By Stephen Brown
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany expects the number of Romanians and Bulgarians moving to the country to double this year, now that they are free to work anywhere in the European Union, and will defend its welfare system from potential abuse, the government said on Wednesday.
Economic growth and low unemployment in Germany are luring EU citizens taking advantage of free labor movement in the bloc, and industry is short of workers. But EU expansion to the east has fuelled fears of an influx of people fleeing poverty.
"It's good news when migrants come here to work, train or study and contribute to Germany's welfare and development," said Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere. "But we shouldn't be blind to the fact that this immigration sometimes brings problems."
Presenting the preliminary findings of a panel set up by Angela Merkel's government in January to look into how to avoid "benefit tourism", de Maiziere said net migration from Romania and Bulgaria hit 75,000 last year and would double this year.
Most Romanians and Bulgarians come to study or work, they are less likely to be unemployed than the average EU migrant and
make up only 0.7 percent of total welfare claimants, he said.
But immigration hotspots such as Duisburg, Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg and Hanover are already overwhelmed by unemployed east Europeans needing healthcare, schools and welfare, he said.
"The number of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania and the social problems linked to some of them can be managed nationally but in certain regions it is alarming, and the rise in numbers is alarming," said de Maiziere. "So we must take measures to avoid this becoming a problem for the whole of Germany."
Germany had its highest net migration in two decades in 2013, when 16 city mayors pleaded for help coping with poor immigrants from eastern Europe, many of them Roma.
The public debate is less strident than elsewhere in the EU, but Germany shares the concern that an anti-immigrant backlash could boost the far right in May's European Parliament election.
With German migration rules often looser than EU-wide laws, it has space to tighten rules such as limiting migrants' stay to three months if they fail to find work, blocking benefit cheats from returning and checking EU migrants' child benefit claims.
It also plans to clamp down on firms exploiting unregistered immigrants or fraudsters who register them as self-employed workers to claim supplementary benefits.
"In some cities there is a sort of 'job-strip' where job-seekers stand on the street and employers and give them work. It seems to be all illegal work, paid off the books and the firms are not Bulgarian or Romanian but German," said de Maiziere.
When the EU enlarged eastwards in 2004, Germany and others states were gripped by panic about "Polish plumbers" taking jobs from locals. Poland remains by far the main source of migrants, said de Maiziere, but its workforce had boosted the German economy.
(Editing by Alison Williams)