A Roma reality check by Yaron Matras

Gypsies in Cumbria

Last week a friend told me about a conversation he overheard at a hairdressers in Birmingham. The barber complained about the competition, which kept rates low by employing immigrant staff. “They’re probably Romanian, you can tell from the caravans outside,” he joked, then added hastily: “But I shouldn’t say that.” In the weeks leading up to 1 January, Romanians and Bulgarians were said to be queuing up to take advantage of the lifting of employment restrictions in the UK. Several weeks on we know that the panic was unjustified and the warnings were pure scaremongering. But the hairdresser revealed something about the public’s perception of the debate. Romanians are equated with Roma – hence the association with caravans and the shyness to appear politically incorrect.

“Roma” does sound a bit like “Romanian”, so you can’t blame people for getting confused. But the similarity is coincidental. Many Roma live in Romania, but there are also Roma communities in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and many other countries. Most Roma don’t live in caravans, either; in south-eastern and central Europe they have been settled since the 15 century, often segregated on the outskirts of towns and villages.

It is the image of Roma on our streets that triggers an emotional reaction, more so than the thought of just any citizen from new EU member states arriving at a job centre in Basingstoke or Leeds. It was the Roma who were singled out last November by the deputy prime minister as “intimidating” and “offensive” in their behaviour. Unfounded allegations that Roma were kidnapping children in Greece and Ireland didn’t help either.

Why is the presence of Roma in Britain perceived as a challenge? There is, to some extent, the reality on the ground: Roma organise their lives in extended families and rely on their family structures for support. When they migrate they do so in large groups and not as individuals. This makes them more conspicuous, as they require clusters of rented homes in close proximity; they are often seen socialising outdoors because their houses cannot accommodate large groups.

But this does not explain entirely these reactions. Our perception of Roma is shaped by fictional images of Gypsies that are deeply entrenched in our culture. This fictional image represents the opposite of our own values: our society restrains the way it expresses emotion, so we envy the passion that Gypsies express through their music and colourful appearance. We feel trapped by the routines of our daily lives, so we romanticise Gypsy life as free and spontaneous, but we also resent it as lawless and uncontrolled. Roma organise their work in families and are usually self-employed, but we think of them as work-shy. They have no country of their own, so we regard them as rootless.

Perception and prejudice stand in the way of a rational assessment of the real problems on the ground faced by Roma migrants. But if we put them aside, we find that there are more opportunities than challenges. Compared with their neighbours in the deprived urban districts in which they tend to settle, Roma are more likely than others to find work and their children are more likely to attend school regularly. Allegations of a propensity to crime among Roma migrants have repeatedly been dismissed by local police as baseless.

Rather than change their behaviour or their culture, the challenge facing Roma migrants is how to make use of opportunities to settle, gain skills and participate in community life while protecting their own identity and values just like any other ethnic minority. The bigger challenge is how to change majority society’s attitudes to Roma.

By definition, social inclusion can only take place if exclusionary practices are eradicated. Instead of blaming the Roma for our fears and fantasies, we should reach out to them and allow ourselves to be inspired by their generosity, flexibility and their commitment to mutual support.

Article originally appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday, 12 February – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/12/roma-reality-check

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A time to fear your own private opinions.

Earlier to day the Independent newspaper published an article entitled Top Twitter Gaffes of 2013 after a Public Relations Expert tweeted the unforgivable: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”. She unsurprisingly lost her job soon after landing.

As a Human Rights activist who campaigns predominantly online I am highly concerned about the impact my e-footprint might have for future job prospects. I might be working in what I would hope to be a mutually exclusive sphere to Justine but I am no less controversial and no stranger to grime satire.

One would hope Justine’s comments were a crass attempt at raising awareness of the disparity between access to health care and education for people living in different areas of ‘African’ communities but it simply wasn’t. Just a ‘harmless’ ‘joke’ with the punchline playing on misinformation and ignorance.

Now I do not agree with people’s personal lives, or as I put it earlier ‘being a bad person’, so severely impacting someone’s career as to lose them their job, especially within the private sector where unlike politicians or public figures they are not themselves a product just another drone following the corporate line. But in this example the company, due to the amount of attention she received could not but sack her as a representative on grounds of bringing said company into disrepute. Let alone any ill comfort or feeling she might have created between herself and her co-workers.

So where is my personal concern in all this? As a Human Rights campaigner  I discuss issues such as discrimination and ignorance without our direct communities and throughout the world. As a masochist my interests lay within more controversial areas of human rights abuses such as indigenous right, Roma and the Arab-Israeli conflict (Hint: I use the word Palestinian). All I want, somewhat naïvely, is for all human beings to be treated as people with equal access to the same state facilities as people of other races and cultures within their given country. That statement also includes ‘regardless of sex’ but that’s a topic for a different time.

What possible problem could that cause for me then? Non at all one would hope but people so often fall within one of a small number of categories – ‘The Bore: You’re so Boring’, ‘The Ignorant: But they’re Criminals?’, ‘The Doe-Eyed: What? I Didn’t Realise Racism Existed Today?, & ‘The Enraged: But they’re Criminals!’. The majority of my peers fall within either the first or third category, and the second and fourth are so closely related and interchangeable that it’s sometimes difficult to determine exactly where ‘The Average Person’ stands. There is also a fifth category known as the ‘But I’m not a Bad Person’ but everyone is a little guilty of that.

Each category presents its own unique trials and obstacles, it is very difficult to know exactly where a given person is going to stand on the topic and without a full understanding of the issues and exactly what I know or do not know my feed can feel a little daunting with individual statements cherry pick-able almost at random.

Above all this, what does every employer want? Someone who can get along with a team and when you risk taking a stand on something you believe in, especially something that goes against conventional opinions or highlights problem where ‘there aren’t any, right guys?’, you gamble building a reputation as a high-risk investment.

You don’t believe me? Try reading some of my hate mail :3