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We're on our way to Britain: In a year up to 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians will have the right to settle in Britain and claim benefits. And many from the gipsy community can hardly wait to get hereSince EU borders were opened up in 2004, 1,114,368 Eastern Europeans have uprooted to live in EnglandAnd more are set to arrive over the next 12 months, tempted by tolerance and a host of benefits
23:59 GMT, 23 December 2012
Olympic boxer Bobby George stands on an icy street in the Bulgarian shanty town where he grew up.
A cruel wind whips his dark hair as snow falls on the chaotic rows of shacks which are home to 50,000 of the European Union’s poorest inhabitants.
Plunging his freezing hands into his thin leather jacket, he says despairingly: ‘There is nothing for my gipsy people here.
Boxer Boris Georgiev in his home town Faculteta, a Roma gypsy town on the outskirts of Sofia. Boris (also known as Bobby George) has lived in Luton since 2007 with his wife Tina and his two young children
Their eyes are turning to England where they can have a better life. Hundreds of families want to go to the UK because they have no future in my country.’
George is lucky. Five years ago, he changed his name from Boris Georgiev and left the seedy slum of Fakulteta, on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, to settle in Luton, Beds, with his wife, Tina, and daughter, Gergana, now six.
They have since had another daughter, one-year-old Mari.
A couple of weeks ago he returned on a cut-price flight for Christmas and found nothing much has changed.
Growling stray dogs chase each other down alleyways, rats scamper over piles of rubbish, and children in slippers, long outgrown with their backs cut out, dodge horse-drawn gipsy carts as they run to the few shops for a 40p loaf of bread.
The Sofia bus route does not reach Fakulteta because the drivers refuse to go there, as do the rubbish collection men. At night, the place is pitched into darkness because there is no street lighting.
The only indication that the city authorities recognise the huge gipsy town’s existence is the electricity meter boxes bolted tightly to the tops of telegraph poles so they cannot be tampered with by residents.
The main supermarket — the owner is himself a gipsy — has stopped all credit because of the debts racked up for unpaid groceries.
No wonder that in a year’s time, when a total of 29 million Bulgarians (and Romanians) gain the right to live, work, and claim state benefits in Britain under EU ‘freedom of movement’ rules, a great many families from Fakulteta plan to decamp the 1,250 miles to the UK.
‘The gipsies have no jobs because ordinary Bulgarians do not like or trust us,’ explains Bobby George.
‘We are discriminated against as gipsy people. In Britain it is different. You treat everyone, black, white, brown or yellow, just the same. Of course, they will want to go.
Last year, 40,000 Bulgarians and Romanians moved to the UK, joining 130,000 of their countrymen who have settled here during the past decade
In a year's time, when a total of 29 million Bulgarians (and Romanians) gain the right to live, work, and claim state benefits in Britain under EU 'freedom of movement' rules, a great many families from Fakulteta plan to decamp the 1,250 miles to the UK
‘But there will be a day when your country is full up, when you cannot afford to give benefits to any more people from Europe and the rest of the world, too. They hope to get there before that moment happens.’
Bobby, a good-looking 30-year-old with a pugilist’s nose, is probably right about Britain nearing its limits.
The latest Census, published this month, reveals how mass immigration has dramatically changed our country. Since EU borders were opened up in 2004, 1,114,368 Eastern Europeans have uprooted to live in England.
Last year, 40,000 Bulgarians and Romanians moved to the UK, joining 130,000 of their countrymen who have settled here during the past decade.
But these numbers are nothing compared with the flood of migrants expected when the rules change in a little over a year’s time.
Until now, migrants from the two former communist nations (officially barred from working or claiming benefits in Britain until the freedom of movement rule comes in on January 1, 2014) have neatly exploited a gaping loophole in the EU rules.
It allows Bulgarians and Romanians claiming to be self-employed to get a British national insurance number and a raft of hand-outs, including housing and child benefit.
Many of the new arrivals have worked hard, cornering the market in car-wash companies, for instance.
But others are less industrious, and include Roma gipsies who, remarkably, now sell a third of all copies of the Big Issue.
Even selling one copy a week of the magazine (created to help the British homeless) miraculously gives them self-employed status and allows them to beg with impunity outside shops and on street corners.
Bulgarian and Romanian incomers have been blamed by police in their own countries and in Britain for a massive rise in organised crime, including the trafficking of children to Britain to beg, pickpocket, milk state benefits and even enter the sex trade.
It is estimated that 2,000 children from Romania and Bulgaria are under the control of modern-day Fagins in our major cities.
According to Scotland Yard, a skilful child thief can make up to 100,000 a year ‘working’ on the streets, buses and Tubes in London — cash that is sent back to Roma villages and towns at home.
So critical is the problem that Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister visited Britain earlier this month to meet Home Secretary Theresa May to discuss how child trafficking and other organised crimes can be controlled when the UK doors swing open yet more widely.
Meanwhile, Antoaneta Vassileva, head of Bulgaria’s National Commission for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, warns that the UK is now the EU hot-spot for Roma child pickpockets from her country — a problem that will almost certainly get worse when the rules change in a year’s time.
In Sofia, she explained to me: ‘The children are trained by their parents, or another relative, to be thieves.
Since EU borders were opened up in 2004, 1,114,368 Eastern Europeans have uprooted to live in England
They know no other life but begging and stealing. They come from Roma gipsy communities where there is no work. When a Bulgarian child is offered the chance to go to London to pickpocket, he wants to do it.’
She said the children — some aged only 11 — are trafficked into Britain by their own families or by gang-masters pretending to be their real parents.
Even if a child pickpocket is caught by police, then handed over to British social services and put into a foster home, they invariably escape back to a world of crime.
