Sheffield’s Roma, David Blunkett and an immoral racist panic[1]

December 20, 2013 — Comment

Written by John Grayson

We publish below reflections on the political and media furore surrounding Sheffield’s Roma by long-time South Yorkshire activist.

‘The best recipe for riots is for somebody to stand up and warn of riots.’ (Professor Yaron Matras on Channel 4 News 27 November 2013)

On 11 November David Blunkett gave an interview to Radio Sheffield. In the interview he spoke of reported tensions in the Page Hall part of his Sheffield constituency where Roma workers mainly from Slovakia had settled: ’We have got to change the behaviour and the culture of the incoming community, the Roma community, because there’s going to be an explosion otherwise. We all know that.’ The Sheffield Brightside MP said he feared a repeat of the violence that erupted between Asian and white youths in Bradford and other cities in 2001: ’If everything exploded, if things went really wrong, the community would obviously be devastated. We saw this in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham all those years ago when I first became home secretary. We saw that the community itself were the losers … We’ve got to be tough and robust in saying to people you are not in a downtrodden village or woodland, because many of them don’t even live in areas where there are toilets or refuse collection facilities. You are not there any more, you are here – and you’ve got to adhere to our standards, and to our way of behaving, and if you do then you’ll get a welcome and people will support you.’

This is not the first time Blunkett’s words have inflamed tensions and heightened a toxic political discourse. In 2001 he claimed that the riots in northern cities were not the result of provocations from far-right activists but caused by the ‘parallel lives’ lived by Asians in Bradford; and argued that those involved (often third generation Asian migrants) had to get used to the cultural demands of living in Britain.

In fact in 2001 Blunkett not for the first time ‘conflated immigration and race’ with his calls for citizenship classes and language lessons, as though those involved were foreign. ’We have norms of acceptability’ he said shortly before the report into the disturbances was released. ‘And those who come into our home – for that is what it is – should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere.’ This is exactly the case he was making regarding Roma in his constituency – this time mixing anti-Gypsyism, race and immigration.

Although Blunkett is now engaging with local Roma, his stance has not always been supportive. In 2010 Blunkett supported a campaign against a Traveller site in his constituency. Three years ago his anti-Gypsy statements and warnings of ’a tinder box of tensions‘ again generated headlines in the local media. On 28 May the Sheffield Star headlines screamed ‘Gypsy site race fear’:

‘Furious residents have joined David Blunkett to fight plans for a new gypsy site on a residential street – which the MP warned could ignite a “tinderbox” of ethnic tensions.  Brightside and Hillsborough MP Mr Blunkett, whose constituency includes Burngreave, said:” It’s an area of major deprivation with a major issue around community cohesion. The last thing you do is put a travellers’ site there. “Where you add one problem on top of another and another so even the most understanding residents feel under strain, you create a tinderbox of tensions.” Mr Blunkett added: “The area has very large challenges – in particular integration of existing Slovak and Roma populations – and I would be concerned about the impact of an influx of travellers.”’

Thus the moral panic Blunkett’s recent statements have created in the media and in political discourses he could have easily predicted as an experienced politician and former home secretary.

European Roma workers in South Yorkshire

Over the past twenty years European Roma migrants and refugees have become more visible in South Yorkshire. In the 1990s Bosnian and Kosovan Roma fled to the UK from civil war and bombings. Small numbers became resident in South Yorkshire. In 1991 a virtual pogrom in the Polish town of Mlawa forced the emigration of Polish Roma. For the first time some chose to flee to the UK as asylum seekers.

Before 2004 Roma from Central and Eastern Europe wanting to move to the UK to escape persecution had to do so by claiming asylum. They were some of the first to get caught up in the British government’s hardening attitudes to asylum seekers in the 1990s. When the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre opened in 2001 there was a hunger strike of twenty-five Roma detainees. In fact the place of Roma people in the UK abusive asylum system has often been overlooked. For instance in September 2013 it was the courage of a Roma woman in the same Yarl’s Wood centre which has exposed sexual abuse and exploitation of women asylum seekers.

