As 2013 kicks the bucket, most people will be looking forward to 2014 with the same mixture of hope and dread as they do any other year. If, however, you are one of the few remaining avid readers of the Daily Express, or somebody who pays particular attention to speeches made by UKIP politicians, or Conservative ministers trying not to be overtaken in the bigoted politician stakes, you will not be celebrating the arrival of the new year with much gusto. You may even be hoping to hold back the clock like a King Cnut of time because, apparently, the dawn of 2014 will bring with it a sea of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants coming over here to steal our jobs and sink their teeth into our banquet of a benefits system.
The worst thing is these interlopers won't even be ripe for smearing as "illegals" because, as the year changes, resrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration that have been in place since the countries joined the EU in 2007 will no longer apply. In theory, this will allow for a surge in immigration limited only by the number of people in all of Romania and Bulgaria. Which is 28,635,000.
We hit the streets to ask Romanians and Bulgarians already living in the UK whether they were looking forward to welcoming their millions of compatriots, or if xenophobic newspapers and immigrant-bashing politicians were getting all excitable and angry about not very much at all, really.
Cornel Ghetu, 45, is from Romania and has been in London for five years. He runs Restaurant Cornelius in Tottenham Hale, London.
VICE: Will the changes in January be of any effect to you or anyone you know?
Cornel: There won’t be much change. The only changes will be that the people already here who are forced to be self-employed may be able to move to being employed. This will be better for everyone because they will pay their taxes in full and contribute to the economy. Currently, very few Romanians are employed by someone here in the UK.
How many do you think will come? A group called Migration Watch reckons 50,000 people a year might come.
I don’t think there will be an "invasion" of Romanians like the papers are saying – most of the people who want to come are already here. I don’t understand the paranoia from the UK press. There are only 21 million Romanians [in the whole of Romania]. Come on, it’s funny!
Do you think there's an element of hysteria?
All the things printed in the Daily Whatever? Yes. They are exaggerating quite a lot. I agree with Cameron saying you can’t claim benefits for three months after you arrive here. That’s a good thing. New immigrants shouldn’t be entitled. But Romanian and Bulgarians have become a stereotype. If you were to say the things the papers say about Nigerians or Muslims you would be accused of racism. But Romanians and Bulgarians – sometimes you feel like you are from the moon. Of course there is a small community – mainly the Roma community – who have a different way of life. They come for other reasons that I don’t know too much about. This small group of people you can see in central London begging and stealing, they are more visible. You see them in the newspaper.
Yeah, you see them in the Daily Whatever, which might not portray them all that fairly. Do you think a small influx will bolster a Romanian community here? Perhaps it will improve business at your restaurant.
New people won’t come to the restaurant because they won’t have money to spend here.
Aleksandra Asenova is 20 and from Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She’s studying at Brunel University in Uxbridge for a degree in International Business. She’s in her second year.
Are you looking forward to the border restrictions changing on January 1st?
Aleksandra: Yes. Right now I’m a student and I’m meant to do a placement next year, but I can’t without a permit or National Insurance number. The changes in January should enable me to do that.
So the timing is perfect for you.
Yes, if it all works out. I have friends at my university who have applied for National Insurance so they can do their placement year but they’ve been denied it. I’m not sure what’s happening with that. It makes me worried.
Will the Bulgarian community be strengthened after January? There’s no "little Bulgaria" in London – will that change?
I don’t think so because so few people will come. There will continue to be these small communities but no main area.
What effect is the media frenzy having?
Well, the government have recently stopped student loans for Bulgarian and Romanian students because of all the pressure. They’ve stopped the maintenance loan going to people and the tuition fee loan for those who were getting maintenance. It’s very confusing for people. I’m going to be OK but a friend of mine is not. They’ve told her that she won’t be allowed to continue going to university. This is a very recent change – friends of mine are unsure what will happen to them. The next tuition payment is in January and many won’t be able to afford that instalment. They might have to go home. I’m worried for myself too because everything is OK for now but for next year, who knows? They may not accept my application and I will have to stop studying. I’ve been here for two years now and I’m in the middle of my education. It would be very sad. I’d have to work as a shop assistant here or something – that’s not what I plan to do with my life.
Have you experienced any hatred from British people since you’ve been here?
People at university like us. They are interested in knowing more about our culture and cuisine, you know? But a friend of mine said that yesterday an English woman asked her if Bulgarians eat humans. It wasn’t a joke.
Alina Popescu, 28, didn't want to be pictured. She is from Craiva in Romania. She first came to the UK in 2007 and now works as a waitress in North East London.
Do you know anyone from Romania that is planning on coming here in January?
Alina: No. People will come, but it’s not going to be this predicted “invasion”. They will come but they’ll go back, I think. Give them six months.
Why do you say that?
They believe that here everything is nice and sweet, but it’s not. They will find out soon that life is not that easy here. You just work. Romanians who come here to work will have a hard time. The money they come with – they’ll spend it on rent and then get into debt. They won’t get a job and then they will go back. Life here is hard, right? You have stress and bills to pay.
If someone said to you, “I don’t like immigrants coming and stealing British jobs,” what would you say to them?
I would prove their ignorance and ask them to see if they can work as the immigrants do. Many people don’t work because they get benefits so it’s easier for them to stay home. If they really wanted a job they would have a job. If you want a job enough, you will find a way.
Do you think the papers are whipping up hatred?
They just do their job. They write what people like to read. It’s business; everyone’s about the money. It doesn’t personally scare me that that is what people like to read about – the people that know me personally know who I am and I don’t care what the rest of the world thinks. But I understand why people are scared; this is England and it shouldn’t be Romania, Pakistan or India. It should stay English.
Atanas Chikov, 39, is from Plovdiv in Bulgaria. He’s an electrician and has been in the UK for 14 years. He runs a website and magazine, BG Help, for the Bulgarian community in London.
What do you think of David Cameron imposing restrictions on the benefits that immigrants can get?
I don’t want people to come here to use the NHS either! I just had surgery and was waiting from April until December. I don’t want people who don’t pay their taxes, or criminals who don’t contribute, to get those kinds of perks. If you don’t know English you aren’t allowed to claim Jobseeker's Allowance now – I like this! If you want to become a British citizen you should learn the language and learn about the culture. I think that’s important.
What do you think of Nigel Farage?
I feel he’s just using the current situation to find more voters for his party. We are being made a scapegoat. And he’s not 100 percent British even! People will say they want to vote for him now because he says he’ll fix the "Bulgarian and Romanian problem", but in January and February people will realise that the things they are being told aren’t true. The British people will know they don’t need to vote for him to stop the invasion because there is no invasion. They may vote for him for other reasons, but not because of the Bulgarian and Romanians coming.
What would you say to someone who was worried about the restrictions being lifted in January?
They don’t need to worry! If you are worried that a Bulgarian will take your son or daughter’s job then your son or daughter probably needs to get better qualifications. And if Bulgarians have the choice, they’ll go to Spain anyway. The weather’s nicer! Some will go to Germany because they pay Euros and the other countries that are also opening up their borders. It doesn’t cost as much money to get home from mainland Europe.
Follow Suzie on Twitter: @Suzie McCracken
Previously – Halabja's bullet ridden torture museum." target="_blank">We Asked a bunch of Romanians if They Hate British People