The stereotypes used against Eastern Europe are as old as they are wrong

The tabloids are smearing Roma – but we've heard these myths before.

A young Roma girl does her homework in Romania. Photograph: Getty Images

If you’ve been following the news recently, you are likely to have come across scare stories suggesting there will be a wave of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria. Newspapers often illustrate reports with pictures of ghetto-like Roma settlements in those two countries as their evidence for such a claim. The Sun on 1 March ran the headline “No wonder so many in Romania want a new life in Britain. Revealed: grime life inside Gypsy ghetto,” with the strapline “No wonder 350,000 Romanians are heading to Britain”. An online petition led to a debate in Parliament on 22 April on whether immigration from these two EU Member States should be halted. The point that Romanians and Bulgarians have been able to freely travel and live in the UK as self-employed workers since 2007 is overlooked, as is the fact that Britain (and other EU States) can’t legally extend employment restrictions beyond December 2013.

The Roma stereotype is not new, but a continuation of ingrained prejudice. When Slovakia and other Central and eastern European countries joined the European Union in 2004, similar articles surfaced: 

The Daily Express, for example, ran the headline, "Britain won't let us starve: Gypsies say they can't wait to arrive in land of dole and benefits." The article continued to say that, "This most repressed of people see Britain as some sort of promised land where all their prayers will be answered. To them, Britain's economy … can easily sustain Gypsy families where eight children are not uncommon … In Slovakia there are signs that the country is giving its estimated 500,000 Roma Gypsies every encouragement to go."

The Daily Mail published an article entitled, "Benefits Britain, here we come", reporting that, “A ‘disturbing dispatch’ reports on a family of Slovak Gypsies and their dreams of returning to the UK where they once sought asylum. 'How do I get free accommodation?' 47-year-old Viera asks. 'And if my daughter has a baby there,' she says, her eyes lighting up, 'will the baby be British?'"

So it seems we have been reading these stereotyped storylines before. On the same day as this year's debate in Parliament, BBC Newsnight published the results of a survey that showed that very few Bulgarians or Romanians had made any concrete preparations to work or travel to the UK when the employment restrictions end. The BBC found that in Romania just 1% of the total survey sample said they were looking for work in the UK in 2013 or 2014, whether with a recruitment agency or on their own. The findings must have left a few red faces among anti-immigration MPs when people can read and compare two differing views, one based on myth and popularism, and one on fact. 

Just as not all Brits live on sink estates, neither do all Roma live in shanty towns. The Roma are the largest ethnic group in Europe at about ten million people. It’s a nonsense that a stereotype can cover so many people. The award-winning photographer Carlo Gianferro published photographs of the interiors of Roma houses, together with their owners, to help break this stereotype. The portraits won a World Press Photo prize in 2009. The Mail Online ran an article using the photographs with captions claiming that the houses were built on the proceeds of benefit cheating in the UK (the piece has since been removed). Debunk one stereotype and someone will see an opportunity to raise another.

One Roma I know, an amazing young woman, was invited to a luncheon with The Queen during the Jubilee year in recognition of her work with families and young people in Manchester. There are Roma teachers, health workers, police and other professionals in the UK. Many undertake voluntary work. No different to any other ethnic or national group. Yes, some culture and traditions are different. Where would flamenco music and dance be without the Roma? But not all Roma listen to, let alone play or dance flamenco. One Roma friend swears he can’t dance. Neither can I.

It is true that many Roma are subject to racism and discrimination in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. That in a number of those countries there is a disproportionate number of Roma children placed in special needs schools just because of their ethnicity. That was the finding of the European Court of Justice in 2007, DH and others v. the Czech Republic, and little has changed since that ruling. Many live in areas with little opportunity to work and in poor living conditions. More effective use of EU and national funds in Eastern Europe and stamping out the wastage and abuse of this money by the political elite and redirecting it to people working in the communities at most need of support would make a big difference. 

As would eliminating the easy, stereotyped way that Roma are portrayed as thieves, benefit cheats and people traffickers, the largest ethnic group in the EU yet the one with the least listened to voice in media, politics and society. The Community Channel season on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in May and June will go some way to give them that voice, broadcasting programmes without an editorial or political agenda where Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are truly able to contribute their own views to provide a more balanced picture. The season offers fact over myth, and break down stereotypes. Let’s hope UK media with the worst examples catch up and do so soon.

The Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Season on Community Channel is on until 14 June and available to view on Freeview, BBC iPlayer, Sky, Virgin Media, BT Vision and online via www.communitychannel.org