German Economic Fears May Have Roots In Age-Old Prejudice

With Bulgaria and Romania now full-fledged members of the EU, the number of citizens from those countries migrating to Germany for economic reasons is expected to double. That's causing worry in Germany — much of it apparently unfounded — that these migrants will be a drain on the German welfare system. As it turns out, this concern may simply be a way of justifying long-standing prejudice against the Roma.

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Now to a debate in Europe over something called poverty migration. Recently, some countries in the European Union lifted work restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians. As a result, factions in Britain and Germany worry that poor and unskilled immigrants will flood in and collect welfare payments.

But Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, this debate isn't being driven by new arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria. Instead, she says, it may involve prejudice against one particular group, the long-oppressed Roma.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: A group of Roma youth are learning to work with wood here at the Bridging Foundation in Berlin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: A German engineer helps the young men build a birdhouse and foot stool during the afternoon class. One of the students is 18-year-old Nicolae Caraian. He's a Romanian who came to Germany three years ago, with his parents and seven siblings, from a small village outside Bucharest.

The shy Roma teen says his goal is to become a salesman. He rolls his eyes when asked about the critics who say Romanians and Bulgarians are here to tap into Germany's generous welfare system.

NICOLAE CARAIAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Caraian says: My dad works full-time as a construction worker. We didn't come here to collect benefits. We came here for jobs, because there are more of them here than in Romania.

Boslijka Schedlich heads the Bridging Foundation that helps immigrants from Southeastern Europe acclimate to German life.

BOSLIJKA SCHEDLICH: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She says contrary to alarmist predictions, there has been no sudden influx of Romanians and Bulgarians since restrictions on their working in some EU countries were lifted on January 1st. Schedlich says they've been arriving in Germany gradually since those countries joined the EU in 2007.

SCHEDLICH: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She calls poverty migration warnings by some German politicians a sham debate, to rekindle long-standing, anti-Roma sentiment in Germany.

Those mainstream politicians deny it has anything to do with the Roma or discrimination. Thomas Silberhorn is the vice-chairman of the parliamentary Christian Social Union faction.

THOMAS SILBERHORN: We don't want restrictions of the free movement for the workers and the self-employed. But we want to stop the abuse of this free movement. We really have to discuss at which point European Union members can get social allowances, social benefits in another member country.

NELSON: He says one in five Romanians and Bulgarians in Germany is collecting some type of welfare benefit.

Other German leaders are more subtle. German President Joachim Gauck told the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that it is wrong and dangerous to say immigrants are damaging Germany. But he added immigration can cause problems and that quote, "political correctness cannot stop Germans from pointing them out."

Activists are trying to counter the anti-immigration rhetoric with studies that show the benefits of welcoming citizens from Romania and Bulgaria. For example, a recent study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research found that every fourth immigrant from those countries has a university degree. And a survey this month in the German, Zeit magazine revealed that most foreign doctors in Germany are from Romania.

One of them is Ionel Toma, who is finishing his training in orthopedics and traumatology at a hospital outside Berlin. He says he's wanted to live in Germany since he was a kid and arrived here when Romanian passport holders became EU citizens seven years ago. Toma says he's heard the German outcry about Romanian and Bulgarian arrivals oftentimes before.

DR. IONEL TOMA: It used to make me angry a few years ago when the people only seeing this, like, Romanian poverty and Roma nothing good.

NELSON: But he says the Germans he encounters nowadays hold the opposite view.

TOMA: They get more close to the reality. They see Romania as a beautiful country, friendly people and other things that are good. I think now it's a majority of those kinds of people in Germany.

NELSON: Toma says he expects more Romanians and Bulgarians will come to Germany in the coming months now that work restrictions are lifted. But the doctor says he doubts it will be any wave like some politicians are predicting. Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

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