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