LONDON — They're portrayed as pickpockets who will steal British jobs. There are predictions they will beg, the unruly young ones will stir up riots, and some will even try to sell babies.
For months, Britain's tabloids have repeatedly warned of the horrors they believe will ensue after Jan. 1, when work restrictions will be lifted across the European Union for migrants from Romania and Bulgaria — two of the trading bloc's newest members. Those changes, the papers claim, will unleash a mass exodus of the poor and unemployed from the two eastern European countries to Britain.
"In January, the only thing left will be the goat," a Daily Mail headline proclaimed, referring to a remote Romanian village where, the paper claimed, everyone was preparing to move to Britain for the higher wages and generous welfare benefits.
"We're importing a crime wave from Romania and Bulgaria," another headline declared, quoting a Conservative lawmaker who told Parliament that most pickpockets on British streets hail from Romania.
The alarming stories about a possible Romanian and Bulgarian influx, and a government scramble to tighten welfare rules, are part of the latest chapter in an increasingly bitter debate about Britain's immigration policies and its uneasy relationship with the EU. Right-wing politicians have won over voters by arguing that foreigners, particularly eastern Europeans, are flooding Britain's job market with cheap labor and exploiting the country's benefits system.
The upstart UK Independence Party, known as UKIP, has seized on the anti-immigration mood to undermine support for the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron. In response, Cameron has recently stepped up his rhetoric on immigration and rushed to impose curbs on the ability of new migrants to claim state benefits.
He also angered fellow EU leaders when he challenged the established concept that there should be a free movement of workers throughout the economic bloc, arguing that it should be amended to stop mass migrations from poorer to richer member states.
"The politicians are doing it for popularity," said Father Silviu Petre Pufulete, a priest at a Romanian Orthodox Church in London. "It's been unfair to the Romanians and it's just been blown out of all proportion."
How big exactly is the potential problem?
Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 and more than 100,000 migrants from the two countries already work in Britain, albeit under work restrictions that limit their access to jobs and state benefits like health care.
The work restrictions use quotas to limit the number of low-skilled Romanians and Bulgarians who can take jobs in Britain and requires them to obtain a "worker authorization document" before taking a position. Those who work without proper papers, and employers who hire them, face fines and prosecution.
Those restrictions — similar to those in place in several other EU countries — will be lifted Jan. 1, giving Romanians and Bulgarians the same rights as other EU nationals to live and seek work freely across Europe.
Britain is bound by EU regulations to let the migrants work, and is powerless to extend the restrictions. That feeds frustration among those who feel Britain has given too much power to bureaucrats in Brussels. The turbulence comes as Cameron has promised a nationwide referendum on Britain's continued membership in the EU if his party wins the next general election in 2015.
The relaxation of work rules has become a hot button issue in Britain, but has not provoked similar passions in Germany, France and other European countries, despite occasional tensions over the large number of migrants and complaints that the new arrivals are linked to a rise in street crime in major cities like Paris.
Nobody knows how many Romanians and Bulgarians will actually come to Britain, and the government has refused to provide an official estimate. But many Britons believe that the migrants will choose Britain over other EU members because it is seen to be a generous welfare state.
"The biggest issue is that some see Britain as a soft touch," said Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at the University of Leeds. "They assume people will want to come here because they'll get an easy ride here."
Much of the anxiety can be blamed on the British experience in 2004, when Poland and other former communist countries joined the EU. Officials had mistakenly estimated that several thousand would come, but more than 1 million Poles moved to Britain.
Arguments that the influx of Polish workers has helped Britain's economy have not calmed worries of a second wave of eastern invasion, especially now that the British economy is much weaker than it was a decade ago.
"It's the fear of it rather than reality," said Simon Usherwood, a specialist in European politics at the University of Surrey. He said studies reveal that most EU migrants tend to be young, healthy and employed.
The Center for Economics and Business Research said this week that continued immigration is one factor that will help Britain eclipse Germany as the biggest economy in Europe by 2030.
That hasn't stopped British media from focusing on the poverty and unemployment in parts of Romania and Bulgaria. A favorite topic is the impoverishment of the Roma, or Gypsies, a minority that has endured centuries of discrimination in Europe. Roma are scattered across Europe, with the largest population in Romania.
Tabloid stories have accused the Roma already living in Britain of a wide range of things, from trying to sell babies to eating cats.
Police statistics suggest that Romanians in the U.K. do not constitute a major crime threat, though social tensions have occasionally flared. In June, British police evicted dozens of homeless Romanians who had set up a makeshift camp in a former soccer field in London. That and similar incidents prompted police to travel to Romania, in part to try to discourage locals there from moving to the U.K. without guaranteed work.
UK Independence Party leaders say this tactic will surely fail.
"The only real solution is and has always been to take back control of our borders by leaving the EU," says UKIP Deputy Leader Paul Nutall on the party's website.
Its "common sense" video states that qualified migrants are welcome but that "foolish" EU rules allow "anyone from the entire region of 500 million people to walk right in to work, or not to work, to claim health care and housing." It warns that Britain's 2.5 million unemployed will have their chances of finding work undercut by new arrivals willing to work for low wages.
The impact of the rule changes won't be clear for several months, but in the end Cameron may have the most to lose. In appeasing hardline Euro-skeptics among his Conservatives and trying to win back UKIP supporters, he has upset relations with the EU.
"He's annoying his European partners, and he's also annoying the rank and file in his party because he's not tough enough," said Usherwood. "He's trying to make everyone happy, but in the process making nobody happy."
Sylvia Hui can be reached at http://Twitter.com/sylviahui