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As the European Union grows larger, immigration discourse has become more aggressive in Western states, especially in the United Kingdom. As author Ioana Burtea found out, the process of legally obtaining employment rights is excruciating and bureaucratic and forced her to take her fight to the European level.

Unwelcome

A general frown towards immigrants coming from poor countries is visible across Europe. It has been visible since the wave of Polish immigrants coming to Britain in 2004 and it became even clearer when Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU six years ago. Most states invoked the right to set work restrictions for immigrants during the first seven years after their countries became EU members in an attempt to control migration flows. The last two countries under these limitations are Romania and Bulgaria, whose citizens need to jump through numerous hoops – and invest considerable money - to obtain the right to work legally.

The following months will bring many changes to the EU. Croatia is to join the European Union in July. Starting in 2014, the work restrictions for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals will be lifted. Further down the line, seven countries are preparing for accession. Yet too many states are ill-prepared legally, institutionally and politically to respond fairly to these changes. It is time to reassess how some of the major states within Europe deal with immigration from across Europe.

Aiga_immigration_inv
Photo: Aiga Symbol signs, Public Domain
States guarentee the right to free movement but not the right to work once studying. 

The United Kingdom and the registration certificates

There are approximately 120.000 Romanians and Bulgarians living in Britain. In 2011, the two countries sent over 9,000 young people to study in UK universities, according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs. They are among the top ten countries sending their students to Britain.

I was one of those students. In September 2011, I joined the University of Worcester where I was enrolled in the third year of an undergraduate degree, obtaining a 2:1 Bachelors with honours in Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. My tuition fees at Worcester were covered by the British government and I will have to pay them back when I earn at least £23,000 a year. I also received a bursary of £100/month from Worcester. According to my calculations though, I would need to get the registration certificate (or Yellow Card) to work part-time if I was to start supporting myself throughout the course, and then on the two-year Creative Writing (Non-fiction) masters at City University London, which i was subsequently accepted onto.

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For the past year and a half I have jumped through all the hoops and I still don't have the right to work legally

Easy? No. I’m a skilled Romanian immigrant whose been living in the UK for the past year and a half and I have jumped through all the hoops, and I still don’t have the right to work legally. The necessary documents for obtaining a registration certificate are an original identity document (ID or passport), a bank statement for a UK bank account showing you can support yourself, passport-size photos, proof that you are a student and, since 2011, proof of comprehensive medical insurance. The latter became one of the finest loopholes in UK legislation.

The health insurance loophole

“Comprehensive medical insurance” is a vague term. It can be proven by supplying a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or a private health insurance membership. I chose the former and obtained it in the UK, where it costs only £14 and it lasts five years, not six months like the Romanian version. Four months later, I received the response – I had been rejected because my EHIC was British, meaning that I was covered by the UK. The UK Government wanted me to be covered either by Romania, or a private firm.

In the meantime, I stopped paying my £300 a month rent and started living of the university bursary. The owners were nice enough not to throw me out. I was also writing SEO advertising articles for a blog at a rate of £6 for 500 words and going to every Bingo game I could to make some cash.

I didn’t want to give up on the permit, so I bought private health insurance. Before I got the chance to resend my application, I heard about two friends who had been rejected by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) on the basis of that same insurance. The interesting thing is that most companies sell “comprehensive” insurances, but each package is different and the ones that pass have to cover the dentist and psychiatrist. My health insurance is now quite fancy: I have access to dentists, psychiatrists and even a nutritionist. I pay £65 a month for it and will probably never use it.

I have access to dentists, psychiatrists and even a nutritionist. I pay £65 a month and will probably never use it.

Second time’s a charm – or not

I stopped trying and focused on my dissertation, getting into more debt than I could ever imagine. After graduation, a friend lent me money to buy a plane ticket and go to Bucharest, where I thought about the next step. I had been accepted into the masters at City, but the fees were £4,000 a year and the government couldn’t cover my tuition anymore. I paid my £500 advance in May 2012 after several family friends pitched in.

Finally, I figured out the money issues – not without sacrifices - so I could go back to London and re-apply for the work permit. At time of publishing, i've had no response – which is not surprising given that the UKBA has a backlog of 300,000 unresolved asylum and immigration applications to deal with. The waiting time is now six to nine months by post and there is no option of getting a face-to-face appointment until June (when I last checked in November).

All in all, I’ve probably invested over £20,000 in the UK in a year and a half, without being employed or receiving anything in return. That is money I won’t get back soon, as the average salary for a student – who can only work part-time – is £16,000 a year. So I decided to fight back.

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