ON Tuesday, Ukip leader Nigel Farage described the North-East as “the most patriotic part of England...and the most Eurosceptic part of England”.
Mr Farage’s address to a meeting of 700 supporters at The Sage, in Gateshead, formed part of a Ukip drive to expand out of the Tory shires and into traditional Labour-voting areas of the North.
It is a strategy which appears to be bearing fruit, with the party coming second in last year’s South Shields by-election and, according to this week’s YouGov poll, in second place nationally on 27 per cent, just three per cent behind Labour.
A key part of Ukip’s message is its call for an end to uncontrolled immigration. But although the North-East has among the highest unemployment rates in the country, it has one of the country’s lowest numbers of foreign-born immigrants. According to an Oxford University Migration Observatory survey, just 1.7 per cent of immigrants living in the UK have made their home in the North-East.
In recent months, the immigration debate has largely focused on Bulgaria and Romania whose citizens have, since January 1, had the right to live and work in the UK. Political opponents accused Ukip of scaremongering over leaflets claiming that up to 29m Eastern Europeans would be free to come here once the doors were opened. According to the Bulgarian Embassy, there are approximately 57,000 Bulgarians currently living in the UK.
Among them is mother-of-one Nevena Belovodska, 28, from Jarrow, who came to the North-East in 2009 to study Politics and Sociology at the University of Sunderland. While studying towards her degree, which she paid for with a European Union student loan, she worked as a waitress in a Newcastle restaurant to help with living costs.
One day in 2012, while a pregnant Miss Belovodska was shopping with her English boyfriend, she suffered abuse at the hands of an Englishman because she was a foreigner.
Nevena, whose name translates into English as marigold, did not originally intend to stay in Britain, but is now doing her master’s degree in Media and PR at Newcastle University while taking care of her year-old son.
She said: “I was quite negative towards everything which was said and written about us, because I have talked to a lot of my friends living in Bulgaria and they don’t want to leave it. Moreover, there were Bulgarians who came to the UK and found they don’t like it and then went back to home.
“I don’t agree that we steal British people’s jobs. If a Bulgarian person is given a job because they are more qualified is that stealing a job? Most Bulgarians have their own small businesses, work or others have very prestigious jobs here.
“I don’t agree that we undercut the labour market either, as there’s a given wage that someone receives for what they do.
“We are warm and hard-working people, so I would invite you to get to know us yourselves to see that not everything which has been said about us is true.”
Gergana Ivanova, now 23, came to Sunderland in October 2010 to be with her then boyfriend. She did a language course to improve her English and started a journalism course at the University of Sunderland afterwards.
The second year student, who plans to stay in the UK and work as a journalist, said: “My English wasn’t very good when I first started working, but I would receive positive comments from the customers in the restaurant where I worked. Some of them would even mention our footballers Stoichkov or Berbatov with a smile on their faces.
“I don’t agree with the bad representation we had, as we work hard for the positions we get and English employers appreciate us. That's why we are hired. We will not get the job if we don't have the qualifications or the ability of doing it.”
For 22-year-old Romanian student Florentina Olaru, from Sunderland, it has been a test of her adaptability to live abroad. Although she says she considers people in the North-East to be very friendly and welcoming, and feels comfortable living in the region, Florentina plans to go back to Romania when she finishes her Media Production degree at the University of Sunderland later this year.
She has also had some experience of local people making upsetting comments about her nationality.
“It was in my first year, she said. “I couldn't understand what an old man was asking me and he swore at me. Then I met a woman in a supermarket asking me where I was from. When I said that I was from Romania, she asked me if I came here in January 2014 and when I planned to go back to my country. She wasn't aggressive, but she wasn't pleasant either. She changed her attitude when she heard I was a student, though.
“But I avoid falling in the trap of saying that ‘British people hate foreigners’ as it isn’t British people, it's just some xenophobic groups who don't have anything to do with how Britain really is.
“And, yes, all that negative representation of Bulgarians and Romanians gave birth to a negative attitude in some people. But I always try to just be nice and respectful to everyone. This is the only way one can beat stigma and stereotypes.”