In 1997 400 Czech and Slovak Roma with their 580 dependents sought asylum in the UK. Very few were allowed to stay but a single family of Slovak Roma settled in Sheffield in this period. It was this family which became the basis for the later major migration of Slovak Roma to South Yorkshire between 2004 and 2006.[2]

Campaigning for the Roma

In Leeds in 2005 there were campaigns by local Gypsy and Traveller organisations to ensure that Kosovan Roma, settled in the city, were not deported. In South Yorkshire just prior to the 2004 Enlargement of the EU, there was a local campaign in Sheffield by activists and the Sheffield Star which prevented the deportation of Frantisek Lagron a Czech Roma man with his pregnant wife and three children only weeks before they would have been legally resident in Sheffield.[3]

Barnsley had the largest number of Roma asylum seekers in the region before 2004, many of them were from the A8 accession states and some of them have now settled in the town. There is anecdotal evidence of some local hostility in 2003 with a Bosnian Roma family being forced out of one of the Barnsley council estates.

The major arrival of Roma workers was after 2004 and mainly to areas in Rotherham and Sheffield. In practice South Yorkshire has become a base for migrant Slovak Roma workers, from three villages, (Bystrany, Pavlovce and Zehra) and a regional city centre (Kosice) in Eastern Slovakia. This was classic ‘chain’ migration. A Roma family had settled in Sheffield prior to 2004 and had contacted families and friends in their home area of Eastern Slovakia who gradually joined them after 2004. They in turn contacted other extended families in the same areas. In 2007 researchers estimated the Sheffield population of (mainly Slovak) Roma at around 1,200. In April 2009 European Dialogue in research for the then DSCF (Department for Schools, Children and Families) suggested an estimate from interviews with Roma people for Sheffield of between 3,000 and 4,000. This is the same as the current (2013) figure which the recent study by Salford University quoted from information from Sheffield City Council, presumably mainly based on the 2009 research. The Salford research did not include data from interviews with Roma workers or their families.

The exposure of ‘hidden’ populations of Roma was no doubt well-intentioned, to improve resources devoted to Roma integration into local communities, but statistics are constantly ‘racialised’ and misused, and the media used the research in scare stories about the numbers due to arrive from Bulgaria and Romania.

The truth is of course that population data for Roma is in practice ‘unknown, manipulated and contested’. Statistics on migration from other EU countries to the UK is not ‘ethnically disaggregated’ – in other words only a person’s nationality appears, not their ethnicity. Moreover Roma people have still much to fear from being counted and researched. Two weeks after Blunkett’s speech in Sheffield in the central Banská Bystrica Region of Slovakia an ultra-right, anti-Roma candidate Marian Kotleba was elected as governor of the region. The ongoing dire situation in the Czech Republic for Roma has been highlighted by a recent protest meeting at the House of Commons.

In 2007 hundreds of Romanian Roma were rounded up in Italy under an emergency decree and deported back to Romania. Since then the Italian authorities have finger printed Roma children which to Roma people is a sinister reminder of their treatment by the Nazis before the ‘O Baro Porrajmos’ (‘The Great Devouring’ – the Roma Holocaust).

Even in Sweden[4], where over the past few years tolerance and liberal attitudes have been challenged by far-right movements, the Nordic Roma have found themselves threatened. The Roma language is an official language in Sweden and it is illegal to create directories or official files on ethnic minorities. Despite this, in September 2013, the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter revealed that police in Malmo had drawn up a file in 2009 in the form of a genealogical tree covering 4,029 Roma, many of who had no criminal record and more than 1,000 who are children.

French Roma evictions a model?

