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UK doors open to eastern immigrants
The first Romanians and Bulgarians with unrestricted access to the UK labour market have begun to arrive despite last-ditch efforts to prevent a feared wave of fresh immigration.
Romanians landing at Luton Airport were greeted by Home Affairs Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz, who said that those arriving today provided just a "snapshot" of those expected to come to the country over the coming months.
The 180-seat aircraft from Tirgu Mures only had 140 passengers on board, he said, most of whom already live and work in the UK.
"Just on the conversations we've had with people who have come here, a lot of them are returning people, they already work in Britain and they're coming back after a holiday so they're not people coming here for the first time," Mr Vaz said.
"We've seen no evidence of people who have rushed out and bought tickets in order to arrive because it's the 1st of January.
"We'd be surprised if they did so, this is after all only a snapshot.
"But we do need to resolve this issue in the future, and it's an issue for the whole of the EU to resolve so we don't get these kinds of dramas at the end."
Mr Vaz criticised the "panic measures" ahead of the temporary curbs imposed in 2005 on citizens of Romania and Bulgaria being lifted.
Ninety senior Conservatives attempted to block the move in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, arguing he could invoke a clause in EU law to keep the borders shut.
But ministers denied such a move would be feasible.
Mr Vaz also spoke out against the Government's refusal to bow to repeated demands to publish or commission estimates of the numbers expected to enter Britain in the face of unofficial research predicting as many as 50,000 people arriving from the eastern European countries each year.
The Labour MP for Leicester East added: "There are already 141,000 Romanians and Bulgarians living in the UK.
"The concern of the committee has always been the lack of robust estimates of people coming here and we still feel very strongly the Government ought to have asked the Migration Advisory Committee to have conducted a piece of research which would have told us the number of people who were came into this country or were coming into this country.
"We think that would have been extremely helpful. The fact that we don't have those estimates means that we have this kind of drama at the end, which is not helpful to anybody."
Most of the Romanians arriving on the 7.40am flight already worked in the UK but Victor Spiresau was coming to the country for the first time.
The 30-year-old who said he earned 10 euros a day working in construction at home said he hoped to make 10 euros an hour here but was not planning on settling.
"I don't come to rob your country. I come to work and then go home," he said.
"Here you pay a lot, in Romania it's very cheap.
Mr Spiresau said he already has work lined up washing cars in London but hopes to go on to work in the construction industry and chose to come to the UK over other European countries as he can speak the language.
"I like English. I understand English," he said.
"I don't want to stay here. I want to renovate my home and to make a good life in Romania because it's much easier to live in Romania because it's not expensive."
Mr Spiresau, who has left his wife at home in their small village, added: "She hopes to see me with a lot of money."
After speaking to reporters the Romanian was invited to join Mr Vaz for a coffee where the MP asked him what he planned to do in this country.
Also on the flight was Silviu Todea, who was returning to London after visiting Romania over the holidays.
He said he believed the majority of his compatriots would want to work.
Mr Todea, 27, who has a job in marketing in the capital, said: "Everyone has their own opinions especially with their past experiences with other nations, but I think it won't be so bad."
Leading politicians from Bulgaria and Romania have dismissed fears that the change in access restrictions will trigger a wave of immigration to the UK.
While some have raised fears of a surge in immigration similar to that seen from Poland in 2002, others have accused the Prime Minister of "pandering to prejudice" as he responds to the threat posed by the UK Independence Party (Ukip).
Mr Cameron has rushed through new measures to ensure that from today EU migrants will be unable to claim out-of-work benefits for their first three months in the UK.
In addition, those found begging or sleeping rough could be deported and barred from re-entry for 12 months unless they can show they have a proper reason to be in the UK, such as holding a job.
Other proposals previously announced in the Government's Immigration Bill will see migrant access to the NHS restricted, while landlords, employers, bankers and DVLA staff will all be expected to take part in checks for illegal immigrants under tough reforms.
Earlier this week an extension of the NHS charging regime was unveiled, which will see overseas visitors and migrants charged for accident and emergency treatment in England.
Migrants will also have to pay for primary care services such as minor surgery carried out by GPs, while prescription charges will be extended.
A range of polarised reports over the last year on the potential impact Romanians and Bulgarians will have on the UK have included a predicted surge in pickpocketing, muggings, beggars on the streets and rioting.
Other reports have suggested citizens from the two Eastern European countries will attempt to sell their babies when they arrive in Britain.
But business leaders have said a rise in job-seeking immigrants will be welcomed in the face of a lack of Britons willing to fill certain roles.
And migration experts, including those at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), have said the UK will easily be able to absorb any migrant workers if the Government adopts minor contingency measures to deal with pressures in local areas.
Mr Vaz was accompanied on the visit by Tory MP Mark Reckless, who is also a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Speaking after the pair were given a tour behind the scenes at the airport, Mr Reckless said: "I'm here this morning because my party - the Conservatives - we made a promise that we would cut immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands a year.
"And my concern is that if we do see large numbers coming from Romania and Bulgaria then that could knock us off that target and the promise we made to the electorate.
"And I think it's essential we meet that promise and control immigration and I think we really need to judge whether in order to do that will require us to leave the European Union and to control again our own borders and ultimately I think that's the choice that the country will face in a referendum."
Asked about claims there would be "Olympic-style security" at the airport due to expectations of significant numbers of arrivals, Mr Vaz said: "There was no Olympic-style security, it was business as usual and I think they've handled it extremely well - the Border Force."
It remains unclear if additional staff or measures were being put in place at airports and ports elsewhere.
A Home Office spokesman said: "This Government has done, and will continue to do, everything possible to ensure people come to the UK for the right reasons - to work hard and contribute to our economy and society.
"Hard-working people expect and deserve an immigration system that is fair to British citizens and legitimate migrants and tough on those who abuse the system and flout the law. Net migration has fallen by nearly a third since its peak in 2010 and across government we are working hard to bring it down further.
"We welcome those that want to come here to work and contribute to the economy, but no EU national has unrestricted access to the UK - they must be working, studying or self-sufficient. We are focusing on cutting out the abuse of free movement between EU member states and addressing the factors that drive European immigration to Britain.
"Across government, we are working to ensure that our controls on accessing benefits and services, including the NHS and social housing, are amongst the tightest in Europe to protect the UK from abuse."
Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, said: "As flights and buses arriving today showed, many Romanians and Bulgarians have been living in Britain for years.
"But we should also be welcoming new arrivals, just as Britons arriving in France, Spain and other European states find themselves welcomed.
"It's time to end the toxic immigration debate and acknowledge that, whether they are nurses and doctors coming to work in the NHS, computer game designers or building workers, Romanians and Bulgarians, as with other immigrants, will be contributing to our society.
"Some will settle, some will only be here for a few years, and they reflect the mobile nature of life in the modern world which enriches all of our lives."