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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 September 2006, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Leaving Bulgaria for the UK?
By Svetla Bobeva
BBC News, Bulgaria

Vesselina Yankova
Vesselina Yankova believes most youngsters want to stay in Bulgaria

Bulgaria is set to become a member of the EU in 2007. But is the exodus of migrants expected in some countries likely to take place?

About 20 people stand in a queue at the British embassy in Sofia on a rainy September afternoon waiting for the stamp on their passports that would give them entry into the UK.

While in the UK there are concerns over what will happen when Bulgaria joins the European Union, here there is nothing to predict an exodus of would-be economic migrants.

However, that's not to say it hasn't perhaps already been happening; most of those in the queue say they are planning to visit relatives who are already working or studying in the UK.

Kiril Petrov, 57, is waiting for a tourist visa to spend a couple of weeks with his son who emigrated to the UK seven years ago.

Dimitar Stefanov
British people are tolerant towards immigrants and you can earn their respect by working hard
Dimitar Stefanov
It's Mr Petrov's first trip to London. His son is a qualified engineer but could not find a well-paid job in Bulgaria. Instead, he is now working as a barman in British pubs.

The people queuing for visas are aware of the current immigration debate in the UK, triggered by the arrival of an estimated 600,000 East Europeans since 2004 when eight former communist countries joined the European Union.

Bulgaria and Romania are due to become EU members on 1 January 2007.

The British government is expected to impose restrictions on workers from both countries amid fears of a new influx of cheap labour.

While the British authorities may be concerned, Bulgaria's Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev has dismissed them, predicting that the country "will disappoint the British media" because there won't be a wave of migrants.

"It's quite insulting to suggest that we are all going to rush to the UK looking for jobs - as if we're some kind of hungry animals scrambling for a piece of bread," says Vesselina Yankova, 21, who is waiting at the British embassy to get her tourist visa.

Ms Yankova is an education student and has no intention of following her sister who is working in the UK.

"Most young people want to stay in Bulgaria and make the country a better place to live," she says.

Retirement pessimism

At this moment, a woman in the queue joins in, arguing against Ms Yankova's point.

Bulgarians say what EU membership will mean for them

"You believe this because you live in the capital and you don't know the situation in the towns around the country," says Antoaneta Teneva, 62.

"I come from Kazanlak [in central Bulgaria] where unemployment is high and young people are really struggling," she says.

Ms Teneva is planning to visit her daughter who is a high-flyer with a managerial job at a private company in London.

She believes that things would get better for the young once Bulgaria joins the EU, but is quite pessimistic about retired people like herself.

"I have worked for 32 years and have two university diplomas - yet my pension is only 130 Lev a month [45]," she says, adding grimly that EU membership will raise prices, leaving pensioners at rock bottom.

Young people, especially from smaller towns, will be tempted to look for work in wealthier EU countries but the UK will not be their first choice, predicts Ms Teneva.

First choice destinations

That view is supported by Krassen Stanchev, head of the Institute for Market Economics.

Map of bulgaria
Spain: 10,000
Germany: 7,700
USA: 4,800
Italy: 4,300
Greece: 3,800
UK: 3,400
Source: Bulgarian Ministry of Labour

Spain and Portugal have been the most popular destinations for Bulgarian migrant workers so far, he says, and may well remain so.

He predicts that Bulgarians who seek work in the UK after accession will continue to be the self-employed or highly-qualified.

Research by BBSS Gallup International for the Bulgarian Labour ministry supports this theory, naming Spain and Germany, rather than the UK, as likely destinations.

According to the calculations, only 46,000 people would seriously think about working abroad, with no overall change in the proportion who would think about emigrating.

However, it did find an increase in the numbers who would consider going abroad in the short-term.

The research excluded people who did not currently speak a foreign language, have a passport or a ready idea of where they would like to go.

Heading back to London

Dimitar Stefanov, 32, was not one of those people. He was queuing at the British embassy for an extension of his business visa.

A self-employed electrician based in London, he has retrained to meet British standards.

He says that recently, with the immigration wave from Eastern Europe, competition has increased and it is more difficult to get work.

But Mr Stefanov has not noticed any change of attitude towards foreigners.

"British people are tolerant towards immigrants and you can earn their respect by working hard," he says.

This impression of the British is shared by Theodora Raikova, 28, who is joining her husband in the UK.

He has a degree in engineering - but has been working in London as a self-employed washing machine repairer.

"Whoever wanted to settle in the UK, has already done so. I do not believe there's going to be an immigration wave from Bulgaria," she says.


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