Well publicised fears that thousands of Bulgarians and Romanians will head to the UK are not backed up by the pattern of migration in the past.
The first Bulgarians and Romanians with unrestricted access to the labour market arrived in the UK on 1 January despite last-ditch efforts to prevent a much talked-about wave of fresh immigration.
In December a ban on EU migrants claiming out-of-work benefits from the moment they arrive in the UK was rushed through parliament to deter people who want to “live off the state”.
The move was among a set of measures to restrict so-called benefit tourism announced in November by Prime Minister David Cameron.
From 1 January with a few exceptions, all migrants from other EU states have to wait three months before claiming jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) of up to £71 a week.
After six months on JSA, only those who can provide compelling evidence that they have a genuine chance of finding work will be allowed to continue claiming the benefit.
Amid media reports of fully booked flights and coaches, some have predicted a surge in migrants from the two countries at a rate of 50,000 a year. Others suggest the numbers will be much lower and the influx will boost the economy.
But a cross-party lobby group, Migration Matters Trust, said the number of Romanians and Bulgarians to arrive in the UK next year may be as few as 20,000.
Migration Matters director Atul Hatwal said: “We have had wild statements about the impact of migration before.
“But recent predictions of up to 300,000 new migrants represent a scare too far. The debate about immigration has become dominated by hysteria and hyperbole.
“It is obviously difficult to predict precise numbers, but our analysis indicates migration levels are likely to be in the low tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands some people have been claiming”.
According to Eurostat data agency 96 per cent of Romanian migrants to EU countries choose destinations other than the UK.
The UK has 80,000 of 2.12m Romanian migrants in the EU. However, the figure is much higher in Italy (888,000) and Spain (823,000). Germany has 160,000.
The UK also has 26,000 of 437,000 Bulgarian migrants in the EU. However, Spain has 168,000, Germany 66,000, Greece 55,000 and Italy 46,000.
A report published by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) in 2013 found that the main destination choice for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals was Italy and Spain.
Between 2006 and 2007, the year that Romania joined the EU, their Italian presence almost doubled.
In January 2012, Italy lifted labour market restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians working in the farming, tourism, care work and in the construction sectors.
At that time Romanian MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu said: “Rome’s decision is proof that keeping labour market restrictions is done out of political and not economic reasons.
“The fact that a country like Italy, undergoing tough austerity measures, took this decision shows that it has realised that Romanian and Bulgarian workers help their economy.”
As with the UK, Spain has now lifted work restrictions. But it is already home to one million Romanians and Bulgarians.
Spain’s ambassador to Romania, Estanislao de Grandes Pascual said “the vast majority of Romanians is well integrated”.
The European Commissioner for employment, Laszlo Andor, added: “There are over three million people from Bulgaria and Romania already living in other member states and it is unlikely that there will be any major increase following the ending of the final restrictions.
“The end of the restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian workers comes at a time of high unemployment and tough budget adjustment in many European countries.
“In hard times, mobile EU citizens are all too often an easy target: they are sometimes depicted as taking jobs away from local people or, on the contrary, not working and abusing social benefits schemes.”
In Germany the crucial Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat alliance, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) said the new rules increased risk of “fraud in social benefits.”
However senior Social Democrats, who are in coalition with the Christian Democrats, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, that the CSU was using “stupid slogans” to stoke debate on immigration from Romania and Bulgaria.
Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the Süddeutsche that raising questions about EU freedom of movement “hurts Germany and hurts Europe.”
Heather Rolfe, Principal Research Fellow at NIESR, told Channel 4 News: “Potential migrants from Bulgarians and Romanians will tend to go where the jobs are, so Germany is a more attractive prospect than the UK currently.
“However, factors such as language, culture and existing social networks are also important, so that Spain, which imposed later temporary restrictions, and Italy, may continue to be favoured destinations even though unemployment is high.
“One trend we are likely to see in the UK is movement of existing Bulgarian and Romanian migrants from sectors in which they are currently restricted.
“If this happens, it will provide a welcome source of new labour for employers struggling to fill vacancies in areas such as health and social care, but may exacerbate recruitment difficulties in agriculture and food production.”