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 www.communitychannel.org

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 www.communitychannel.org

Photo: Getty Images
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing and devolved rule are under threat. What's going on? Ciara Dunne explains. 

The UUP will formalise their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland executive on Saturday. The DUP then announced that it may consider voting to remove Sinn Fein from the executive effectively ending or at least suspending devolution. This is due to a statement by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton stating that former IRA member Kevin McGuigan may have been murdered by people connected to the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However Hamilton also stressed that there was no evidence to prove that the murder occurred due to PIRA orders and there are claims that it was a personal vendett.

The UUP declaring that they will withdraw from Westminster is not particularly destructive. They only have one minister and their vote share has been steadily declining since they signed the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of the DUP. By acting so dramatically, they run the risk of this seeming like the death rattle of a party trying to remain relevant in a world so different from its heyday rather than a principled stand to protect the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt voiced disgust that the IRA was still in existence. However the IRA is not one group and many of its splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Real IRA (RIRA) didn’t sign up to the Good Friday Agreement and have been active since it. They were not the only paramilitary groups that did not sign up, fragments of extremism have existed since the PIRA decommissioned and it seems likely that they incorporated those who had been PIRA members who were disillusioned by the agreement. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and Good Friday Agreement negotiator, explained while the PIRA had to decommission as part of the agreement, for various reasons it was allowed to exist in a non-armed state. News of its existence shouldn’t come as a shock to the only major unionist party that engaged in Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If the PIRA were proved to be armed and active then this response would be understandable but that is not the case.

What this stand does however give the UUP is a unique selling point compared to their rivals the DUP and it can somewhat tackle the perception some have that the UUP betrayed the unionist community when it agreed to work with Sinn Féin in government.

The DUP has been less drastic. Although they have stated that they would consider pulling out of government, they have described it as temporary suspension of government rather than a total breakdown of trust. Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP, said that if they are to continue to power share with Sinn Féin, they must ensure the PIRA issue dealt with ‘in terms that gives everyone the reassurance that this isn’t going to happen again’. This is a reasonable request and something Sinn Féin must do. They should be unwavering in their condemnation of any paramilitary organisations. However so far they haven’t done otherwise, several senior figures have denied that the PIRA have rearmed. Pearse Doherty, a prominent Sinn Féin TD, insisted that when it came to the IRA “the war is over, they’re not coming back”.

The best way to tackle paramilitaries is to tackle the reasons people joined them. This can be done not by threatening to withdraw from the government but standing together against sectarianism. Parties must ensure that there is a functioning government that works for the good of everyone and gives people a genuine stake in society. It is important that representatives of both communities condemn paramilitaries, in actions as well as words. All parties will soon have the opportunity to move away from old associations, as the old guard age and move aside and the younger members who are untainted by such associations, take charge of the party.

However, it is vital that parties take a considered stance in anything controversial for this to work. In this case, it is not yet certain whether the connections are historical or current. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has stated she has no reason to believe that the PIRA are active in the military sense. Bertie Ahern pointed out that it is possible that ‘these atrocities are being done [by those] who might have been on the inside but are now long since on the outside?’ Political posturing could have terrible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, especially if results in a party with a large electoral mandate being removed from government when there is no proof it has broken the agreement.

If the UUP and the DUP are truly concerned, a more constructive reaction is to push for the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC monitored paramilitary activity from 2004 to 2011 and its final report stated that ‘transition from conflict is a long slow process’. This latest incident shows this is true and it is likely that the IMC was disbanded too soon. Reconvening the IMC would offer a way to monitor paramilitary activity and to find patterns and evidence rather than allowing a single incident to destroy progress. If reconvened however it should address the issues that resulted in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the body. A more balanced panel, one agreed by all parties, would address this, the previous one was described as three spooks and a lord, but would still add value to the peace process.

If political parties pull out of the power sharing agreement over an incident that the police have not yet connecting to a sophisticated paramilitary organisation with political connections, they are handing extremism a victory while taking democratic choice away from the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have been clear, both in referendum and in their actions, they want peace and stability. If the parties of Northern Ireland don’t fight to protect this then they are betraying everyone who believed in the Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation.