LONDON (AP) — The number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain dropped since restrictions on immigration were lifted, figures published Wednesday showed — the first sign that fears of a huge wave of eastern European migrants were unfounded.
Migration from Romania and Bulgaria became a fiercely politicized topic in Britain in late 2013, ahead of the removal of labor-market restrictions for migrant workers from those two countries across the European Union on Jan.1.
Britain's populist press and some politicians warned that the change would open the door to tens of thousands of unemployed migrants from two of the EU's newest and poorest members. Claims that hordes of newcomers would snatch locals' jobs or exploit Britain's welfare system dominated newspaper headlines for months, and the government scrambled to impose rules to prohibit new migrants from claiming jobless benefits.
Official data released Wednesday suggested the fears were likely overblown. The number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain from January to March fell to 140,000, from 144,000 in the previous quarter.
Still, the figures were up 26 percent when compared with the same period in 2013.
Keith Vaz, who chairs Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee, said the figures showed that the "supposed flood of immigration" from Romania and Bulgaria turned out to be more of a "trickle."
"By not understanding the likely levels of immigration we risk increasing the poisonous rhetoric and prejudice which leads to the destruction of all rational debate," he said.
Senior EU officials had accused Britain's Conservative government of peddling myths about a "supposed invasion of foreigners" and using anti-immigration rhetoric to gain votes.