British newspapers have printed photographs over the past weeks in articles on the Sheffield Roma and the immigration issue reminding readers of how France is dealing with the Roma. In the first six months of 2013 10,000 Roma people have been evicted from ‘unsightly’ and ‘illegal’ camps throughout France and deported. A photograph in the Telegraph of a rubbish strewn camp, allegedly of Roma people, in Triel-sur-Seine near Paris, has a caption linking it directly to allegations of rubbish on the streets of Page Hall in Sheffield. The Daily Mail has three pictures of the mass eviction of Roma families from their ‘illegal camp’ near the Var river in Nice, southeastern France, in an article claiming that France and Germany now agree with David Cameron on restricting free movement of (Roma) EU workers. The Daily Mail claimed that the evictions showed how France rejected the EU policy of ‘social dumping’ (sic) of Roma workers in France. David Cameron in his statement on measures to stop alleged benefit abuses by migrants claimed that the government would ‘deport beggars’ and prevent them returning for twelve months – a measure aimed at Roma migrants. Boris Johnson criticised the measures as too cautious and suggested: ‘That the accession of Romania to the EU means that London can do nothing to stop the “entire population of Transylvania” from pitching their tents in Marble Arch.’

It is therefore not surprising that Gypsies and Travellers and European Roma people in the UK are hesitant to declare themselves as Roma. They have been seen as ‘illegals’ and ‘beggars’ for much of the last five hundred years in Europe and would have certainly seen the summer ‘Go Home’ campaign of the Home Office as addressed to them. In research in Rotherham in 2007 one Slovak Roma man when asked whether he would describe himself as ‘Roma’ or ‘Gypsy’ said that he avoided the term ‘Gypsy’ because he had never heard it spoken in English … only as ‘f***ing Gypsy’. In Barnsley in 2008, a Romany Gypsy man terminally ill with cancer recorded himself as such on the hospital form when he attended for treatment. He and his family had lived in Barnsley for around a hundred years – he was sent a bill for his treatment as a ‘foreign’ non EU citizen.

The media ‘gutter debate’ on Sheffield Roma and immigration

Ian Birrell, a speech writer for David Cameron in the 2010 election, on the 29 November spoke of ‘a depressing week for British politics as it takes another sordid step into the stinking gutter of xenophobia.’ For Roma people in Europe it has been a very depressing autumn. In the middle of October, the international media seized on an alleged case of a white child being ‘stolen’ by Roma in Greece. The media frenzy which ensued resurrected almost Mediaeval stereotypes of Gypsies stealing children and selling them (or ‘trafficking’ them in current jargon).

Ian Hancock, a British Romani Linguistics Professor at Texas University has chronicled how deeply ingrained anti-Gypsyism is in European tradition, evident in folk tales, beliefs and proverbs He quotes a ‘traditional’ rhyme:

‘The Gypsies are coming, the old people say. To buy little children and take them away…’[5]

In the UK for some bizarre reason the British press headlined the discovery of a white child in a Greek Roma camp as giving ‘hope’ to the parents of Madeleine McCann. In fact on 12 September the Telegraph had already linked the McCann case to the alleged discovery of an ‘Italian Madeleine’ ‘snatched by Gypsies’; another white child seized by Greek police from Roma in Kos in Greece. In Yorkshire the mother of Ben Needham a youngster from Sheffield who disappeared on the Greek island of Kos over twenty years ago wanted access to DNA samples from the Greek Roma child seized in central Greece, to investigate whether Ben was her father. On the BBC Look North programme from Leeds on 21 October she claimed that she had always thought that the ‘Gypsies had been involved in Ben’s disappearance’ but the Greek police had been too frightened to investigate in Roma camps.

This racist myth of Gypsies trading children was to reappear in the press responses to David Blunkett’s November Roma interview about Page Hall. The Daily Express on 14 November claimed that a:

Bid to trade a newborn child for cash is said to have taken place amid an outbreak of drug dealing, teenage prostitution and gang intimidation in Sheffield’s Page Hall district….

Concerns that Roma gangs already in Britain are engaged in such appalling criminal acts will add weight to the Daily Express crusade to force the Government to keep controls in place on Romanians and Bulgarians, rather than opening the doors to both countries on January 1.’

Earlier on 11 November the Express had made outrageous claims, illustrated with a picture of a forlorn Roma child at a roadside, that: ‘According to one high-placed source in Kent County Council, scores of Romanian families plan to deliberately abandon their children during the ferry crossing from Calais to Dover.’

