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Benefit claims by foreign nationals have increased by more than 40 per cent in the past five years, official figures show.
The astonishing increase has taken the number of non-Britons in receipt of benefits over 400,000 for the first time.
It means they are costing taxpayers billions of pounds a year.
The rise has been fuelled by a four-fold increase in benefit claims by Eastern Europeans, and sharp rises among African claimants.
The disclosure will lead to renewed debate about access to benefits by immigrants and concerns about benefit tourism.
It comes amid rising fears about the potential impact of tens of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians who could come to Britain from January next year when restrictions on work and benefit claims must be dropped under an EU deadline.
The figures, released by the Department for Work and Pensions under the Freedom of Information Act, show a total of 406,900 non-UK nationals were claiming work-related benefits such as jobseekers’ allowance, incapacity benefit and disability living allowance in the year to February 2012. That is an increase of 41 per cent since 2008, when the total stood at 288,720.
A breakdown by continent showed the biggest number of individual claimants were from Asia and the Middle East. Their numbers increased by a third from 99,000 to 132,000 over the five years.
African nationals were the next biggest group. Their numbers went from just over 77,000 to more than 100,000 in five years.
But the biggest increases in benefit claims were among citizens of the accession countries – those former Eastern Bloc nations that joined the EU in 2004. From May 2011 Britain was forced to drop rules restricting benefits to these nationals and their numbers shot up from 28,000 in February that year to nearly 50,000 last year. The number of claimants stood at just 12,600 in 2008.
There were also a significant number of claimants from core EU countries such as France and Germany, which rose to 66,000 in 2012.
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the MigrationWatch think tank, described the figures as ‘very striking’ and noted that they did not include other benefits for which most Eastern Europeans, being low paid, would qualify.
Over the five years, the total number of benefit claimants, including Britons, has increased from 5.17million to 5.88million. There was 12 per cent rise among Britons.
The foreign nationals in the figures will include migrants who came here to work, study or join their families.
Ministers say it is impossible to predict how many Romanians and Bulgarians will come to Britain in January and have repeatedly refused to put out an official estimate, but MigrationWatch estimates the figure could be 50,000.
Even the countries’ ambassadors predict that it could be around 35,000.
Ministers fear a repeat of the 2004 debacle when the influx from the accession countries was grossly underestimated.
It is unclear how many of the 400,000 foreign claimants will be illegal migrants but previous analysis has suggested that up to two per cent could be in Britain illegally.
A DWP spokesman said it was tightening the rules ‘to ensure genuine workers and jobseekers get support, but not people who come to this country to take advantage’.
‘We are also currently working with our counterparts across Europe to address the concerns we have about the abuse of free movement,’ said the spokesman, who added that many of those claiming benefits as foreign nationals will go on to obtain British citizenship.
– Daily Mail