The anti-immigration rhetoric that has dominated British media and political discourse in recent months appears to have made waves in Romania. The small group of first-year law students puffing cigarettes outside the University of Bucharest’s law faculty on Bulevardul Mihail Kogălniceanu swear they will never go to work in the UK.
“Not after all the nasty things the English media and politicians said about us,” says Monica Andreea. “I’d like to stay here but if I ever decide to leave I’d rather go to Germany; their economy is stronger and they are not as racist as in England.”
Ms Andreea’s views are not unusual. British politicians’ accusations that Romanians planned to raid the country’s welfare system after work restrictions were lifted on January 1 have rankled.
Estimating how many Romanians – as well as Bulgarians, who are now also allowed to work in Britain – will move to the UK is virtually impossible. But talk fanned by Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-immigration UK Independence party, that more than a million would reach British shores are overblown, according to recruitment agencies, sociologists and Romanian government officials.
Robert Kicsi, country head at Grafton Recruitment in Romania, says “warnings of mass exodus from here to the UK are more than exaggerated …it’s simply not true …we haven’t seen nor [ do we] expect a massive [move] to the UK of Romanian workers.”
Such views are supported by statistical evidence, obtained by the Financial Times, that net migration from Romania is plateauing. When Romania joined the EU in 2007, a record 558,074 Romanians left the country while only 100,268 returned home. But since then emigration flows have declined. In 2012, the overall number of Romanians emigrating fell to 170,186, the lowest in nearly a decade, while a record 167,266 decided to make their way back to the motherland.
Andrei Tudorel, the recently appointed head of Romania’s National Institute of Statistics, says that “the big wave” of emigration from the former Communist country to richer nations in the EU has already taken place – but in 2007.
“There is a stabilisation of the number of Romanians who decide to live abroad for more than 12 months. As a consequence, today we (roughly) have the same number of emigrants and immigrants,” he says.
Thousands have already started to return home from Italy and Spain – where nearly 2m have moved since 2007 – as their dreams of a better life have been tarnished by a sovereign debt crisis that led to massive job losses across southern Europe.
Some are taking a break back home with the hope of going to Germany, Romanians’ preferred destination, according to a recent independent opinion poll, says Catalin Stoica, the Stanford University educated head of the Centre for Urban and Regional Sociology in Bucharest.
However, others have returned to take advantage of improving economic conditions. Romania’s economy has on average performed better than the rest of the EU and prospects in the Balkan country look brighter than elsewhere.
Gross domestic product is expected to grow 2.1 per cent next year and 2.4 per cent in 2015, as the country’s budget deficit remains lower than in most EU countries, according to the European Commission.
The export-driven economy has a robust automotive industry and a resurging agricultural sector, which could offer thousands of new blue-collar jobs, argue local government officials.
Giovani Ion, 50, who worked in northern Italy for several years, has recently returned to Bucharest to invest some of his savings in a taxi company with his son and buy some agricultural land. “You know, there is a bit of a crisis in Italy now, so it made sense to come back …here it’s not perfect but there are some new opportunities,” he says in close-to-flawless Italian.
Nevertheless, with salaries in Romania averaging €500 a month, analysts as well as government officials are aware that people will continue to go to western Europe. But they will not go in large waves and most will head towards Germany, Italy and Spain, according to research carried out by CURS.
Many are also likely to take only temporary, or seasonal, jobs in western Europe, say recruitment executives and migration experts.
Florin Alexandru, a 30-year-old chef, said that if he works abroad for at least three months a year, he can earn enough to live a decent life in Romania the rest of the year. “I love my country. I don’t want to live abroad all my life, so I go for a few months to work in a restaurant or on a cruise ship and then I come home,” says Mr Alexandru. “Tell the Brits to relax: we are not coming to steal your jobs and welfare,” he adds, laughing.
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