London, United Kingdom – As promised lands go, London’s Victoria coach station at six o’clock on a rain-soaked, still-dark January morning is hardly an enticing destination.
Yet this, according to some British newspapers, is the disembarkation point for “hordes” of Romanians and Bulgarians making the journey from their homelands to take advantage of new rules giving them the equal rights with other European Union citizens to seek work in the UK.
Right-wing papers including The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph reported that seats on buses to London were booked for days and that thousands of migrants were due to start arriving from January 1, the date when employment restrictions in place since Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU seven years ago were lifted.
The tabloid Daily Star meanwhile cited fears about a migrant-fuelled “crime wave”, and The Daily Express said that many new arrivals were coming to take advantage of the UK’s welfare system, running the front page headline: “Benefits Britain Here We Come!”
Politicians, eyeing European elections in May and a general election next year in which the populist anti-immigration UK Independence Party is aiming to seize ground from the major parties, have also adopted more assertive positions on an issue long seen as beyond the pale of mainstream political debate.
Recent measures introduced by Prime Minister David Cameron’s right-wing coalition have included changes to the welfare system to prevent new arrivals from claiming unemployment benefits in their first three months in the country and powers enabling authorities to expel and ban for 12 months migrants caught begging or sleeping rough.
The government also announced proposals to charge non-British citizens for using the National Health Service, while Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, called for an end to the UK’s “chronic dependency” on foreign workers.
Yet, on the evidence displayed on January 10, reports of a Balkan invasion are well wide of the mark. About a dozen bleary-eyed passengers arrive on the overnight Eurolines bus from Frankfurt, the final leg of the scheduled service for those travelling to the British capital from Sofia or Bucharest, but none on this day appear to have endured that three-day journey.
A spokesman for Eurolines confirmed to Al Jazeera that, contrary to media reports, the company had not seen any recent surge in bookings from southeastern Europe.
The situation at airports has been similarly underwhelming. When members of parliament and journalists gathered at Luton airport on New Year’s Day in expectation of greeting the first batch of new arrivals from Bucharest, they found just one man, a bemused car-washer named Victor Spirescu – subsequently dubbed “Romanian Migrant No 1” by The Sun newspaper – who fitted the bill.
“My God. Man, I don’t come here to rob your country. I come to work. To make money to go home,” Spirescu said, taking advantage of an early chance to test the English he claimed to have learned watching MTV.
Eight stops along the underground line from Victoria to the Seven Sisters Road in north London, for many unskilled migrants the dream of building a better life in the UK has already been replaced by an exhausting and spirit-grinding struggle to survive.
By 7:30am dozens of men have gathered outside a building merchant’s store that has become an unofficial meeting point for labourers seeking cash-in-hand employment in the grey economies of the construction and decoration industries. Every few minutes a white van pulls up and one or two men peel off, but there is not enough work for them all.
Daniel, a Romanian man in his twenties, arrived in London a year ago, joining family who were already here. He says he gets work most days, typically earning £50-60 ($80-100) – and has no regrets about coming to the UK.
“Romania is no good,” he told Al Jazeera. “No money, no jobs. It’s finished, completely finished.”
Others share Daniel’s disillusionment with the state of their home countries, but admit they have had no more luck finding work in the UK.
“There are no jobs in Bulgaria and the government doesn’t look after its people and that is why they leave,” a middle-aged man from Burgas on the Black Sea coast told Al Jazeera. However, he has also failed to find any work since arriving in London five months ago.
Media coverage suggesting that Bulgarians and Romanians were bent on committing crime or claiming benefits was unfair, he added. “We don’t care what the newspapers say. We came here to work, but what can we do?”
About 141,000 Romanians and Bulgarians are currently employed in the UK, according to the latest official figures. But some already in the country are sceptical of claims that more of their compatriots are rushing to join them.
Language and paperwork barriers remain daunting obstacles, and many favour more prosperous Germany or Italy and Spain which have more familiar Latin-based languages, warmer climates and a cheaper cost of living.
“This is England. You don’t get anything for free. There is no money in the streets. You have to work hard. A lot of people have already gone home,” Lavinia, a Romanian woman who has been working in London as a cleaner for seven years, told Al Jazeera.
Recent polls of British opinion suggest that attitudes are hardening in favour of curbs on new arrivals, even among those who accept that immigration has brought economic and social benefits.
A survey of social attitudes released this week found 77 percent of the public in favour of a reduction in immigration and 56 percent in favour of drastic cuts in numbers.
But, among academics and think tanks attempting to study the impact of immigration more dispassionately, there is frustration about the shrill tone adopted by some sections of the media and politicians seeking to tap into populist frustration.
“Newspapers have an editorial line which they will persevere with, regardless of what is actually going on – and the same is, to some extent, true of political parties,” John Salt, head of the Migration Research Unit at University College London, told Al Jazeera.
“The most dispiriting thing has been the quantity and the level of comments that have been entirely devoid of any hard evidence.”
Research commissioned last month by the think tank British Future on attitudes towards incoming Romanians and Bulgarians meanwhile suggested that many Britons have more nuanced views about immigration. According to their survey, 68 percent said that migrants were welcome if they worked hard and paid their taxes.
“People want practical measures to manage pressures on public services and jobs but they’re not prejudiced,” Steve Ballinger, British Future’s director of communications, told Al Jazeera.
“While more people accept that immigration is good for the economy as a whole, they’re still worried about their own jobs and communities. We need to manage those pressures to secure the benefits that immigration can bring to the economy.”
But for those left waiting for work back on the Seven Sisters Road, there are more pressing economic concerns to be addressed.
Mircea, a 21-year-old from Bucharest, has been in London for almost two years. He shares a house with 10 people, collectively paying £1,400 ($2,300) a month in rent. But he says he has not earned any money for a month and puts his chances of picking up work on any given morning at no better than 20 per cent.
“People think London is good money but everything is expensive. Rent, travel, cigarettes, food, drink,” he told Al Jazeera. “Sometimes the police come and tell us to go home. But I come here to work. I don’t steal. I need money. What do I eat? Where do I sleep?”
Neither of Mircea’s parents have a job in Romania and he has 12 brothers and sisters, many of them now scattered across Europe in search of work. He admits he would now have to borrow cash to buy a ticket home, but says he intends to stay in the UK as long as it takes to earn enough to send some money back.
“I haven’t seen my mother and father for two years. All the time when we speak my mother says: ‘When are you coming home?’ But I want to make a little money first. I want to help my family.”
A version of this article was originally published by Al Jazeera on 11 January, 2014.