LONDON — Three days after Andrei Opincaru, a 29-year-old Romanian, arrived in Britain this year, police officers saw him smoking a cigarette on the street. They stopped, searched and questioned him about having marijuana.
“I asked them: ‘What are you doing? You cannot do this to me. You’re treating me like a criminal,’ ” he recounted. The officers, he said, laughed and went away. “To them it was just a joke,” he said.
Mr. Opincaru came to Britain in hopes of landing a good job by taking advantage of newly extended employment rights for workers from Romania and Bulgaria, which were among the latest entrants to the European Union. But Mr. Opincaru, like other newcomers, was surprised by how little his European citizenship did to shield him from an intense political backlash against the employment measure.
Mr. Opincaru, who found a job in construction, shares an apartment with four Italians and two Portuguese who also came to London for work. But he and other Romanians say they are made to feel like second-class citizens, more so than the migrants from affluent countries in Western Europe, despite having equal legal rights. One bank refused to let him open an account, he said, though he provided all the required documents and had secured a job and a national insurance number — the equivalent of a Social Security number.
Being a Romanian in Britain is “very, very difficult,” Mr. Opincaru said. “They’re not treating us like other citizens from Europe,” he added. “Wherever you go and they hear you’re Romanian, they change the music.”
When the European Union extended full employment rights to Romania and Bulgaria this year, allowing workers there free movement throughout Europe, nationalist politicians warned there would be a flood of desperate immigrants who would take jobs from native workers. Headlines predicted a surge in crime and cheating on benefits. One Conservative politician, Philippa Roe, said the arrival of Romanians and Bulgarians would escalate problems like begging.
In November, the government froze loans and other financial support for thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian students as a “precautionary measure.”
But the figures published last month did not reflect an influx of migrants from the two countries. The number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain from January to March of this year dropped to 140,000 from 144,000 in the previous quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics. That compared with 1.7 million migrants from the rest of the European Union working in Britain, it said.
Around 23,000 Romanians and Bulgarians arrived in Britain in 2013, a threefold increase from the previous year, according to the statistics office. They were among the 201,000 immigrants from the European Union over all, it said. About 134,000 British citizens left the country during the same period.
The number of Romanians applying for a national insurance number more than doubled, to 47,000, in 2013 compared with the previous year, according to the latest figures from the Department of Work and Pensions. About 18,000 Bulgarians registered. In contrast, about 102,000 Poles applied.
Despite the tension, Romanians and Bulgarians said they were eager to make the move to Britain. And one recruiting firm said the workers were much needed in Britain to meet labor demands.
Companies posted 36,285 job offers in Britain in the first quarter of the year, according to Tjobs, a recruiting company that places Romanian workers across Europe. Andreas Cser, the company’s president, said British companies were having particular difficulty filling jobs in the construction and infrastructure sectors.
Eugen Smintina, 39, found a job with an electrical company. “I would like to say to all English people that I come here as a Romanian citizen in your country because I have work,” he said. “Not because of alcohol, drugs or stealing other people’s jobs.”
Andreea Corsei, 28, who has a law degree from Romania and arrived in London this year to pursue a Ph.D. in criminal law, dreams of setting up a law firm with her husband, Daniel, who is also studying law. Romanians in Britain face “walls that are higher to climb” but also the opportunity “to prove what you can do,” she said.