The next wave will not be a repeat of 2004. The real risk is that low-paid immigrants could be forced to live on the streets
A flood of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria is unlikely – but those arriving will find housing services unable to help. Photograph: Valentina Petrova/AFP/Getty Images
An official petition to halt the free entry of Bulgarians and Romanians into Britain from January next year has already gained 130,000 signatures. Fuelled by projections that as many as 250,000 might arrive by 2019, and by ministers equivocating on whether it they have received estimates or not, there are now belated moves to review the free movement rules.
This could almost be an object lesson in how not to prepare for a new wave of migrants, and of failing to learn from the first EU expansion in 2004. It all presupposes that there will be a wave of immigration, and that if there is that it will put pressure on housing and other public services. Is this actually likely to happen?
The controversy first broke when communities secretary Eric Pickles was interviewed in January, hinting that government estimates over the number of migrants to expect from these countries did exist. Presumably this triggered the release of new forecasts from Migration Watch a few days later, predicting additional immigration of 50,000 people per year, based on the events of 2004. But this comparison is highly questionable.
Only Britain, Ireland and Sweden allowed entry to new EU nationals in 2004, so the pent-up desire to move countries was strongly focused on the UK, to which Poland in particular had historic ties. A more appropriate comparison, suggested by Sue Lukes of MigrationWork, is with what happened when Germany finally dropped its restrictions in May 2011: immigration barely increased because most of the people who wanted to move had already done so, and the economic situation was by then very different to that in 2004.