Those who follow the situation of Europe’s Roma know that there is never a “dull” week in which we don’t hear of accusations, abuse, or even violence against them. Most events do not grab major headlines in the British media; not so the happenings of the past few months.
In mid-October, Greek police detained a Roma couple on suspicion of abducting a four-year old girl who later turned out to have been informally adopted; in Ireland, authorities removed two children for DNA testing who later turned out to be who their parents said they were.
Meanwhile, in Britain, a report was circulated among Labour politicians which claimed that the number of immigrant Roma in the UK was not around 40,000 as previously accepted, but a confounding 200,000. Former Labour home secretary, Jack Straw, went public ten days later to proclaim that his own party had made a mistake by letting a million eastern European immigrants into the country; his words were echoed by the opposition leader Ed Miliband. That same day, Straw’s predecessor David Blunkett gave a radio interview about the Slovak Roma in his Sheffield constituency.
His words of concern appeared to have got lost in translation; the press went into a frenzy over a misquote, claiming that he had warned of “riots” against Roma. UKIP’s Nigel Farage was quick to express agreement, praising Blunkett for his “courage” yet taking the higher ground and condemning his “use of language”. The government now stood bare in the line of fire: in January, restrictions on work permits for citizens of Romania and Bulgaria are being lifted. In the eyes of the public, “Romania and Bulgaria” is a mere paraphrase for “Roma” – and “Roma” in turn is nothing but a politically correct substitute for “Gypsy”.
Public figures on the left and right were now insinuating that the New Year would bring a tidal wave of workshy, rootless, Gypsy child-kidnappers. Nick Clegg tried to assure the public that it’s not the coalition that’s responsible but the Roma, whose behaviour, he said, was “sometimes intimidating, sometimes offensive”.
With public anxieties rising, Downing Street’s options were limited: Britain cannot opt out of an EU-treaty at short notice. So last week, the prime minister, David Cameron, announced that he will restrict benefits for EU-migrants and deport “beggars”. The mention of both “benefits” and “begging” is again widely understood as code for “workshy Gypsies”. Experts in constitutional law as well as the EU’s Employment Commissioner said the plans could not be legally implemented – but what counts is the rhetoric.
‘Hordes at the gates’
We have been here before. Back in 1997, media and politicians ran amok when a group of several hundred Czech and Slovak Roma arrived in Dover and claimed asylum.
At the height of preparations for full the EU accession of the Czech and Slovak republics, the UK posted border control officers at Prague airport, whose task was to ethnically profile Roma and prevent them from bordering planes headed for Britain. In a private letter to his Czech counterpart Vladimir Špidla in July 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair described the immigration of Czech Roma to the UK as an “unacceptable situation” and added that “the Roma community need to know that unfounded asylum seekers will be returned immediately”.
But just as today’s Roma panic bears little relation to reality, when restrictions on the immigration of Czech nationals were lifted in 2004, there was no wave of Roma queueing up to claim benefits in Britain. But still the British government and opposition are caught in a spiral of angst and tension, triggering and then reinforcing fantasies and fears that have surrounded the image of “Gypsies” in European societies since the Middle Ages.
Inclusion is a two-way process
So what is the real issue facing Roma migrants in the UK? There are two. The first is the perception by outsiders. Roma migrants are visible because they arrive in extended families, often with many children; they tend to be unskilled, and so they are not usually silently absorbed within the workforce of large companies. Instead, they are enterprising, and exploit economic niches – which brings them in view of the wider public and hence makes them more conspicuous.
More than any other ethnic group, they are subject to prejudiced expectations about their collective behaviour, which politicians like Nick Clegg reinforce through their judgemental statements. Unless the UK tackles anti-Roma perceptions and prejudice, the exclusion and marginalisation of Roma will continue to thwart any chance of their integration.
The second issue is at work within the Roma community. Having endured centuries of oppression, they find it hard to trust institutions and to believe that they can enjoy full equality. If their situation is to change, Roma need to learn how to make use of the opportunities that society has to offer in education, employment and careers, not least by actively standing up to defend their human and civil rights. Social inclusion is thus a two-way process.
But that process can be managed. At the University of Manchester, I’ve been teaching a course unit on Romani language and culture since 1996. I have seen generations of students take a genuine interest in Romani customs and history, making this the topic of their essays and then taking it upon themselves to enlighten colleagues and acquaintances about this vulnerable minority once they graduated and took on professional careers.
As a university, we have encouraged local schools and Council agencies to engage with the Roma, and offered background information on Roma culture to teachers, police officers and Council officials. Together with the Big Life Company and Sure Start, we offered training and support to Roma youth.
After all these efforts, Manchester City Council now reports that school attendance rates of Roma are outstripping those of non-Roma. There are no complaints about Roma behaviour, and the police are publicly dismissing any claims of Roma criminality. Young Roma have taken up positions as mediators and classroom assistants; others have gone on to college and university, and some have won prizes for community volunteering. Prejudice has seemingly declined and Roma participation has increased. Manchester has made social inclusion possible for Roma – and other cities in Britain might wish to draw on this experience.