For the past couple of weeks we have been spectators to an intense cross-border ping-pong exchange between Bucharest and London. This is based on the premise that a potential second tsunami of Eastern European migrants will flood the UK next year when transitional restrictions applied to Romania and Bulgaria are lifted.
The highly-passionate, anti-immigrant viewpoints expressed in the media are not surprising. According to a recent 'British Future' study, immigration is supposedly the biggest problem facing Britain, while politicians across the political spectrum line up to express their worries about the negative impact of migration on British social and economic life. Migration Watch, arguably the most referred to migration think tank in the media, has recently claimed that 50,000 Romanians and Bulgarians will relocate to the UK every year from 2014 onwards. While numerous voices challenge these figures, the media generally has promoted the perception that the country will soon once again be 'flooded' by immigrants.
Romanian authorities have been slow in coming forward with a coherent concrete reaction as many Romanian migrants in the UK would have expected them to do. Instead the response came from a Romanian national newspaper in the form of a campaign which blends wit and humour. Judging from its popularity on social media, it will probably be more effective in changing perspectives than any diplomatic statement issued by the Romanian government.
Behind the political discourses, the media headlines, the highly-frantic speeches and the amusing campaign, it is easy to forget that we are dealing with human beings whose lived experiences cannot be reduced to mere statistics or neat caricatures. I regularly interview Romanians who have settled permanently or temporarily in the UK about their migration experience. Their every-day reality looks very different from what is portrayed in the media.
Most are puzzled and cannot understand what triggers the anti-immigration rhetoric so noticeable in public discourse, especially given the self-evident contribution past immigration waves have made to Britain. Moreover, the vast majority of Romanians I have spoken with have rarely experienced any discrimination in their daily encounters with ordinary British people. They view British society as an inherently tolerant one whose history has long been influenced by migration. Why then do politicians and the media engage in such passionate anti-migration discourses?
Let us look at some of the claimed negative influences of Romanian immigration to the UK and the reality of Romanian migration to date.
One major claim is that that Romanians are 'benefits tourists'. The reality is that the vast majority of Romanian migrants currently in the UK, over 75% according to the Romanian Ambassador Ion Jinga, are young people who relocated to Britain to work to support a dignified life for themselves and their families. While a small percentage of migrants indeed come to the UK for the social benefits, and subsequently make headlines, they are unrepresentative. The reality is that nearly all Romanian migrants to the UK are working people who pay their share of taxes and themselves are also frustrated by a very small minority who come here to get an easy ride by abusing the system.
Let us talk about the NHS. Concerns are raised that migrants put too much pressure on the system. While it is true that the Romanian migrants will be treated by NHS as needed, the reality is also that a young, working-age migrant population puts much more into the system than it takes out. Further, there are number of medical staff from Romania now working in the NHS filling critical shortages in staff. These nurses, doctors, dentists, whose training was paid for by the Romanian state, are now helping to sustain and enhance the NHS.
Let us have a look at the education system. It is often talked about how teachers have to give special attention to migrant children whose first language is not English. Research-based evidence shows, however, that non-native English speakers do not have a negative impact on the educational performance of the English-speaking children. It is also common knowledge that children are fast learners. Within a year, most immigrant children are able to be taught at the same level with the rest of the class. This is generally the case with Romanian children. English becomes their first language since it is used in their daily social interactions. Such children, Romanian natives whose first language is English do not fit any easy statistical category. Officially counted as migrants, they consider themselves British in many respects.
Let us examine integration in society. Romanians are spread across all strata of British society. From the Canary Wharf's CEO, Sir George Iacobescu, to over 5,000 students enrolled in British universities, to the homeless person who is selling the Big Issue at the corner of the street. Romanians do not generally form social enclaves, but readily try to blend within the British society.
Migration is a formative experience for both migrants and their adopted country. Migrants often relocate from countries where democracies are young, social values are still emerging, economies are still developing. Living in a country like the UK where democratic values, human rights, civil society and equal opportunities have a long tradition is an immensely-rich learning experience. It is during the migration experience that people often find their voices. They contribute to the social, cultural and political life of their host society, yet also seek to make a difference in their own community of origin. This pattern is certainly in evidence among existing Romanian migrants to the UK. Most came in search for a better life but still long to return home. They resent being made scapegoats by various British politicians and media outlets eager to exploit migration fears in order to avoid addressing pressing domestic issues of concern to the British electorate. It is about time for all of us to acknowledge the positive reality of migration too.