CREEPING IN QUIETLY

by Daniel Otzen; photography by BTA

The Bulgarians can be thankful to Saddam because the British press's frenzy over his hanging meant Bulgar-bashing was put on hold

Saddam Hussein in Communist Bulgaria

Those Bulgarians who reached Britain in the early days after EU accession should be sure to mention Saddam Hussein in their bedtime prayers. In his final hours, the former Iraqi dictator spoke of his execution as self-sacrifice. He perhaps hadn't pictured Bulgarian emigres as the ones who'd go free in his stead. But, as in many countries, Saddam's hanging just before New Year filled virtually every page of every newspaper in Britain for days, leaving no room for those other bogeymen the media plainly had in their sights: our new EU cousins from Romania and Bulgaria.

The run up to accession had seen warnings from the tabloids that Bulgarians were queuing round the block for visas to Britain as early as last August. The champion of "Middle England", the Daily Mail, picked up on a Bulgarian report showing how easy it was to work illegally here, and published a letter from a reader, who feared "this will simply put our own people out of a job". Further downmarket, The Sun printed a two-page special showing how easily its man undercover on the streets of Sofia had managed to buy a Bulgarian passport, in the name of John Reid, the government minister responsible for immigration. Surely, the paper raged, an Al-Qaida terrorist could easily emulate the achievement of its reporter. (And it's hard not to be swayed by this argument, for great minds think alike, as we all know). "Time to shut the gates on Britain," was the comment by the Daily Mirror.

In the event, Saddam stole the show. With most of their journalists on holiday for New Year, newspapers put their few remaining staff on to the execution story. Those very few hacks sent to track down hoards of Balkan invaders came back empty handed. The Mirror counted four Bulgarians at Heathrow airport who'd come to stay. The Evening Standard couldn't find any at all. Every liberal's favourite broadsheet newspaper, the Guardian, did find a few, but described them as "ambitious and hard working", and "impeccable ambassadors for their nation". The Sun did manage to get hold of a picture of a Bulgarian granny, grinning ear to ear as she boarded a bus in Varna bound for London on 1 January, but she didn't look the Al-Qaida type. A BBC TV news bulletin early in the New Year was troubled by "fears of a wave of immigration", but found no evidence it had started yet.

So events in Iraq spared the early arrivals from media prejudice. Britons were not taught to hate Bulgarians ahead of time in the way they might have been, but for Saddam. This will at least give breathing space to anyone who does settle here.

In reality, no one can tell how many Bulgarians will move to the UK. The government is still living down its vast underestimate of the number of Eastern Europeans who moved here the last time the EU expanded in 2004. It's being more cautious this time round, and is refusing for the time being to say how many immigrants it's expecting, nor is there yet an official count available of those who've already arrived. It'll be some time yet before the long term trend can be understood properly. In the meantime, all there is to go on is the estimate of 15,000 Bulgarian immigrants floated by a left-wing thinktank. Given the lack of statistics, it is perhaps lucky for the press that Saddam gave them something else to focus their energy on. It meant they didn't end up making fools of themselves by rushing into hasty conclusions based on numbers nobody's actually calculated yet.

The last few weeks have seen the emergence of the first Bulgarian media star in Britain, though, and he was prepared to go on the record with his predictions of the future migration patterns of his fellow countryfolk. Bulgaria's honorary consul in Scotland, the cordial Professor Nikolay Zhelev, made headlines by saying he thought at least 1,000 would head way up north to his adoptive home of Dundee, where there's already a 1,500-strong Bulgarian community.

Heartened that the dreaded wave of immigration might bypass parts of the UK it held sacred such as London and Essex, The Sun printed a map of Scotland, with helpful directions to Dundee, which it promised was paradise for Bulgarians, in the hope they might go where the professor suggested.

The remote and inclement shores of eastern Scotland might seem an unlikely place for Bulgarians eager to seek their fortune. A pioneer of the half-Scottish-half-Bulgarian accent, Professor Zhelev promised me that anyone who does venture that way could expect a warm welcome. And they should at least be safe there when the next wave of anti-immigrant media coverage starts.

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