Sandu and his son Antonio, in Channel 4's The Romanians Are Coming. Photo: Channel 4
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For many Romanian migrants, the phrase "freedom to move" is contradictory

The director of Channel 4's The Romanians Are Coming describes the choices and the journey faced by Romanians who move to the UK to work.

I spent a year filming Romanians in the process of leaving their country to come and live in ours. I was with them as they wrestled with the idea of leaving their homes; I was with them when they said tearful goodbyes to their wives, their children and their elderly parents; I was with them when they arrived in the "new country"; and I was there as they began to look for work and attempted to build some sort of a life here.

The decision to leave your family and move to another country cannot be an easy one to make. It’s something you would do only if you really needed to. Sandu really needed to. Of all the situations that I encountered on my various trips across Romania, Sandu’s was the worst. He lives in Baia Mare, an old mining city in the north of Romania, situated in a valley and encircled on all sides by hills and mountains. There hasn’t been much mining here since the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Although in recent years the city’s economy has improved, any trickle-down effect fails to reach a 52-year-old Roma gypsy like Sandu.

Sixteen years ago, the mayor of Baia Mare moved Sandu, his wife, their nine children and the rest of their community to social housing on the edge of the city. Over a thousand Roma families were forced to live in one-room apartments, some without running water or electricity. Controversially, a six-foot wall was then built around the site, which was designed, according to the mayor, to prevent traffic accidents. Human rights organisations say this amounts to institutional racism.

It’s impossible not to be a little overwhelmed on your first visit to the site where Sandu lives. This seven-storey shell of an apartment block – half-finished, with bricks missing and gaping holes without glass for windows, and with walls blackened by smoke from wood fires – rises out of a sea of rubbish which completely covers the muddy ground around it. In the middle of the site, a single tap provides fresh water. On my first visit, some young children were playing with a dead dog; they have no toys, someone explained.

If you live here, your options for earning money are few. Some, including the children, collect scrap metal from the numerous derelict buildings, remnants of the old copper-mining industry. Others beg in the city centre. Some of the women travel to Germany or England to work as prostitutes, while their husbands stay behind with the children. Some have given up and now walk around zombie-like, breathing in the fumes of the paint-thinner that they inhale from plastic bags. Every day, Sandu tours the city’s communal dustbins, looking for food. His son is ashamed, but for Sandu there is nothing shameful in providing for your family.

I met Sandu because he was planning to leave Romania to try to improve his life by seeking work abroad. He speaks no English, has no qualifications, and has no special skills that will make him employable, but he is happy to do any job, no matter how monotonous, back-breaking or dirty. According to Sandu you can only die in Romania, and he needs to go to a place where, in his words, "people will welcome and help you". For Sandu that place is England, a land he believes to be populated by gentlemen and ruled by a caring Queen who preaches fairness and equality.

This image of Britain is sadly not one I recognise, especially in relation to immigrants from Romania. The popular perception of people like Sandu is that they come to claim our benefits, steal our jobs and cheat us out of our money. Ukip’s unrelentingly negative politics focusing on Romanian immigration are perhaps one reason why. The press, too, is to blame, as coverage of immigration is often unequivocally negative.

Never once did Sandu profess to be attracted to Britain for any benefits he might receive. He needs a job, his children need him to have a job, and he is willing to go searching for one. Throughout my time filming this series, I found that people wanting to make the move to the new country have usually set their sights on something more than just hand-outs.

The need to move to another country in order to find work is not specific to Sandu’s situation. Although the poverty he lives in is extreme, in the process of making this series I met many people, from many different backgrounds, all hoping to work abroad. When you consider that the average wage in Romania is just under £4,000 a year, and take into account that things cost pretty much the same over there as they do here, perhaps you can understand why.

Mihaila. Photo: Channel 4

Mihaila is a middle-aged, middle class nurse living in the Black Sea coastal city of Constanta, with her husband, her teenage daughter and her elderly mother. Her house is comfortable, she can afford to eat out occasionally, she makes wine from the vines that grow in her garden. Her life is good. The trouble is, her life can’t get any better. She can’t afford to extend her house, or buy her daughter a car, or take her family on a foreign holiday, all those things that it is natural to want.

For Mihaila, and many others like her, Romania is a trap where it’s possible to live, and even live comfortably, but perhaps it’s not possible to do more. Britain offers an opportunity to do the job she is doing now in Romania but for much more money. In this way she shares the thoughts of all those who have ever considered working abroad for a few years in order to be paid more for their efforts. This tends to be more common for those who are young, relatively free, and embarking on their fledgeling careers, but Mihaila is facing this decision as a 50-year-old woman. That takes guts.

Making this series I was struck by the sacrifices people are willing to make to find work. There’s Stefan, who earns pennies as a human statue in Piccadilly Circus, trying to raise enough money for an operation to fix his daughter’s leg. There’s Adi, who works in a car wash for £30 a day and sends so much of his money back to his wife and child that he has had to sleep rough under a bridge for the past six years. That level of commitment and determination is impressive. British people moan that foreigners are taking British jobs, but I wonder how many Brits would be willing to endure what Adi does in order to support their family.

The fundamental right to free movement for EU citizens is important, correct and valuable, but let’s not be blasé. Leaving your family and friends behind as you move 2,000 miles across Europe in the hope of finding a job is not a decision that anyone takes lightly. It’s a scary and painful thing to do. It rips families apart and it destroys communities. It is not something that should have to happen. For many of the Romanians I met, the phrase "freedom to move" is contradictory, as where is the freedom in having no choice but to leave your country to search for work? It’s important and correct that we have that right to free movement, but let’s not confuse the life of a migrant worker with freedom.

James Bluemel is the director of Channel 4's three-part series, The Romanians Are Coming. The programme is produced by KEO films. The first episode airs at 9pm, 17 February

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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