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Romanian, Bulgarian students bear brunt of UK immigration crackdown

12 March 2014, 11:15 CET

(LONDON) - Forced to choose between food and their books, Bulgarian and Romanian students in Britain are hitting back at the government's decision to suspend their financial lifeline.

In November, London announced it was suspending living-expenses loans for around 7,500 students from the two countries.

It said there had been a "significant increase" in applications from Bulgaria and Romania -- the two poorest nations in the 28-state European Union -- in the past year.

"I am really upset, I rely on the money to go to university," Stanimira Karaivanska, an environmental management student at Kingston University in south London, told AFP.

Karaivanska, from Bulgaria, was left stranded after her GBP 2,100 ($3,515, 2,530 euros) student loan for three months was frozen.

"I had to miss some lectures because I couldn't pay for the train and the bus," said the 19-year-old, who cannot understand how she fails to meet the criteria having lived in Britain for seven years.

Like other students in her position, Karaivanska believes she is paying the price for a "discriminatory" decision taken by a government anxious to appear tough on immigration before European elections in May.

Ministers have since extended the measure to include students from all European Union countries, although that applies only to those enrolled at private institutions.

In contrast, all Romanian and Bulgarian students are affected regardless of the institution they attend.

The government says it is a "precautionary measure" that will remain in place while those affected prove their eligibility for such loans.

Funding is only provided to students who have lived in Britain for at least three years and must be repaid once they start working.

Miglena Zasheva saw her monthly maintenance grant of around GBP 500 suspended in January.

The 23-year-old Bulgarian arrived in Britain in 2010 before taking a series of badly-paid jobs picking fruit and cleaning to make ends meet.

She is now painstakingly providing the authorities with payslips, tax documents and bank statements to prove she has been in Britain for three years and is therefore eligible for the loan.

"I told them, 'Are you kidding me?'. They told me that it was not enough," she complained.

Zasheva works as a receptionist at a gym and has taken on more hours to try to keep her head above water financially, but she fears she is fighting a losing battle.

"At one point, I had to choose between food and transport," she said.

Zasheva is surviving thanks to the goodwill of friends, to whom she already owes GBP 600, and she is "very sad" that she can no longer send the GBP 100 a month home to help her parents.

- 'They don't want us' -

Liliana Gabor, a Romanian student at London's ICON College, said she believes the cutbacks are aimed at discouraging students from continuing their studies.

"I don't think they want us," she said.

In February, Bucharest asked the European Commission for "clarifications of the compliance" of the British measures with EU law and suggested it could be discriminatory vis-a-vis Romanian nationals.

Andrei Ioan Stan, the head of the British branch of the League of Romanian Students Abroad, has no doubt that students from his country and Bulgaria are being singled out.

London "only targets Romanian and Bulgarian students out of 28 nationalities", he said. "The timing is suspicious."

He noted that the announcement was made two months before restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain were lifted, a move that has fuelled fears of a huge wave of new immigrants into Britain.

While these fears so far appear unfounded, immigration is set to be a big issue at European Parliament elections in May and at next year's British general election.

Gabor, who is struggling to keep up her studies while being a single mum to a nine-year-old boy, has managed to persuade the authorities that she is eligible for her GBP 3,000 loan.

But she worries: "I am afraid they will freeze my account again."

Zasheva has been less fortunate after a GBP 2,000 maintenance loan she was promised would arrive at the end of February failed to materialise.

"I am not coping at all. I can't ask my friends for more money. I have a very important field trip at the end of the month," she said.

"I need some special waterproof clothes. If I can't pay for them and can't go to the field trip, I will fail the whole year."

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