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The number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain has risen by more than a quarter in three months, according to figures which provide the first evidence of an influx of migrants from the two countries, even before border controls are lifted next year.
Migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria numbered 141,000 at the end of June, a rise of nearly 26 per cent on the 112,000 recorded at the end of March. The figure was up 35 per cent year-on-year.
Commentators said the rise foreshadowed how nationals from the two former Eastern Bloc countries would come to Britain in even greater numbers when they gain access to this country’s labour market on New Year’s Day.
Ministers have repeatedly refused to put a figure on the likely influx, though ambassadors for the two countries told MPs earlier this year that they expected 35,000 more migrants to come here in 2014.
The figures published today by the Office for National Statistics showed that 37,000 extra Romanian and Bulgarian workers have arrived since June last year, indicating that citizens of the two countries are pre-empting the removal of restrictions in the new year.
The steep rise did not appear to have been caused by seasonal fluctuations because in the same March-June period in 2012 numbers rose by just 7,000.
Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of MigrationWatch, which has estimated that 50,000 Bulgarians and Romanians will arrive every year for the next five years, said: “This increase of just over a third in Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the UK over the past year is a sharp increase on the previous trend.
“It suggests that still larger numbers will arrive next year when our labour market is fully open to them. This is consistent with our central estimate that net migration from Romania and Bulgaria will run at about 50,000 a year for the next five years.”
He said of the 37,000 migrants disclosed in the figures: “These will largely be workers who are claiming they are self-employed. This is a long-standing loophole which has allowed them to work legally in Britain.
“It may be that some of these workers are sailing a bit close to the wind, but they may be confident that with restrictions about to be lifted any action against them is rather unlikely.”
At present Romanians and Bulgarians can only come to work in Britain if an employer has backed a visa, if they are self-employed or come on a temporary basis to fill fruit-picking jobs or other agricultural work for which there is a labour shortage.
Temporary controls imposed in 2007 when the two countries joined the European Union will expire at midnight on Dec 31, meaning that their combined populations, totalling 29 million, will gain full rights to come here to hunt for work.
After securing a job they will also be entitled to a range of welfare payments including income support, housing benefit and the state pension.
European Union free movement laws prohibit the Government from extending the labour market restrictions beyond the end of this year.
Ministers’ failure to make a prediction on the numbers who will come here next year has been controversial.
In April, Stewart Jackson, a Conservative MP, described an official study which failed to give an estimate as a “whitewash”.
Nine years ago the then Labour government predicted that fewer than 20,000 immigrants would come to Britain as part of the previous EU expansion.
In fact, hundreds of thousands of people from Poland and seven other former communist countries arrived.
Figures from the ONS’s Labour Force Survey, published yesterday, showed that there were 683,000 workers from Poland and the other 2004 accession states here at the end of June.
Britain’s job market is attractive to Romanian and Bulgarian workers because wages are far higher than at home.
Bulgaria’s minimum wage is 73p an hour and in Romania it is 79p, while in Britain it will rise to £6.31 for over-21s later this year. GDP per capita in 2010 was £3,929 in Bulgaria — the poorest country in the EU — and £4,682 in Romania, compared with £22,426 in Britain. Both countries have falling populations as a result of emigration.
Mark Harper, the immigration minister, said: “No EU national has unrestricted access to the UK, they must be working, studying or self sufficient. Those who are tempted to come here to try and abuse public services should know that we are not a soft touch.”
He added: “We are focusing on cutting out the abuse of free movement between EU member states and addressing the pull factors that drive European immigration to Britain.
“Across government, we are working to ensure that our controls on accessing benefits and services, including the NHS and social housing, are among the tightest in Europe to protect the UK from abuse.”
In total, the number of non-UK citizens working in this country rose 98,000 to 2.68 million in April to June compared with the same period last year.
Including Britons, there were 29.78 million people in employment, up 300,000 from a year previously.