Romanian and Bulgarian students studying in the UK are facing major obstacles in being able to work due to the UK Border Agency’s (UKBA) delay in processing work permit applications as part of the restrictions placed on migrants from both nations by the government.
The policy has sparked widespread criticism of the UKBA from student organisations. A Glasgow University campaign has demanded its reversal, claiming it is discriminatory. The work restrictions are among the toughest of any imposed on migrants from anywhere worldwide.
The delay in applicant processing comes as the government looks to curb migration rates by tens of thousands. Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, allowing their citizens freedom of travel within the EU. But other EU countries are permitted to impose transitional controls on their access to the labour market and the duration of their employment. Although this is set to expire in 2014, for many already studying within the UK the controls have presented significant obstacles to employment. It has also had a negative effect on students looking to work part-time for up to the maximum 20 hours a week in order to support the growing costs of a degree.
In order for a student to obtain a work, they must supply comprehensive documentation. However, the process of confirmation has been plagued by severe inadequacies from within the UKBA, specifically concerning the length of time it takes for students to receive certificates allowing them to work. A number of students have had to wait around six months (the maximum length of time by which the UKBA must return documentation) for their confirmation, with some enduring a wait of more than eighteen months for their application to be processed, including those who have already graduated and been left without the ability to find gainful employment.
Those awaiting their certificate have not had their initial documentation returned to them by the UKBA. Many students have been without passports for more than six months. Others have not had been handed back their European Health Insurance Card, meaning they are not entitled to free healthcare in the event of an emergency. Rayna Andreeva, a Bulgarian student at Glasgow, was faced with the choice of either handing over her EHIC or paying over £300 in insurance for one year. She sent away her EHIC along with her official ID card in November and is still awaiting their return.
She said: “As I chose not to pay £300, I risk a lot by walking around without my very important EHIC. What if an accident happens? The card will cover some of the expenses, but since I do not have it with me, I will have to pay the entire sum.”
The experiences of people such as Rayna are not uncommon. She has heard stories of students being without important documentation beyond the six month limit promised by the UKBA. High-profile events such as the Olympic games have added even greater delays on the processing of applicants.
Rayna also encountered major difficulties when contacting the UKBA. Those who don’t wish to send away original documentation can arrange a meeting at the UKBA’s office in Croydon, London either by telephone or signing up online to fast track their application. Rayna attempted this option only to come up against a highly inefficient bureaucracy with huge waiting times and unavailable staff.
Rayna continued: “I have called more than a hundred times sometimes in consecutive days and all the time the phone was busy. It wasn’t easier online, either. I registered on the website and when I checked an appointment for the next three months there were none. There are only a few known cases of people who actually managed to get an appointment, and if you consider how many appointments there are supposed to be, a lot more could have gotten through. Therefore, this method does not work for the majority of us, desperately trying to obtain a working licence.”
The outcry has generated a campaign to highlight the barriers restricting Bulgarian and Romanian students from gaining the necessary experience both for their degrees and future careers. The campaign for equal student rights for Bulgarian and Romanian students in the UK have launched a large Facebook group and an e-petition to the Home Office that has attracted almost 2000 signatures. The campaign is demanding that the restrictions be lifted so that Romanian and Bulgarian students are set the same requirements as students from 191 other nations. As well as highlighting what it describes as the “discriminatory” regulations faced by these students, it is also insisting the UKBA is overhauled to ensure a much more efficient application process and that original documentation is not withheld from students for any longer than the maximum six month time frame.
Glasgow University Students’ Representative Council has sign the petition in a bid to help those students affected.
Jessica McGrellis, VP Student Support for the SRC, said: “The process of applying for work permits for Romanian and Bulgarian students has proved to be a difficult task. Delays of up to 9 months [for students at GU] have been relayed to the SRC, by which point your application is likely to have expired. This is particularly problematic for those students who need to gain paid work experience to complete their degree. This unfair discrimination against these students is the reason the SRC Council agreed to sign the petition calling on equal student work rights for Bulgarian and Romanian students. Beyond this there seems to be a problem with UKBA resources which is causing the ridiculous amount of time these permits take to be granted, which we hope will be addressed in the future.”
The campaign has achieved partial success in Scotland, with the University of Dundee giving a one-off grant of £250 Bulgarian or Romanian students in first year who have applied for a work permit.