom of movement is one of the key principles of EU integration, the formal right to move doesn’t always translate into an actual freedom, as direct or indirect barriers continue to exist. Alexandru Ostafe has invested much in Britain, where he moved four years ago, and fears that negative media coverage may affect his ability to exercise his right to work once he finishes his studies. ‘The media call us “immigrants”. We are not immigrants, we are EU citizens who can help Britain get out of this recession.’

Mariana Baldean is working on getting her professional qualifications recognized in Britain in order to be able to get back to her career, but believes employers will continue to discriminate. ‘I don’t think it will be easy because the bad image will linger on,’ she says.

In Burnt Oak, children from the local Romanian community start to fill the private room of Ovidiu Sarpe’s restaurant for a birthday party. ‘When I arrived as a refugee in 1979 everybody wanted to know about Romania and what it was like to live under communism. I was proud of my identity. Now I avoid speaking Romanian in the street,’ says Ovidiu. ‘But I never had any problem in this country, and now we are no longer immigrants, we are European citizens. It’s the times and, you know, the masses – you need to give them a little circus.’

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