The fact that this deluge of press vitriol against Roma families surfaced around the Blunkett statement was particularly poignant in South Yorkshire. In the Rotherham parliamentary by-election of November 2012, where UKIP came second to Labour in its South Yorkshire heartlands, journalists understood very well that the case of the ‘UKIP couple’ who had been barred from fostering children, which Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, used incessantly during the campaign, was in fact the local authority following legal rulings on the placement of Roma children. The underlying anti-Gypsyism of UKIP’s campaign was widely seen as aimed at mobilising antagonism against Rotherham’s 3,500, mainly Slovak Roma population. Roma organisations in Slovakia and the UK through press and TV coverage in Slovakia and street demonstrations in Bratislava in September 2012 had protested about allegations that British social workers had taken away 120 children from 40 Slovak Roma families. There was even a debate in the Council of Europe in December 2012 on the issue.

Even before Blunkett’s interview the Express on the 31 October was linking the Salford University research to Page Hall under a photograph of Farage who had exploited the Roma issue in Rotherham.

’Roma surge threatens to add to estimated 200,000 population already in UK. An estimated 200,000 Roma gypsies are already living in Britain – one of the biggest populations in Western Europe, research claims … And frontline officers fear the figure will rocket once visa restrictions are lifted at the end of the year, according to the University of Salford study … Advice worker Gulnaz Hussain of Page Hall, Sheffield said the number of Roma families she meets has soared from one or two in 2004 to several hundred now.’

The press campaign

Just scanning the headlines generated by Blunkett’s statements give a flavour of the press anti-Gypsyism unleashed in just a few days in November – reminiscent of British press anti-Roma campaigns in 1997 and 2004:

Some voices of sanity … 

There were some voices in the press determined to counter the hysteria. On the weekend following Blunkett’s outburst the Observer carried a story by its political editor Mark Townsend headed:

’The real story of Britain’s Roma: excluded, ignored and neglected

‘In Page Hall, Sheffield, cultural differences have created tension but there is no sign of the riots predicted by David Blunkett’

Townsend reported that ‘amid the acrimonious debate about how the Roma influx has changed Page Hall’s dynamics, the number of those who cite increased tension is matched by those who are either ambivalent or who insist there is no problem.’ Research had suggested no links between the Roma and crime in the area: ‘In Page Hall itself, not a single person, even among community leaders, can recall the arrest of a Roma person. Despite Blunkett’s riot warning, nor could anyone recall a violent incident between the Roma and local communities.’

Ciaran Jenkins, Northern reporter for Channel 4 News, coincidentally had reported on Page Hall on the 30 October, mainly through interviews with local Roma workers and the family of a Roma community worker, and found little to support reports of major tensions. He filed a further report on 27 November on a community in Manchester where Romanian Roma had settled well into local life and were not seen as a ‘problem’.

Sheffield’s local evening newspaper came to a similar conclusion when it asked the question ‘Is Page Hall really a ticking bomb of racial violence?‘ on 28 November.

In his Radio Sheffield interview on 11 November David Blunkett had stated that: ‘The cultural gulf between the Roma and the settled community is 50 per cent greater than that between white Britons and Pakistani immigrants who came to Britain a generation ago.’

In its report the Sheffield Star quoted a longstanding resident who said that he was ’old enough to have seen all this before. “I had a Pakistani saying to me the other day: “These Roma, come here, not integrating, they’re a disgrace”,” he recalls. “I said to him “I remember people saying the same about Pakistani families 30 years ago. I didn’t listen to them then and I’m not listening to you now”.’

What is to be done?

The Guardian has described the Sheffield Roma moral panic as a symptom of ‘the terrifying politics of otherness’:

Certainly the hysteria of the press and politicians about the possible arrival of migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania in January 2014 has been clearly exposed as anti-Gypsyism – as racism. As Gary Younge put it:

‘There is nothing courageous about slandering a group of impoverished, marginalised people. They’re too poor to sue and too isolated to effectively resist. There can be no comeback because they have no power, so where’s the courage? But there is everything racist about denigrating a group of people as though their shared ethnicity means shared values and implying collective responsibility for the actions of individuals in their community.’