‘After one or two days they run away from foster care. The Bulgarian gang-master in England will contact the child by mobile phone and still has control over him,’ said Ms Vassileva.
‘The child will have been brainwashed and is often afraid of being beaten or deliberately deprived of food or having to sleep on the floor without a blanket if he refuses to obey. They use cruel methods to lock the child into the gang and make him work harder as a pickpocket.
‘After the child has escaped, the gang-master will meet him at a tourist landmark, maybe Big Ben which everyone knows, and move him to another big city — Manchester or Newcastle, for example — or even to mainland Europe.
‘It is difficult for the police to catch the children because they are shunted about all the time.
‘The trafficking gangs go mad when the police take a child away. If a young pickpocket is removed from the London streets for even a few days, the gang loses a lot of money.’
It is a chilling tale, but one that comes as little surprise to those on the streets of Fakulteta, the biggest gipsy enclave in Sofia. Inside the small shacks — often consisting of just one room with a bare light-bulb swinging from the ceiling where families of five or six sleep on the floor — they dream of life in Britain as their salvation.
Here, as in Romania, there is massive prejudice against gipsies. The Roma people say they want to work, but no one will give them jobs.
Instead, they are forced to beg on the streets of Sofia and other Bulgarian cities, explains Metodi Stoyanov, 49, a jobless father of sons aged 12, 16 and 18.
Metodi and his wife, Seeka, 46, live in one room with their three boys.
There is no bathroom, and the cooking stove is just inside the front door. Seeka goes out to work as a cleaner, walking miles out of the gipsy town to get an early bus across Sofia at six in the morning when the ticket collectors are not on board.
‘She cannot afford to pay the bus ticket each day. She only earns 15 a week,’ explains her husband. ‘We do not have the money to live. When I had toothache, I had to pull out the tooth myself because I cannot pay for a dentist.
‘We struggle to pay the electricity bill, and trying to buy the boys shoes to go to school is frightening when a pair costs 40.
‘We are too scared to be ill because it costs so much to see the doctor or buy medicines. If I had a heart attack, I would have to wait at home and die.
‘All we want is a normal life like the British people. I would like to go because I support Manchester United. There we would get our housing paid and child benefits. Here, we are given 30 a month by the state for our two youngest boys. It is not enough.’
The attitude that Britain is a land where benefits flow like milk and honey is commonplace — even though few of these Roma people speak any English and would struggle to point to Britain on a map.
Not far away in the gipsy town live 25-year-old Tsvetan Dimitrov, his 19-year-old wife, Dessislava, and their one-year-old daughter, Petra. They, too, have a one-room house, and Petra’s cot is pushed up next to the couple’s bed because there is nowhere else to put it.
They met at 13, married in a gipsy ceremony, and neither has ever worked. ‘But I could do labouring on building sites if I came to Britain,’ says Tsvetan hopefully.
‘It may not be enough, so obviously we would claim state help for our child and any others who come along. I know quite a lot about your country — you have a Queen and a famous football team: Manchester United. And I know you would look after us.’
It is much the same story at Georgi Georgiev’s equally humble home. The 30-year-old lives with his wife, Romaniana, 29, and their son and two daughters, all under 12.
When I visit, the children’s grandfather Mari, 51, says he expects hundreds of Roma gipsies from the town to leave for Britain.
‘There are people from Fakulteta already there,’ he says. ‘We know that your government helps people, even us gipsies. It is different in Bulgaria, where there is discrimination against us.’
Mari, a neatly dressed and polite man, lost his job as an office cleaner at an insurance company in Sofia after 25 years’ service just six months ago.
Three men ride a horse and carriage around Faculteta, Bulgaria. Many from the town have already moved to England
‘A new boss came and asked if I was a gipsy. I said yes, and he told me he did not want me in the building. He said he did not employ gipsy people because he did not trust them. It is the same for all of us. We have nothing because we are not given the chance.’
There is some truth in what he says. The Roma, who call themselves ‘gipsy’ proudly because it means ‘free man’ in their language, are an ignored under-class in Eastern Europe.
Back in the communist era, they were protected and were guaranteed jobs — like every adult in Bulgaria.
‘Now everything has changed,’ says Mari. ‘I have to go to the rubbish tip in Sofia to rifle through other people’s throw-outs to find something to sell so my family can eat. You can see why we like Britain where everyone is treated fairly.’
Bobby George, who is acting as my guide, nods in agreement as he listens to the conversation.
The boxer won a bronze medal for Bulgaria as a light welterweight in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. After turning professional, he left for the UK.
‘I went to Luton because that is where there are cheap flights to Bulgaria. I rent a small flat for my family and half of the 550-a-month rent is paid by housing benefit and, of course, we get the state benefits for the two children.
‘When I am not in training, I try to work. I have done labouring jobs and, officially, I am self-employed so I have a national insurance card. My wife works as a cleaner sometimes, too.’
Bobby — who boxed his way to success via the local Sofia fitness centre — is a devout Christian, like most of the Roma in Bulgaria. On Saturday night, he takes me to the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Fakulteta for the weekly service of worship.
There is perfect singing by the small choir of women, and the visiting pastor stands up at the pulpit to deliver a sermon.
The theme is on obeying the Ten Commandments — and, particularly, the virtue of not stealing.
There is not a flicker of an eyelid in the small whitewashed church as the congregation listens intently to his words. And, at the end, the Roma people bow their heads in prayer and say Amen.
There are decent people here — and Bobby George, with his sporting talent and determination to succeed, is proof that many migrants wish only to strive hard and provide for their families.
But it would be misguided to ignore the concerns that he, and many others, voice at the impact on Britain when we swing open the doors to these hard-pressed people, so marginalised and mistrusted in their own lands.