No going back for the Roma
November 4, 2013 — Review
Written by Liz Fekete
A review of the Migrant Roma in the UK research report.
The title, Migrant Roma in the UK: population size and experiences of local authorities and partners, may make this report by three University of Salford academics sound dry, but this is both a necessary report and a prescient political intervention. In 2011, the EU asked all member states to draw up National Roma Integration Strategies, and it would not be unreasonable to presume from this that the responsibility for collecting data on migrant Roma from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) lies with David Cameron’s government. But while Eric Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government has been asleep on the job (it barely even acknowledges the presence of migrant Roma in the UK), into the breach has stepped the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT). JRCT provided funds for Philip Brown and his team to carry out a scoping exercise and a survey of statutory and non-statutory agencies. What we now have – and not before time – is a no-nonsense report which provides hard data on the size of the new settled Roma migrant communities; an indication of the major gaps in statutory (and non-statutory) provision; and a sense of what needs to be done to challenge the Roma’s current invisibility in terms of government policy.
One stark statistical fact emerges from the report. (Could it even wake Pickles from his slumber?) Taking a conservative estimate, the number of migrant Roma now living in the UK is very similar to the existing indigenous Gypsy Traveller population in England and Wales. When combined together, the size of the Roma population (including Gypsies & Travellers) amounts to approximately 0.8 per cent of the UK’s total population. This is broadly comparable to the size of the British Bangladeshi community, and not far short of the British Caribbean population.
There is, of course, as the authors note, a wider context and a fuller picture that explains this statistic. Roma from CEE have been coming to the UK in larger numbers since 1989, first as asylum seekers and then, since 2004, exercising their rights of free movement as EU citizens, from countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (although, given the racism in these countries, the distinction between forced and voluntary migration may not be simple). Roma tend to settle in urban multi-ethnic areas, with the largest populations in the North West and London, with significant populations too in Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands and West Midlands. Their pattern of settlement leads them to live tightly in pockets of certain neighbourhoods, forming a Roma diaspora based on national lines, with the largest groups being amongst the Romanian, Czech, Polish and Slovakian Roma.
Another fact – this time of interest to our media friends, obsessed with eastern European migrants gaining access to council housing – is that most Roma live in the private rented sector and rarely come into contact with local authorities. Tellingly, most of the local authority data for this report came from education or children’s services, though even this is limited as many migrant Roma parents do not fill in ethnic questionnaires. Their experiences in their home countries suggest to them that such form-filling is a prelude to discrimination.
Despite the researchers’ best efforts to come up with sensible policy proposals, the report does leave you anxious. Public expenditure cuts are leading to a loss of expertise – equality officers, Traveller liaison officers, family support officers, peripatetic teaching support for children new to the UK, EAL, in fact all dedicated posts which support BME communities are fast disappearing. What is mentioned often by local authority respondents to the Salford university survey is the danger posed by ‘institutional memory loss’. As one local authority front line officer put it: ‘Because there has been a lot of movement and staff being made redundant or new teams being set up, sometimes it’s quite hard to know where to turn. What I’m frightened of and what I see is … it’s like [a] going back to the beginning’.
The Migrant Roma in the UK Research Report, by Philip Brown, Lisa Scullion and Philip Martin, Salford University Urban Studies Unit.
References:  The report uses the broad definition of Roma contained in the July 2008 terms of reference of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts on Roma and Travellers, which states that 'the term Roma ... refers to Roma, Sinti, Kale and related groups in Europe, including Travellers and the Eastern groups (Dom and Lom), and covers the wide diversity of the groups concerned, including persons who identify themselves as Gypsies’.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.