As the European Union grows larger, immigration discourse has become more aggressive in Western states, especially in the United Kingdom. As author Ioana Burtea found out, the process of legally obtaining employment rights is excruciating and bureaucratic and forced her to take her fight to the European level.
A general frown towards immigrants coming from poor countries is visible across Europe. It has been visible since the wave of Polish immigrants coming to Britain in 2004 and it became even clearer when Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU six years ago. Most states invoked the right to set work restrictions for immigrants during the first seven years after their countries became EU members in an attempt to control migration flows. The last two countries under these limitations are Romania and Bulgaria, whose citizens need to jump through numerous hoops – and invest considerable money – to obtain the right to work legally.
The following months will bring many changes to the EU. Croatia is to join the European Union in July. Starting in 2014, the work restrictions for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals will be lifted. Further down the line, seven countries are preparing for accession. Yet too many states are ill-prepared legally, institutionally and politically to respond fairly to these changes. It is time to reassess how some of the major states within Europe deal with immigration from across Europe.
THE UNITED KINGDOM AND THE REGISTRATION CERTIFICATES
There are approximately 120.000 Romanians and Bulgarians living in Britain. In 2011, the two countries sent over 9,000 young people to study in UK universities, according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs. They are among the top ten countries sending their students to Britain.
I was one of those students. In September 2011, I joined the University of Worcester where I was enrolled in the third year of an undergraduate degree, obtaining a 2:1 Bachelors with honours in Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. My tuition fees at Worcester were covered by the British government and I will have to pay them back when I earn at least £23,000 a year. I also received a bursary of £100/month from Worcester. According to my calculations though, I would need to get the registration certificate (or Yellow Card) to work part-time if I was to start supporting myself throughout the course, and then on the two-year Creative Writing (Non-fiction) masters at City University London, which i was subsequently accepted onto.
For the past year and a half I have jumped through all the hoops and I still don’t have the right to work legally
Easy? No. I’m a skilled Romanian immigrant whose been living in the UK for the past year and a half and I have jumped through all the hoops, and I still don’t have the right to work legally. The necessary documents for obtaining a registration certificate are an original identity document (ID or passport), a bank statement for a UK bank account showing you can support yourself, passport-size photos, proof that you are a student and, since 2011, proof of comprehensive medical insurance. The latter became one of the finest loopholes in UK legislation.
THE HEALTH INSURANCE LOOPHOLE
“Comprehensive medical insurance” is a vague term. It can be proven by supplying a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or a private health insurance membership. I chose the former and obtained it in the UK, where it costs only £14 and it lasts five years, not six months like the Romanian version. Four months later, I received the response – I had been rejected because my EHIC was British, meaning that I was covered by the UK. The UK Government wanted me to be covered either by Romania, or a private firm.
In the meantime, I stopped paying my £300 a month rent and started living of the university bursary. The owners were nice enough not to throw me out. I was also writing SEO advertising articles for a blog at a rate of £6 for 500 words and going to every Bingo game I could to make some cash.
I didn’t want to give up on the permit, so I bought private health insurance. Before I got the chance to resend my application, I heard about two friends who had been rejected by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) on the basis of that same insurance. The interesting thing is that most companies sell “comprehensive” insurances, but each package is different and the ones that pass have to cover the dentist and psychiatrist. My health insurance is now quite fancy: I have access to dentists, psychiatrists and even a nutritionist. I pay £65 a month for it and will probably never use it.
I have access to dentists, psychiatrists and even a nutritionist. I pay £65 a month and will probably never use it.
SECOND TIME’S A CHARM – OR NOT
I stopped trying and focused on my dissertation, getting into more debt than I could ever imagine. After graduation, a friend lent me money to buy a plane ticket and go to Bucharest, where I thought about the next step. I had been accepted into the masters at City, but the fees were £4,000 a year and the government couldn’t cover my tuition anymore. I paid my £500 advance in May 2012 after several family friends pitched in.
Finally, I figured out the money issues – not without sacrifices – so I could go back to London and re-apply for the work permit. At time of publishing, i’ve had no response – which is not surprising given that the UKBA has a backlog of 300,000 unresolved asylum and immigration applications to deal with. The waiting time is now six to nine months by post and there is no option of getting a face-to-face appointment until June (when I last checked in November).
All in all, I’ve probably invested over £20,000 in the UK in a year and a half, without being employed or receiving anything in return. That is money I won’t get back soon, as the average salary for a student – who can only work part-time – is £16,000 a year. So I decided to fight back.
The best way to act in case of public authorities’ abuse or mishandling with immigration is to address an EU body or embassy. In the case of work permits, the SOLVIT Commission might be able to help.
