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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - December 30, 2013

by Giulia Segreti

For a preview of what the UK might expect when it throws open its doors to Romanian job seekers on January 1, it might be worth visiting Italy, now known by more than 1m Romanian migrants as their new “province” abroad.

Relatively close to home and with a culture and language similar to their own, Italy has become the prime destination for emigrating Romanians, followed by Spain and Germany.

The latest international migration outlook from the OECD, a group of countries that aims to promote sustainable growth, estimates that about 3.5m Romanians, approximately a sixth of the total population, are working abroad. Officially about 1m are registered in Italy, although unofficial estimates suggest up to another 1m move back and forth, often as seasonal workers.

Between 2006 and 2007, the year that Romania joined the EU, their Italian presence almost doubled, although the flow has slowed in recent years with Italy suffering its longest postwar recession.

The roots they have put down are visible in more than 200 Orthodox churches, a Romanian-language television station and even a political party – all built in the face of racism, social discrimination and a hostile bureaucracy.

“Italy has become a Romanian province,” says Giancarlo Germani, leader of the Party of Romanians of Italy, which was founded in 2010 and contests local elections where resident foreigners are entitled to vote.

“The community is so big that it merits particular attention,” he says. “Many have life projects in Italy.”

Such observations come amid a highly politicised debate in the UK as EU restrictions that have until now prevented Romanian and Bulgarian workers from seeking jobs in Britain are set to expire this week.

The approach of that date has spurred doomsday predictions that Britain could soon be swamped by a deluge of eastern European migrants. David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has responded with a campaign to curb benefits and step up deportations.

In a report that appears to counter Mr Cameron’s claims, Caritas, a global network of Catholic charities, found in 2010 that Romanians in Italy made a “considerable contribution to the tax and welfare systems” and that they tended to “enter the labour market in the most humble and dangerous jobs”.

Statistics are scant in Italy but Caritas estimated that in 2008, Romanians in Italy paid €1.7bn in social contributions and €1bn in taxes.

Elena, a cleaner in a government office, is one contributor. She moved to Rome with her husband, a former policeman, some years ago and they intend to stay. But their son, soon to graduate from university in Bucharest and fluent in several languages, is intent on moving to London to pursue a career in banking.

According to Silvia Dumitrache, president of the Association of Romanian Women and a resident in Italy for 10 years, few Romanians are thinking of moving on from Italy, although anecdotal evidence suggests that the younger generation might be tempted to try their chances in the UK and the seven other EU states lifting their controls.

“Even fewer think of returning to their home towns. This is because the majority is now well established in Italy and also as many can now access welfare benefits, having worked regularly for a long time,” Ms Dumitrache says.

Romanians tend to congregate in bigger cities, with some 400,000 in Rome alone, and in industrial districts of the north. Many have recently started moving to smaller towns where the cost of living is lower.

Women, who slightly outnumber their menfolk, are mainly employed in homes as cleaners and carers for the elderly as well as in nursing. Men work mainly in building.

“Romanians are a great resource for cash-stripped Italy,” Mr Germani says, noting that more than 60 per cent of the construction workers’ welfare association is paid by Romanian labourers.

Since many Romanians have left their families behind, they send home a high amount of remittances, lowering their own domestic consumption. “Remittances from Italy have surpassed levels of foreign direct investment,” Caritas reported, calculating that €768m was remitted in 2008 through official channels. There are estimates that the total may be three times as much.

Ms Dumitrache says Romanians are sending less money home these days because wages in Italy have fallen while living costs have risen. “We pay taxes but we seem to be considered like cash cards,” she says wryly.

Romanians are getting political too. The Party of Romanians of Italy numbers about 10,000 members and has had two local councillors elected in the north.

“The country is starting to understand that a community like the Romanians is important for society,” explains 33-year-old Catalin Mustatea, elected last June in Villafranca di Verona.

Romanians in Italy can vote only in European and local elections. Mr Mustatea is campaigning to extend that to national elections. “We pay taxes, bring our kids to school. It is right to give us the opportunity to choose who governs us,” he says.

There is still considerable prejudice among Italians towards Romanians. Italian newspapers, for example, seldom miss the chance to note when a crime is committed by “a foreigner”.

But many Romanians say integration has improved – particularly since the centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi, which was hostile to immigration, left office two years ago.

“It is true that a country can go through a transition period,” says Emma Bonino, Italy’s staunchly pro-European foreign minister, when asked about the fears expressed by Mr Cameron. “The EU is not only about the mobility of capital and products. If there is no mobility for EU citizens then how can we ever have a united Europe?”

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