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.

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

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

Alan Anstead is the founder and chief executive of a UK charity, Equality, which works with and for Roma in the UK. 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

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage