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Why Romania and Bulgaria want us to take their Roma

MUCH as I deplore the way in which bankers have kept their fat salaries and bonuses after being bailed out by taxpayers, my jaw dropped at comments by Damian Draghici, an adviser to the Romanian prime minister.

We shouldn't fret about Roma beggars asking us for a pound, he said: what we should really bother ourselves about is people in the banks who "are stealing billions of euros". It is another example of the propaganda that has been fired off by governments in Romania and Bulgaria in the run-up to the lifting of restrictions on migrants from those countries, something which takes effect at midnight tonight. Here we are, Romanian and Bulgarian leaders are trying to say, enlightened participants in the EU's project to promote greater understanding between European peoples, and yet we are being thwarted by nasty, racist Britain. Last week Ion Jinga, the Romanian ambassador to Britain, demanded an end to what he called the "vilification" of his countrymen in Britain. Earlier in the year he complained about a supposed obsession in Britain with Romanians and crime, bizarrely suggesting that crime in Britain would actually fall if more Romanians came to live here. I don't dispute that most Romanians wanting to come to Britain, or already here, are law-abiding but the idea that their presence will help to stop the rest of us committing crime is a little bit too much to bear. FOR its part the Bulgarian government has been just as quick to accuse Britain of xenophobia. In April the Bulgarian ambassador to the UK accused Ukip of publishing "hostile propaganda", for daring to oppose uncontrolled migration. The assertion that Romania and Bulgaria have some kind of enlightened attitude towards the free movement of people across Europe is laughable. It is hard not to wonder if these two countries are so keen to encourage migration to the UK because they see it as a way of ridding themselves of their Roma, a people who suffer appalling discrimination and disadvantage at home. The appointment of Mr Draghici, himself a Roma, to a post advising the Romanian PM on Roma affairs in no way mitigates the shocking record of mistreatment of the country's 600,000 Roma. Over the past decade municipal authorities have ethnicallycleansed their city centres of Roma and relocated them to shanty towns on the fringes. In Cluj-Napoca, in a case which has aroused the interest of Amnesty International, 300 Roma people were moved to a site next to a landfill and chemical dump, where families have been made to share one room. A similar thing happened in Piatra Neamt and in Miercurea where 100 Roma have been removed from the city centre and relocated to live next to a sewage plant where they have to draw water from a supply with a sign warning of toxicity. In Lunik-Kosice, reports the UN Development Programme, 7,000 Roma are living in a state of "almost total unemployment, illiteracy, substandard living conditions, severe health inequalities and lack of neighbourhood services".

The report estimated that 44 per cent of Roma families in Romania live in a state of poverty, compared with 11 per cent of the rest of the population. If Britain is the nasty, intolerant country which the Romanian and Bulgarian governments are so keen to make out, why then have so many Roma chosen to come here? According to a study by the University of Salford, Britain now has 200,000 Roma, many from Eastern Europe. Admittedly there have been tensions in places such as Sheffield, but no authority here is dumping Roma in shanty towns next to sewage works without proper water and sanitation. On the contrary, they have been paid generous benefits and accepted for social housing - and that is even before tomorrow's changes which will give newly arrived Romanians and Bulgarians equal rights to claim benefits as people who have been paying taxes for years.

It is hard not to wonder if these two countries are so keen to encourage migration to the UK because they see it as a way of ridding themselves of their Roma

ONE Romanian Big Issue-seller Firuta Vasile was already claiming 25,000 a year. Unsatisfied, she complained to a tribunal that her "job" selling the magazine made her eligible for housing benefit - and won an extra 2,600 a year. I am not against a welfare system. It is in the interests of everyone that the poor do not sink into destitution. But I do not see why Britain should be obliged to act as the benefits office for the whole of Europe. It is absurd that after this generosity we still get accused of xenophobia by Romanian and Bulgarian politicians. It should have been made a condition of EU membership that countries first tackled discrimination and social problems in their own countries. An open borders policy between EU states would not be a problem if all countries were at a similar state of development and if individual member states could deny benefits to citizens of other states until they had been resident for a number of years. Instead, Romania and Bulgaria were allowed to join the EU while continuing to treat their Roma populations with contempt, and western countries were forced to let citizens of other states claim equal rights to benefits from the moment they arrived. The inevitable result is a westwards flow of Roma fleeing from discrimination and poverty. The EU's open borders policy should be suspended until Romania and Bulgaria have improved living conditions for all their citizens.