Bulgarians React with Dismay to British Anti-immigration Campaign

Views on BG | February 1, 2013, Friday // 19:54

From The Guardian

By Helena Smith

People in Bulgaria and Romania don't think British streets are paved in gold and would rather remain home, many say

This week, a young woman known as Ralitsa Behar wrote a letter on behalf of her fellow Bulgarians. Barely a thousand words long, the missive has taken her country by storm, being reproduced in national newspapers, winding its way through the internet and igniting debate that even its recipient, Nigel Farage, may have found hard to imagine.

"Although I try and understand your immigration concerns, I must admit that I found your comments on Bulgaria untrue and somewhat insulting," said the British-educated graduate taking the UKIP leader to task about the "false information" he had peddled in defence of his views.

Far from being a land of "unskilled workers" bent on storming the shores of Britain when EU labour market restrictions are lifted next year, the former communist state also produced emigres who wanted nothing more than to pack their bags and return home.

The politician, she wrote, should visit Bulgaria "as a guest of me and my family, so that we can explain to you how much our country has changed over the past 20 years". In the towns, hamlets and villages of Bulgaria, Behar's letter has become a talking point and not only because it is carried on a wave of hurt national pride.

The news this week that London is considering draconian plans to dissuade Romanians and Bulgarians from emigrating to the UK – including an advertising campaign that will speak of the bad weather and other downsides of British life – has also elicited bewilderment and dismay.

"My first reaction was how strange that any country would want to position itself negatively to the outside world," said 22-year-old Ivan Bardarov. "I also found it a little offensive that the UK feels it has to teach Bulgarians and Romanians that its streets aren't paved in gold when I don't think there is anyone here who thinks it is."

Even worse was the timing of the initiative, six years after his country had signed up to the EU.

"Britain knew that labour markets would open to us when we started our EU accession process," the political science student continued, clearly warming to his subject.

"They had the chance to say 'no' back then. Now, suddenly a year before restrictions fall, they are saying 'we're not certain we want any of this anymore'."

Big, burly, articulate and engaging, Bardarov is enrolled at the American University in Bulgaria.

Based in the sultry town of Blagoevgrad, 100km from Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, and 100km from the border with Greece, the university whose courses are taught entirely in English, is among the country's leading higher education institutions. Graduates readily acknowledge they are the nation's educated elite, most of whom have the means to go abroad.

"But," says Desislava Alexandrova, who is enrolled on its politics and business administration course, "even though ... I applied and got places in the UK, I decided against it because I believe that staying here and trying to make things better, is much more important."

The worst thing, she lamented, about all the xenophobic talk that had cloaked coverage of Britain's proposed campaign was that it had been yet another knock for local morale. "It's not just this idea that we are all want to move to Britain and claim benefits. It's been really bad for Bulgarians because we ourselves are not very happy with our country," she said singling out corruption as a particular affliction. "We've been described as the saddest place in the world relative to income per person. We are the first to say that things must change."

Alexandrova is not alone. Young Bulgarians studying at Blagoevrad's state-run Southwestern University (Neofit Rilski) also say they would be hard pushed to swap the town's ill-lit streets and drab, communist-era buildings for foreign fields. "I might go to England for a week or two but I really wouldn't want to go for longer," said Sylvia Simeonova, a fashion design student typical of the younger generation who never experienced communism and is now thirsty for change. "For one, I don't like the rain."

Driving north along the pot-holed road to Sofia the villages get poorer and drabber. There are horse-drawn carts filled high with hay and in the villages of bare-brick homes, whose only modern accroutement appears to be the satellite, many live close to their animals tethered in adjacent muddy courtyards.

Even here, there seems to be little desire, or knowledge, of how people will uproot themselves when the doors to countries like Britain are finally flung open.

"Life may be better there but the streets aren't paved in gold," said Stoyan Arnaudov, who runs a shop in Kocherinovo within view of the snow-capped Rila mountain. "I know three people who have already gone to Norway and they earn €3,000 a month as rubbish truck drivers," he spluttered to guffaws from those gathered in the room. "Many people might want to go to England but they couldn't afford it. They don't have the money to even make the trip."

Sitting behind a makeshift desk, hand-painting the icons her father sells, Venka Stoichkova agrees. The entire family has been following the furore on the television, propped on top of the fridge in the shop, and like many it has left them speechless.

"I don't understand why in England they talk so negatively about Bulgarians? What do they have against us?" she asks. "Personally I'd rather stay in Bulgaria even if society is more organised over there but as a European I also know I should have freedom of movement to live and work abroad."

From officials to analysts, cognoscenti in Bulgaria say Britain's fears of a tidal wave of migrants appearing when restrictions are lifted are unfounded. The biggest wave of immigrants, spurred by desperation and despair have already left, they insist, citing statistics that show a population decline of close to 2 million since the collapse of communism in 1989.

"Before 2007 [when the country joined the EU] we would place up to 15,000 students abroad," said Tom Allen, who manages work internships abroad for Bulgarians. "Now that number has dropped to around 6,000. There is simply not the same desperation to leave the country. Bulgaria has become a much more stable country since entering the EU."

If Bulgarians did want to settle abroad it was invariably in the United States. "There, partly because of Americans' terrible sense of geography, they are seen as Europeans," he said. "In Europe, they are almost always regarded as Eastern Europeans and second class citizens."

As the rhetoric has mounted this week, ordinary Bulgarians have become increasingly exasperated at they way they have been portrayed by the British press. Depictions of them by the likes of the Daily Mail as destitute Roma, desperate to leave shacks in the shanty towns of Sofia, are denounced as discriminatory and ill-informed.

"It's laughable. Only a fraction, not more than 8%, of our citizens are Roma by ethnicity and, yes, they are very poor," said Maria Boteva, also enrolled at the American University. "But this is not all Bulgarians and gives a totally wrong picture of what the country is about," she sighed.

"I think what upsets us most is the discrimination and the fact that while many of us understand Britain's fears, because a lot of us have been to London and seen how many immigrants there are, we feel angry that its Bulgarians and Romanians who are being singled out."

In Sofia, analysts are sharpening their pens, preparing for a year of heated political exchange. The lack of generosity the UK has displayed has left many open-mouthed. In recent days it has been pointed out that British universities campaign more vigorously to recruit Bulgarian students than those of any other EU member state.

Similarly, it is Britons who are snapping up properties at rock-bottom prices in prime seaside and mountain resorts.

"Great Britain to all extents and purposes created globalisation by opening up the world to trade and free movement of people during the imperial era," said Yavor Siderov, a prominent Oxford-trained political scientist. "And now it is shying away from the very idea of globalisation which is the free movement of people, labour and services."

He added it was "high time" that Britain realised that EU membership had "costs and benefits".

"If Britons can come here and buy houses for ?7,000 which they could never do in Britain, then surely there is nothing wrong with Bulgarians going to the UK to pick strawberries?"

Many worry that once the sharp words and diplomatic exchanges – pressure for Bulgaria to launch a formal protest with Britain is mounting – are over it is the negative stereotypes that will remain. "Looking at the bigger picture whatever legislation is or isn't introduced [by the UK] can always be changed," said Asen Dimitrov, who recently represented Bulgaria on a committee of international youth delegates at the UN. "But changing negative stereotypes takes a lot longer and that is what a lot of us fear."

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