LONDON – The headquarters of Britain’s biggest Roma charity is a large building beside a major thoroughfare in east London, yet its official address is a P.O. box. The fear of reprisal against Britain’s Roma community, even in London’s most multicultural borough, remains real.
Hours after member of Parliament David Blunkett, the U.K.’s former home secretary, suggested last week that the arrival of Roma immigrants in Britain could trigger riots, an email was opened inside the headquarters of the Roma Support Group (RSG). It told the recipients to “f—k off,” before adding that “every country in Europe hates [you] and we are no different.”
The rhetoric of hostility toward the Roma throughout Europe is escalating, race relations experts say, lending credibility to the notion that it is the continent’s most persecuted ethnic minority.
Blunkett’s call for Roma migrants to “change behavior” was welcomed by Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence party, Britain’s Euroskeptic right-wing populist party, and prompted the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to criticize the immigrants for behaving in a “sometimes intimidating, sometimes offensive” way. He added that they should act in a more British fashion. Prime minister David Cameron judged the rhetoric so inflammatory that he ordered “sensible and calm language” around immigration.
Yet the untold story about the Roma in Britain is one of a community whose needs have met official indifference. Despite requests from the European commission, the British government has refused to draw up a comprehensive national strategy for facilitating Roma integration. The U.K.’s cursory submission to the commission is in fact based on a February 2012 report titled Creating the Conditions for Integration. The document aims to promote a tolerant society where everyone can “live and work successfully alongside each other.” Not a single mention is made of the Roma.
In the national strategy itself, the Roma are lumped together with Britain’s Gypsies and Irish Travelers — and largely ignored. Tackling hate crime, improving health and access to jobs are all identified as critical areas for Gypsies and Travelers, but there is no reference whatsoever to Roma needs.
However, considerable space is devoted to a police probe disrupting “trafficking of over 1,000 children from Romania,” which, according to Sylvia Ingmire, chief executive of the RSG, fosters the perception of the Roma as a criminal community.
Andy Shallice of the RSG said: “The strategy is a pathetic document. It contains no funding or even targets. The U.K. is now one of the most incalcitrant [countries] in pursuing the spirit and the practice of exploring how Roma communities are integrated into European member states.”
One area of contention is the government’s apparent attempt to downplay the scale of Roma settlement in the U.K., which critics maintain has prevented it from accessing EU funds to aid integration. In 2011 it declared “relatively few Roma citizens” lived in the U.K. But the numbers have been growing steadily for more than a decade, and now stand at about 200,000. According to a recent study by the University of Salford, near Manchester, Britain has one of the biggest Roma populations in Western Europe. Ingmire says they have been ostracized, adding that her group has yet to be consulted on any official policy on ethnic minorities. So far the group has met government officials just twice and it is realistic enough to have never attempted to meet a minister.
The latest controversy surrounding the Roma centers in the Sheffield neighborhood of Page Hall, Yorkshire, north England, a modest warren of dense, red-bricked terraced housing, where up to 3,000 Roma migrants have settled. Rumor and counter-rumor are rife. Among Page Hall’s long-standing Pakistani population, lurid tales of Roma-induced crime abound. Rashad Yaqub, 25, shared one account of how a Slovakian Roma offered to swap his daughter for £10 ($16) of “draw,” or cannabis.
Yet amid the acrimonious debate about how the Roma influx has changed Page Hall’s dynamics, the number of those who cite increased tension is matched by those who are either ambivalent or who insist there is no problem.
Empirically, there is little to substantiate the perception that Roma cause crime. Dave Brown, head of Migration Yorkshire, which is studying the Roma population but receives no government funding, says its researchers have found no statistical link between the two. In Page Hall itself, not a single person, even among community leaders, can recall the arrest of a Roma person despite Blunkett’s riot warning. South Yorkshire police were granted a dispersal order to move on groups congregating on the area’s streets 10 weeks ago but cannot say how many times they have actively used the order. Ingmire says that since joining the RSG in 1997 she has dealt with an alleged offender just once — and they had been wrongly accused.
Many stress that reported problems emanate from cultural differences, principally the Roma tradition of congregating on street corners late into the night.
Brown said: “Culturally, Roma stand outside and talk to each other. Some people are not very happy with that, but it doesn’t mean they’ve done something wrong. A bit of understanding is needed on both sides.”
Gulnaz Hussain of Page Hall’s Pakistani Community Advice Center said: “When they are told to move on, they always leave — there’s no real resistance,” adding that many Roma are reliable workers and have landed decent jobs including as delivery drivers, translators, teaching assistants or mechanics.
Brown added: “The point is that there is no danger of a riot. The danger is entrenched exclusion among the Roma.” Often the real risk is to the Roma themselves. A U.K. Border Agency, which is responsible for immigration controls, commissioned report in 2011 found that violence routinely followed derogatory media coverage.
Shallice, who lives in Sheffield and worked for the City Council for 27 years, of which a decade was spent in Page Hall, believes Blunkett’s warning can be directly traced to the U.K. government’s axing of the migration impacts fund, designed to help councils ease pressure on housing, schools and hospitals. In Page Hall the decision meant that paid overtime for the safer neighborhood team, the post of an environmental officer, bilingual teachers and social workers all disappeared.
But the issues affecting Britain’s Roma run deeper than cultural discrepancies. Although no official health assessment has ever been carried out, life expectancy for Britain’s Roma, says Ingmire, is 15 years lower than the U.K. average. Employment is another issue, with large numbers of Roma uneducated and unaware of workers’ rights. Ingmire points to the recent example of a Roma cleaner being paid £2.50 ($4) an hour by a well-known company. The government’s Ethnic Minority Advisory Group has yet to appoint a Roma representative.
The worry is that the U.K. will attempt to follow France by cracking down on Roma over perceived threats to public security. Dezideriu Gergely, head of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center, said the political rhetoric across Europe was heading backward. “We are seeing a significant deterioration between the coexistence of Roma communities with the other community.”
Shallice added: “We’ve noticed a shift in the U.K. government’s position. The balance is changing. From trying to understand the situation and doing everything possible to support families, we have a more political agenda, moving to a more enforcement-minded position.”