SOLVIT is a network group for “handling problems”, whose Member States work together to solve matters without using legal procedures. They specialise in cases where EU legislation is not applied accordingly in EU states.
The general process is the following – the SOLVIT centre in the immigrant’s country contacts the SOLVIT centre in the country where he/she settled. There, they negotiate the matter with the relevant authorities, based on EU law and aim at reaching an understanding. It is a good way to become a person, not just a file number, in the eyes of officials.
In my case, the iron-clad UK legislation leaves little room for bending the processing times. My case is still open after several months, as the UKBA apparently cannot find my file because of the large amount they have received.
The work permit system is supposed to help differentiate between people who are serious about starting a new life in another country and those who want to make easy money from state benefits. I agree with it in theory. In reality, things have gotten wildly out of hand across Europe.
WORK PERMITS IN GERMANY
Romanians and Bulgarians, unlike other EEA citizens, require a labour permit to work legally in Germany. The document is released by the Federal Employment Agency’s International Placement Services (ZAV) and the processing time is about a month.
Still, immigrants are not likely to be given the right to work easily. Germany selects migrants on the basis of their profession. “At the moment, engineers, scientists and computer specialists are particularly in demand, as are fully qualified doctors and healthcare personnel,” according to ZAV’s website.
Meanwhile, the cost of living in Germany is much higher than in Romania or Bulgaria. The rent for a one-bedroom apartment outside the city centre in Berlin is around 400 Euros per month. Along with the basic groceries, transport and utilities, and not counting any leisure activities, living in Berlin would require at least 700 Euros per month.
The medium monthly salary in Romania is just under 350 Euros and a typical rent is 200 Euros. The situation is similar in Bulgaria, with rent prices being slightly lower. Without employment, even a month of living in Germany would require considerable effort from an Eastern European.
WORK PERMITS IN FRANCE
Romanians and Bulgarians moving to France also need a work permit until 2014. Unlike the German system, there are certain categories of immigrants which are exempt from the work restrictionsin France : those working in an area of national shortage and those who hold a degree equivalent to a French Masters degree. The procedure is indifferent to the level of unemployment.
Eastern Europeans are not a majority group within the immigrant population of France. The largest number of migrants, according to data starting from 2007 supplied by the National Institute of Statistic and Economic Studies, is from Algeria, Morocco and Portugal, many of whom do not work or study.
Still, the perception remains that Eastern migrants – especially Roma – have contributed to France’s decaying economy and social tensions, as if one minority can be blamed for a country’s problems. This view was enforced by former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s highly mediatised campaign to send Roma immigrants back to their home countries.
THE OTHER SIDE TO THE STORY
British politicians and the media talk about the negative effect of Eastern European migration with undying passion. David Cameron said he wants to end the “something for nothing” culture of state benefits for immigrants. Funny, since migrants seem to be putting in much more than they get out. This has been confirmed by a recent report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) which claims that EU migrants are half as likely to claim benefits as British nationals.
In the meanwhile, no one is talking about the positive effects of migration from the East. Countries from the A8 (the eight states that joined the EU in 2004) made a positive contribution to British finances, according to a report by The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
Studies have also shown that immigrants are slowing the ageing of Britain’s population and there has been no visible impact on the unemployment of nationals. Immigrants also have a greater affection for the countries where they settle, according to British Future think-tank.
Immigrants are also 2.5 times more optimistic about Britain’s chances of economic recovery. According to researchers, this happens because financial difficulties are put in perspective when confronted with those of poorer countries. Studies have proven that, when integrated and given equal rights, immigrants in the UK achieve “amazing success” – the country has one of the most educated foreign populations in any leading nations.
Immigrants are extremely valuable assets, especially in difficult times. People are desperate to play a part in the nation’s economic, social and cultural landscape, but they need to be given the chance. When they are made to pay money they don’t have for months in a row just to get rejected because their insurance doesn’t cover a psychiatrist, they will stop coming to Britain. Believe it or not, that is not good news.
SOLVIT Commission: http://ec.europa.eu/solvit/
British Future report: http://www.britishfuture.org/national-conversations/britain/new-report-where-is-bittersweet-britain-heading/
UKBA waiting times: http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/eucitizens/bulgaria-romania/work-permits/waitingtimes1/
Federal Employment Agency in Germany: http://www.arbeitsagentur.de/nn_620330/EN/zentraler-Content/Arbeiten/migration-check/ZAV-AMZ-EU-Mitgliedstaat-EN.html
European Commission on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals’ work permits: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=508&langId=en
Cover Photo: Alan Levine, Public Domain