LONDON — Three days after Andrei Opincaru, a 29-year-old Romanian, arrived in Britain this year, police officers saw him smoking a cigarette on the street. They stopped, searched and questioned him about having marijuana.
“I asked them: ‘What are you doing? You cannot do this to me. You’re treating me like a criminal,’ ” he recounted. The officers, he said, laughed and went away. “To them it was just a joke,” he said.
Mr. Opincaru came to Britain in hopes of landing a good job by taking advantage of newly extended employment rights for workers from Romania and Bulgaria, which were among the latest entrants to the European Union. But Mr. Opincaru, like other newcomers, was surprised by how little his European citizenship did to shield him from an intense political backlash against the employment measure.
The tension became more apparent last month when Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, expressed discomfort at the idea of having Romanian neighbors, suggesting there was a high level of criminality among Romanians in Britain. “This is not to say for a moment that all or even most Romanian people living in the U.K. are criminals,” he said. “But it is to say that any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.”
In an interview with LBC Radio, Mr. Farage, whose wife is German, was pressed on whether he would feel uncomfortable with German neighbors. “I think you know the difference,” he replied. “We want an immigration policy that is not just based on controlling not just quantity but quality.” The independence party, known for an anti-immigration stance, won about a quarter of the vote in last month’s election for European Parliament members.
Mr. Opincaru, who found a job in construction, shares an apartment with four Italians and two Portuguese who also came to London for work. But he and other Romanians say they are made to feel like second-class citizens, more so than the migrants from affluent countries in Western Europe, despite having equal legal rights. One bank refused to let him open an account, he said, though he provided all the required documents and had secured a job and a national insurance number — the equivalent of a Social Security number.
Being a Romanian in Britain is “very, very difficult,” Mr. Opincaru said. “They’re not treating us like other citizens from Europe,” he added. “Wherever you go and they hear you’re Romanian, they change the music.”
When the European Union extended full employment rights to Romania and Bulgaria this year, allowing workers there free movement throughout Europe, nationalist politicians warned there would be a flood of desperate immigrants who would take jobs from native workers. Headlines predicted a surge in crime and cheating on benefits. One Conservative politician, Philippa Roe, said the arrival of Romanians and Bulgarians would escalate problems like begging.
In November, the government froze loans and other financial support for thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian students as a “precautionary measure.”
But the figures published last month did not reflect an influx of migrants from the two countries. The number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain from January to March of this year dropped to 140,000 from 144,000 in the previous quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics. That compared with 1.7 million migrants from the rest of the European Union working in Britain, it said.
And not everyone has been unwelcoming. The Muswell Hill Baptist Church in London has set up a charitable organization to help Romanian migrants. “We should respond to them as European citizens, not per nationality,” said Martin Stone, who leads the program. “We should grow up and not lower ourselves to petty nationalism. We know where finger-pointing has led to in the past.
Part of the antipathy today stems from previous decisions to allow unfettered immigration from Poland and seven other Eastern European countries immediately after they joined the European Union in 2004.
The number of native Poles in Britain has grown tenfold since, and today they are the second largest immigrant population, just behind Indians and ahead of Pakistanis, who have colonial links to Britain.
This year, the government tightened rules for migrants seeking benefits. Migrants may not seek jobless benefits for three months after their arrival, and they must show weekly earnings of at least $255 before they can apply for child care, unemployment, housing or health care benefits.
Romanians and Bulgarians interviewed in Britain acknowledged that the benefit system was subject to abuse and said the rules could be stricter. But they said the government and public response to their arrival had been disproportionate.
About 101,000 Romanians and 57,000 Bulgarians were living in Britain in 2012, according to the latest annual residency data from the Office for National Statistics. They gained the right to visa-free travel in 2007 when both countries joined the European Union, but they required work permits until the beginning of this year. They were significantly fewer than Britain’s Asian population, and fewer than the French, Irish, Italian, and even German and American populations.
Around 23,000 Romanians and Bulgarians arrived in Britain in 2013, a threefold increase from the previous year, according to the statistics office. They were among the 201,000 immigrants from the European Union over all, it said. About 134,000 British citizens left the country during the same period.
The number of Romanians applying for a national insurance number more than doubled, to 47,000, in 2013 compared with the previous year, according to the latest figures from the Department of Work and Pensions. About 18,000 Bulgarians registered. In contrast, about 102,000 Poles applied.
Despite the tension, Romanians and Bulgarians said they were eager to make the move to Britain. And one recruiting firm said the workers were much needed in Britain to meet labor demands.
Companies posted 36,285 job offers in Britain in the first quarter of the year, according to Tjobs, a recruiting company that places Romanian workers across Europe. Andreas Cser, the company’s president, said British companies were having particular difficulty filling jobs in the construction and infrastructure sectors.
Eugen Smintina, 39, found a job with an electrical company. “I would like to say to all English people that I come here as a Romanian citizen in your country because I have work,” he said. “Not because of alcohol, drugs or stealing other people’s jobs.”
Andreea Corsei, 28, who has a law degree from Romania and arrived in London this year to pursue a Ph.D. in criminal law, dreams of setting up a law firm with her husband, Daniel, who is also studying law. Romanians in Britain face “walls that are higher to climb” but also the opportunity “to prove what you can do,” she said.