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Bulgarians and Romanians ponder future after Brexit

Emmigration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK hit record levels in the year up to 2016. But researcher, Heather Rolfe, told DW that London's plans to reduce immigration levels could have negative economic consequences.

 DW: This week, we learned that a record number of Romanians and Bulgarians migrated to the UK between September 2015 and September 2016. In its annual report, the British Office for National Statistics warned that it is "too early" to say how Brexit will impact on immigration. But it would appear that the Brexit campaign and the June vote to leave the EU did not deter newcomers from the Balkans. What's your take on that?

Rolfe: Most of the period that the statistics cover was actually before the referendum. It is true that immigration has continued to increase both before and after the vote, but those who came to the UK were probably planning to do so before the referendum. Some people believe that part of it was immigrants thinking they would have the right to stay in the UK if they moved then, but I don't believe it was as calculated as that. I believe people were just thinking 'There are job opportunities in the UK, I'll come over for a period of time and if I can stay, I will. If I decide not to, I'll go home.'

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, many in the UK feared that immigrants would overwhelm British state institutions and flood the labor market. How many of those fears came true?

The real concern around emmigration from those countries was that it would put a demand on services, schools, hospitals, housing and our benefits system. The evidence is that that hasn't happened. In fact, those immigrants were able to relieve skill and labor shortages in some of our key industries.

Streiks gegen ausländische Arbeiter in England (picture-alliance/ dpa)

How much have Eastern European immigrants helped the UK economy?

Academics have calculated, I think, that recent immigrants from those countries put a third more into the economy with tax revenue than they took out in benefits, such as health and education. The reason for this is that a very high proportion of immigrants from those countries are in work, and a much lower proportion are unemployed, compared to British people. That's simply because they come to the UK to work. Also, it is because they are young and healthy and tend to come without children. Of course, the data also shows that if those immigrants stay and settle, they'll be drawing on education in the longer term. But they are already educated when they come to the UK, which means that a lot of the cost to the economy has been borne by the country of origin.

Do people in the UK consider these effects, or do they mostly see the negatives?

There is a widespread perception in the UK that immigrants, particularly low-skilled immigrants, make more demands on services than they actually do. If you look at the attitudes, people support high-skill immigration and see the need for that. And they support immigration by international students. People recognize they are a benefit to the universities and the economy, but they are much less happy about low-skill immigration and especially asylum seekers and refugees.

Many Eastern European immigrants come to the UK to do low-skill labor, but they are often overqualified for those jobs. Do employers take that into account when hiring?

Employers say that they don't go out and seek to recruit immigrants. However, they also say that when they get immigrant workers, they tend to be of a higher quality than the UK workers they could have got for those jobs. Part of the reason is education. Their higher standards of education help them learn the job more quickly. But employers say that they also have a different attitude towards work because they are immigrants. They've come to the UK to change their lives, either to get experience and money before going back home, or to make a new life here. So their attitude is different, meaning they will take extra work, extra shifts, they are more flexible and seek promotions in a way British workers are not able to do.

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Could it be that immigrants act in this way because they are more dependent on their jobs and more vulnerable when facing their employers?

It's possible, but unemployment in the UK is quite low in the moment. So if an immigrant lost his or her job in a food processing factory, it wouldn't be too difficult to find another one. Actually, you could argue that they are less vulnerable, because they are able to flex their hours up and down in a way that a British worker can't, due to children or additional welfare benefits.

During the Brexit campaign, people supporting the "leave" vote talked about taking back control of Britain's borders. How much can the government really do?

We still don't know what immigration is going to look like post-Brexit. It does appear that free movement is going to end, and the reason for that is political. This is partly because the referendum vote was seen as a vote against free movement, but also because the government has a target to reduce immigration levels to the tens of thousands. At the same time, restricting immigration to that level could have a very harmful effect on the economy. Employers in the UK are very concerned about the implications of Brexit. I've been talking to them both before and after the referendum and they very much want to keep the immigration of both skilled and unskilled workers at their current levels.

Heather Rolfe is Research Director at UK National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

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