29th January 2014
Migration: UK and Bulgaria Are More Similar than You May Think
Although for me the biggest story of 2013 was the way civil society found its voice, the biggest story UK-Bulgaria story was the vexed issue of migration.
We should differentiate between actions and words. The British government’s actions have been clear. We have honoured our legal commitment to lift labour restrictions on Bulgarian workers. In response to concerns about access to the UK’s benefits system, we have brought our procedures more in line with other EU countries, including Bulgaria. We are extending to three months the time a migrant must look for work before claiming support; still more generous than Bulgaria’s six months for new arrivals. We are also putting in place a residence threshold before migrants can claim housing benefits; in Sofia, it can take 10 years. These new rules apply to all EU citizens – including British nationals.
I know that many Bulgarians have been upset by the debate that has greeted the end of labour restrictions. Post-recession EU countries have not been welcoming or enthusiastic. The British media is a fantastically free, robust and colourful institution; but there is no doubt that those who have been on the receiving end can find it pretty rough going. Bulgarians have felt deeply offended in the way they believe their nation and people have been depicted: it has hurt national pride.
Migration is a desperately difficult topic to debate dispassionately, because it is an issue which provokes strong feelings, which touch on people’s sense of identity and their values. It can feel like there are parallel debates taking place, with statistics and analysis of the net effect of migration on economy and services cutting no ice with genuinely-held concerns that communities are changing and that the identity of the country is in some way being lost. Neither side finds it easy to acknowledge the validity of the other’s position.
We have seen this playing out at first hand in Bulgaria, with the enormous increase in the number of migrants, especially people fleeing conflict in Syria. Modern Bulgaria has never before seen such an influx of non-Bulgarians seeking shelter and a new life. Unsurprisingly, people have responded with a range of emotions.
Some have argued Bulgaria has a duty to protect those escaping war. Others have pointed out the potential economic benefits of an influx of educated, skilled Syrians to a country that has been shrinking in population. But many Bulgarians worry about the impact on communities. There have been protests against refugees being housed in local areas. Ethnic tensions have increased as rumours have circulated about the relative benefits refugees are allegedly receiving, and about perceived risks from the newcomers.
The Bulgarian government has put a number of measures in place to try to protect refugees, control their arrival and remove those who have no right to be in Bulgaria. It is trying to tread a principled line between protection and prevention. This is not easy, and I have nothing but understanding for both Bulgarian policymakers and people trying to come to grips with a new phenomenon. It takes time for the realities of migration to sink in; for people to be able to understand and evaluate its impact and decide whether it has been positive, negative or, perhaps surprisingly, both.
A recent poll in the UK highlighted this internal conflict: when asked, 70% of respondents said that migration was a major issue for the UK, but only 20% identified it as a problem in their area. We are more comfortable with those we know and have met; we worry about the others. Whether in Bulgaria or Britain, policymakers have to deal with people’s concerns. British ministers say they must address popular migration concerns around future EU enlargement, to retain support for enlargement itself, which the UK has always championed.
Just as Bulgarians are now seeing with Syrian refugees, the British people saw a rapid and profound change in 2004, when ten countries joined the European Union, and the UK alone amongst major EU economies decided not to put in place any labour market restrictions. The result was an unexpectedly large influx of eastern European workers into the UK, into communities and towns across the UK. Results from the 2011 Census suggest that 2.7 million residents of England and Wales were born in other EU countries. About 1.1 million of those (41%) were born in countries which joined the EU in 2004 or afterwards, the equivalent in Bulgaria of 127,000 new migrants.
The arguments still rage in the UK about whether this was on balance positive or not, but in no doubt is the impact that this has had on how people feel about migration. Just as in Bulgaria, it will take time for people to decide whether it has been positive, negative…or, most likely, both.
Continue the conversation by sending your questions to Ambassador Allen’s Twitter account @HMAJAllen and the British Embassy Sofia facebook page UKinBulgaria under the dedicated post on the top of the facebook wall. Ambassador Allen will answer your questions on 3 February, Monday, 11-12 o’clock. Feel free to send your questions from now onwards until 3 February, 12 o’clock. Please use #JAblogs.