At a meeting in Page Hall on Wednesday 20 November there were flowers and an apology from David Blunkett for the Roma community. There were also local Labour councillors who decided to shut down the advertised public meeting and tried to exclude national Roma representatives of the new Europe Roma UK organisation  and supporters of the local Roma community. The councillors simply refused to sit down with what was a cross section of people from Sheffield organisations, and experienced researchers to openly explore and discuss ways forward for Roma people in Page Hall.

In fact in the run up to the European elections in 2014 and the Westminster elections in 2015 all the political parties seem to have decided to stay in the ‘gutter’. Owen Jones has pointed out that Nick Clegg, with his support for Blunkett on Page Hall, and his collaboration with the Tories in the ‘scapegoating of immigrants’ has ensured that the Coalition parties will fight the next elections: ’on the basis of fear and despair. Blame the immigrant, rather than the bankers, the tax-dodgers, the low-paying bosses and the politicians who have plunged this country into this mess. It is clever, it is cynical and it is grim.’

Labour is refusing to oppose the Coalition’s draconian Immigration Bill now in Parliament. Yvette Cooper the shadow home secretary’s response to what the Daily Express on 28 November called David Cameron’s ’Crackdown on EU Migrants’, was to claim on the ITV News on 27 November that the measures were too late, and ’should have been introduced eight months ago’ when Labour called for them.

The BBC’s ‘neutral’ political editor Nick Robinson also joined the fray on the ‘crackdown’ on EU migrants. According to Robinson, reporting on BBC News (27 November 2013), Cameron’s statement was a  populist response to the fears of the public as shown in opinion polls, and in the newspapers, that Britain was a ‘soft touch’ on benefits. Robinson speculated that David Cameron was probably smiling about outdoing UKIP, when ‘the Brussels bureaucrats were slagging him off’ (sic).

Solidarity with Roma migrant workers

Politicians and the British media attempted to use the Page Hall moral panic to create an atmosphere where Roma communities could be targeted and alleged Roma ‘criminals’ and ‘beggars’ could be deported – exactly the policies followed in Italy and France in recent years. In 2012 police in London working with invited Romanian police personnel organised a drive to ‘clean up’ homeless Roma from the streets of central London. In June 2013 over 60 Roma were evicted from the former Hendon FC grounds where they had lived for over two years and offered flights ‘home’. English and Irish social services have seized Roma children on a regular basis to put them into ‘care’, only later to return them without apologies to their families. It is important that anti-racist campaigners work in solidarity and alongside Roma organisations and Roma communities to respond to these attacks.

British politicians can try and distance themselves from the realities of this politics of racism by arguing that they are merely having an open debate about the fears of their electorate but as Gary Younge pointed out in 2006: ‘Any candid discussion of race, immigration and asylum that was not racist would not just acknowledge fear and prejudice but challenge them both.’

Related links

Read David Blunkett’s response to the furore in the Guardian: ‘We need to talk about immigration, just not in this way

Read an IRR News story: ‘The shameful “go home” campaign

Read an IRR News story: ‘Playing the Gypsy race card

[1] Stanley Cohen, in his work, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) first coined the term 'moral panics'. He defined the concept as a sporadic episode which, as it occurs, subjects society to bouts of moral panic, or in other terms, worry about the values and principles which society upholds which may be in jeopardy. He describes its characteristics as "a condition, episode, person or group of persons [who] become defined as a threat to societal values and interests." [Cohen, 1972 p.9] Cohen goes on to discuss the way in which the mass media fashions these episodes, or stylises them, amplifying the nature of the facts and consequently turning them into a national issue, when the matter could have been contained on a local level. [2] Grayson J., Horton M., and Petrie A., The European Roma of South Yorkshire (2007). [3] Sheffield Star, 1 March and 25 March 2004. [4] Pred A., Even in Sweden: racisms, racialised spaces, and the popular geographical imagination, London: University of California Press (2000). [5] P.37 Hancock, I. ‘The Struggle for the Control of Identity’, Transitions, 4(4): 36-44 (1997).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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