It was billed as the day when a flood of migrants from Eastern Europe would descend on Britain’s airports and ferry terminals, the day when thousands upon thousands of economic migrants would arrive to price our indigenous population out of the job market – and impose an intolerable burden on our free-at-the-point-of-use health service and welfare state.
So the story went. But on the evidence of Flight BA886 – from Heathrow to Bucharest’s Henri Coanda International airport – it seems that Romania and Bulgaria may have more to worry about than we do.
Barnaby Davis, 30, from London, has been teaching English in Bucharest for the last six months. He now lives in the Romanian capital with his American wife, Sorcha Sills, 26, who is also a teacher, and was travelling back for the start of term.
“We wanted to live in Eastern Europe because it’s really interesting and we’d heard great things about Romania,” Mr Davis said. “There’s a large ex-pat community."
"It’s a good place to live because the wages are so much higher than the cost of living, so fundamentally we’re better off than we would be in the UK,” added Ms Sills.
Today marked the first day when people from Romania and Bulgaria gained the same working rights as other EU citizens in Britain. The UK is one of eight countries, including Germany, Austria and France, whose restrictions have expired.
Mr Davis and Ms Sills suggested many in Romania were put off moving to the UK because of its increasingly racist rhetoric.
“Romanians notice the vitriol they hear coming out of Britain,” said Ms Sills. “What really gets on their nerves is being seen as interchangeable with gypsies. That’s why a lot of people don’t want to go to Britain, because they think it will be racist.
“That kind of attitude drives away the well-educated English-speaking Romanians. The people that come anyway will then be those who don’t speak English and don’t care. But I don’t think that many people will leave for Britain. Most who wanted to leave left years ago.”
The flight to Bucharest was more than a third full despite the early morning departure on New Year’s Day. Simon Davies, a member of the cabin crew on the flight, said: “Typically it would be completely full in both directions.”
George Urama, 23, and Cosima Supiala, 20, were travelling to Bucharest for their wedding next week. They work in Reading as a sous chef and an au pair but plan to move back to Romania in the next couple of years to settle and have a family. “I don’t think we’ll stay in England that long,” Ms Supiala said, “We want to bring a family up in Romania; that’s home.”
Nikolay Naydenov, 30, was returning to his home in Ruse, Bulgaria, via Bucharest. He works on cargo ships and was on his way back from a stint on board a boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Although he travels for work he says he would never live anywhere other than Bulgaria.
“I love my country and I prefer to live there. I like the nature and I like the people.”
At the back of the flight was a different sort of returnee. The man was a former prisoner in Britain being sent back to Romania as part of a new stricter policy on foreign criminals.
Dentist Ruxandra Popp, 44, was on her way home to celebrate her birthday. She has lived in the UK since Romania joined the EU seven years ago – the time when UK working visas were first relaxed for Romanian professionals.
Ms Popp says the recent anti-immigration rhetoric has made life tougher for those who have already been living in Britain for years. “It’s disgusting and distressing for us Romanians. I’m a professional and my friends are bankers or accountants or heads of departments in hospitals.”
She says the stories about Romanians coming over to claim benefits upset her most. “In my country it’s shameful to be on benefits; it’s a failure. We come here to work.”