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The Balkan hordes: where are they?

Date: 27.02.2007

Here's one headline you will not be reading in Britain's tabloids: The Balkan hordes: where are they?

The hysteria surrounding the accession of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU in January says far more about our 'Little Englander' mentality than the ambitions of those from eastern Europe. Nobody knows how many Romanians and Bulgarians are living in Britain, probably some tens of thousands. But most who want to work have been here for years. They include doctors, dentists, even City analysts. Last year the British embassy in Bucharest issued about 36,000 entry visas and around 3,500 work permits, half of which were for agricultural seasonal workers. The British embassy in Sofia issued 24,900 visas and 645 work permits. These visas include those for students, tourists, business visitors and agricultural workers, such as Kalina Nikoleva (above). Romanians and Bulgarians no longer require visas, but they need work permits.

The Romanian labour ministry estimates about 2m Romanians, about 20% of the workforce, already work in EU countries, many in agriculture and construction. Perhaps 15% are legally employed. Balkan emigrants usually head to Mediterranean countries, with Spain or Italy often the first choice. Romanian is similar to Italian and Spanish too comes easily.

A less-reported story, but one far more significant in the long term, is the reverse exodus, of Romanians going home. In 2005, Romania's per-capita GDP, measured in purchasing power, was 34.7% of the EU average. But in the past two years, Bucharest has become a boom town. The Romanian economy grew by 8% last year, as foreign investment and domestic consumption increase.

Like Berlin after the fall of the wall, Bucharest is now a giant building site. Entire new residential neighbourhoods, such as the e1.2 billion Banasea project, are being built. 'Romania is the land of opportunities, the economy is growing and the business environment is being cleaned up,' says Dan Visoiu, a partner in the Biris Goran law firm. Visoiu, 36, whose family left Romania for the US when he was nine, is one of many young professionals to return home to take advantage of the new opportunities. 'Those who wanted to leave had already left before January 1. Now people are starting to come back. There are many more opportunities here than abroad.' Barely a year old, Biris Goran is now one of the top 10 law firms in Romania, and most of its young partners returned home from the US and Canada. Foreign employers agree about the pool of talent. 'The Balkans label and all that implies has not helped Romania and Bulgaria,' says Joe Cook, the founder of Cook Communications, which has offices in Bucharest and Sofia. 'They are poor countries. But things are changing for the better. There are more opportunities than ever for the young and educated. I see a healthy flow of CVs into my inbox.'

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