As Prime Minister David Cameron hunts for a deal on restricting benefits for EU migrants, eastern Europeans in Britain say they are weary of stereotypes casting them as workshy.
With net migration to Britain at record levels, Cameron wants to limit in-work benefits for new arrivals for four years as part of negotiations before a referendum on leaving the bloc due before the end of 2017.
Other EU leaders have voiced concern over his proposal, seeing it as discriminatory, but at a Brussels summit Thursday, all sides agreed to work for a compromise before the next talks in February.
Cameron’s plan is seen as particularly targeted at migrants from eastern European countries like Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, thousands of whose citizens have moved to Britain in recent years.
But many of them doubt Cameron’s proposal would have much effect on migration levels, while others voice frustration at being scapegoated as “benefit tourists”.
“Most people are here to work and to contribute,” Romanian technology entrepreneur Horia Cernusca told AFP from his London office, lamenting that they were all assumed to be “moochers”.
He blamed Britain’s newspapers and politicians for perpetuating the stereotype, but said he had experienced “no blowback” from the general public.
“It’s a very helpful, convenient topic to bring up to win elections, just like the refugees,” said Cernusca, who is also the co-founder of a website showcasing succesful eastern Europeans.
Cameron’s plan “would not intimidate anybody from coming,” he predicted, a view echoed by MigrationWatch UK, a pressure group concerned by mass immigration.
“Even if you stop access to in-work benefits, people are coming here to work and there’s still that economic incentive,” said Matt Pollard, the group’s executive director.
“The government hasn’t offered any quantifiable impacts and we are very sceptical it will have a big impact on numbers.”
Although Britain is largely tolerant of individual migrants, the scale of net immigration — a record high of over 300,000 last year — means it will be a key issue in the referendum campaign, Pollard added.