Bulgarians, Romanians mostly want to stay put
The Sculeni border crossing point from Romania to the Republic of Moldova on January 18, 2011
But for most others in Bulgaria and Romania, the bright lights of Western Europe no longer have the appeal of a few years ago, casting serious doubt on predictions of an exodus when restrictions are lifted in the new year.
"It's pointless getting a diploma that leads only to unemployment or a salary of 450 leva a month (230 euros, $315)," Kocheva, 24, who abandoned her studies in public administration, told AFP.
"I would rather take a less prestigious job in a stable country if it allows me to live decently."
In 2014, nine countries including Germany, Britain and France lift all remaining curbs on workers from Bulgaria and Romania, giving them full freedom of movement in the 28-nation European Union.
This has raised fears that legions of them will take jobs in labour markets barely recovering from recession and overburden hospitals, schools and social security systems.
But amid anger at the sometimes shrill tone of the debate, not least in Britain, experts, surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that any new arrivals will form a benign trickle rather than a devastating flood.
"The ones who wanted to leave have already left," Adriana Iorga, director of the employment agency in Giurgiu, a deprived town in southern Romania, told AFP.
People from the two countries, which joined the EU in 2007, can already work without permits in 17 countries in the bloc in whatever sector they can find a job.
About three million Romanians and one million Bulgarians have already upped sticks since the fall of communism 24 years ago, according to official estimates.
The overwhelming majority, including members of the Roma minority, have settled in Spain and Italy, working in construction, agriculture or looking after the elderly and the disabled.
France and Britain recruited doctors and nurses while the United States has lured IT specialists.
Large numbers left in 1989, followed by a second wave in 2001 when visa requirements were lifted and then just before EU membership in 2007, Mila Mancheva of the Sofia-based Centre for the Study of Democracy told AFP.
"The opening of some labour markets on January 1 will generate far less migration," she predicts.
A recent survey showed that 200,000 Bulgarians -- between three and four percent of adults -- might make use of their new freedoms.
But mostly they are anything but unskilled or potential "benefit tourists", as labelled in the British media. Some 85 percent are under 40, and three-quarters with a high-school diploma or a university degree.
Another study by AFIS Institute showed that 78 percent of the would-be migrants wanted to work while 13 percent think of studying and only 0.5 percent were just eyeing social handouts.
"I do not want to take the bread out of anyone's mouth," said Romanian mechanic Marian Arabagila, 44, who earns less than $540 a month and wants to leave -- but not for Britain.
"I want to work to help producing more wealth for the host country."
Young, gifted and staying
"Britain will not be invaded by Romanians and Bulgarians", Simina, a student at the Bucharest university of economics and cybernetics, told AFP to nods of agreement from IT classmates Maria and Florentina.
"We would go to Western Europe to study but we do not want to settle there, especially as we see the discriminating comments against us," she said.
Bulgarian computer engineer Georgy Dinchev, 30, who works for a foreign firm in Sofia, agreed: "I will not migrate to the West to serve as a scapegoat."
Recent anti-government protests in Bulgaria and Romania have also shown a young urban middle class determined to stay home and press for change in their home countries.
"Even if corruption is disgusting, if the education system does not stimulate people to think for themselves and if public healthcare is in a terrible state (...) it is important to stay to put pressure on the political class," Dinchev said.