20/08/2013 13:59 BST | Updated 20/10/2013 06:12 BST

There Is More to UK Immigration Than Just Romanians and Bulgarians

In considering the ONS statistics, it is critical to stress that these foreign-born employees are legally working and paying tax, hence contributing to the British economy. Yet, headlines in the media too often highlight the inflammatory, not the factual.

The Office of National Statistics released the recent employment figures last week. The major media story has been on last year's 'sharp increase' in the number of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants who found work in the UK in 2012, which by year's end stood at almost 37,000.

Given last week's media headlines:

one might be forgiven to think that from next year when restrictions to the UK labour market are lifted for the two countries, Romanians and Bulgarians will 'flood' Britain (to use anther euphemism so darling to the British press) to steal the British jobs.

But let's look at the bigger migration picture! From the ONS statistics, most jobs which involved the employment of an EU citizen went to Western, not Eastern European migrants. Last year, 60,000 immigrants from the western EU14 countries found jobs in the UK. In total, approximately 800,000 Western Europeans currently live and work in the UK. Another significant trend worth noting is the decrease in migration from the Eastern European A8 countries, which saw 11,000 workers returning to their country of origin last year.

Immigration from the rest of the world paints a picture of ebbs and flows: the number of immigrants to the UK from New Zealand, Australia and USA is down while the number of migrants from South Africa and sub-continent India is up. All of these figures might come as a surprise since media do not mention them, but variances in migration flows are indicative as they reveal the flexibility of national economies in the global marketplace. Such flexibility cuts both ways, which is why there are also British nationals working and living in countries around the world.

In considering the ONS statistics, it is critical to stress that these foreign-born employees are legally working and paying tax, hence contributing to the British economy. Yet, headlines in the media too often highlight the inflammatory, not the factual. Here are some other samples of newspaper headlines:

  • '350,000 Romanians have their sights set on Britain';
  • '600 more arrive every day from Eastern Europe';
  • 'One migrant arrives in Britain every minute';
  • 'Bulgarians set to 'invade' as Poles take cash and run';
  • '700 are arriving every day from Eastern Europe';
  • '50,000 a month arrive from two new EU nations';
  • 'Britain is taking in 20,000 EU migrant workers each month'

These headlines sound so familiar and recent, do they not?

While familiar, they unfortunately are not recent. Actually they date from 2006, a few months before Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on January 1 2007, and are based on unfounded estimates by Migrationwatch in 2006 that '300,000 will arrive here in the first 20 months' after the two countries' accession to the EU (The Daily Mail, May 15 2006). Did the Romanians and Bulgarians in fact show up in vast numbers as the anti-migration think-tank forecast? Not in the least. On average, 10,000 Romanians and Bulgarians arrived in Britain every year between 2007 and 2011.

Most Romanians who do migrate abroad tend not to view Britain as a preferred destination of choice. The latest migration report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that Romanian migrants' top countries of destination are Canada, Germany, and the United States. Bulgarian migration also paints another picture. Bulgaria saw a great wave of return migration over the last twenty years with 191,400 Bulgarians returning home. The number of Bulgarians returning has been increasing, from 9,500 in 2006 to 15,300 in 2008 and 23,800 in 2010. Overall, Eastern European migration is often circular and temporary in nature. Those who do settle more or less permanently in Britain are keen to integrate with British society and culture.

This is another truth that looking at migration figures and media stories surrounding Romanian and Bulgarian migration is not being told. Seemingly always, the assumption is that Romanian and Bulgarian migrants are unskilled and low-cost labour that undercut the jobs and wages of native Brits. In line with this ill-informed presupposition and in the context of last-week's ONS figures, the Daily Telegraph published the most misleading and stereotypical portrayal of migrants from Eastern Europe highlighting their cultural self-ghettoization and inability to integrate. This misrepresentation neglects the diversity of this migrant community. In fact, the skill-levels and types of jobs vary significantly and include not just agricultural work or work in the building trades, but work in medicine, academe, and the professions.

From the time the British media first took notice of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria back in 2006 to this day, the inhabitants of both countries have served as scapegoats disguising significantly larger structural problems in the British economy that go far beyond migration debates. Yet, instead of attempting to present a bigger picture of the social and economic realities facing us in the 21st century, time and again, the media choose to present a fragmented reality about the 'immigrant threat'. It is about time for media to revisit the immigration debate and stop engaging in the self-serving, inflammatory rhetoric regarding Eastern European migrants that fuels the anxieties of the British people. We are and must be better than this.