From the Periphery to the Neighbourhood: Romanian and Bulgaria Immigration in the UK

There are widespread concerns in British society about the growing number of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants into the UK. The figures are only going to increase next year when EU law allows people from the Balkan countries to come and reside and work freely in Britain.

Whether this immigration is particularly detrimental to Britain is the subject of contentious debate. However, there are two clear reasons why we should be wary of an influx of up to 150,000 Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants next year:

1) The potential burden on the state through the granting of benefits

2) The threat on British job security and employment

Immigration 'scares' tend to bring out the hypocritical worst in the British
Immigration ‘scares’ tend to bring out the hypocritical worst in the British

At the same time as recognising the potential economic downsides of Bulgarian and Romanian immigration, historical and cultural factors must also be taken into account. The countries of these peoples are far removed from British culture and neither do they share a particularly positive history.

Bulgaria and Romania have always been on the periphery of Europe, in a metaphorical dark zone of persisting medievalism, gothic incursion and pagan Christianity. A 1690 map produced by Gerard and Leonard Valk show the two countries as excessively mountainous, neatly highlighting their isolation and remoteness from the rest of Europe.

Source: Rare Maps
Source: Rare Maps

Indeed, for much of the period between 1400 and 1900 Bulgaria was under the rule of the Ottomans, the arch rivals of Western European culture for much of the Early Modern period. The Romanians, simultaneously, came under Ottoman suzerainty if not direct control.

Even when Europe tore itself apart during the Thirty Years’ War, Romania and Bulgaria remained largely detached with the exception of Bethlen Gabor’s enigmatic raids from his Transylvanian homeland. Gabor, like one of his predecessors Vlad ‘the Impaler’, moulded the perceptions of Western Europeans towards the ‘semi-tamed leaders’ of the East.

The inspiration for Dracula - Vlad the Impaler
The inspiration for Dracula – Vlad the Impaler

Even into the increasingly globalised 20th century and the two states remained somewhat alien to Britain and its neighbours. During the First World War, Bulgaria fought against the Entente powers. Romania, admittedly, did not, and was devastated by the Central Powers, surrounded as it was by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In the Second World War, both Bulgaria and Romania fought long periods on the Axis side, although they were given little choice due to their economic and political weaknesses. Puppet regimes ensured both countries suffered the wrath of Allied bombing campaigns.

After WWII, both states turned communist, Romania eventually falling under the control of the notorious Nicolae Ceaușescu. As the Cold War developed, neither country maintained any significant diplomatic or cultural relations with the UK. Again, they were the enemy, the outsiders.

Integration of immigrant communities is notoriously tricky. The ‘native’ populace often needs at least some sort of shared cultural or historical development to accept foreign encroachment, and even then only reluctantly. The shared history of commonwealth between Britain and India, not to mention the West Indies, was not enough to prevent anti-immigrant sentiment for many years.

With Romania and Bulgaria there is no shared past with Britain. Both peoples are alien to the British, many of whom will no doubt regard their new guests as backward gypsies, a relic of the medieval agricultural lifestyle that once characterised all of Europe.

An accusation of immigrant communities is that they don't integrate - rather forming isolated ghettos of the homeland
An accusation of immigrant communities is that they don’t integrate – rather forming isolated ghettos of the homeland

On many levels – social, economic, cultural, historical – Bulgarian and Romanian integration in the UK will be extremely awkward and, as has been seen in some cases with Polish migrants, may turn violent.

This will not, of course, prevent thousands of plucky Balkanites making the Channel crossing over the coming years in search of the fabled ‘better life’.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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