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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.