By Yaron Matras
Throughout history, riots against ethnic minorities were triggered as a result of a public figure pointing a finger at a population group and warning of riots. When David Blunkett warns of riots against Roma we should all be concerned that somebody might take him by his word and venture out and attack their Romani neighbours. If Blunkett's prediction were to become true, who will be held responsible for triggering ethnic tensions?
Both Blunkett and Nick Clegg blame tensions on 'Roma behaviour'. Clegg has described their behaviour as "offensive and intimidating". It is unacceptable to generalise about the behaviour of people on the basis of their ethnicity. It is not correct to do so by any measure of liberal, democratic or labour-movement values. It is also factually inaccurate. Roma migrants are by and large enterprising people who have taken an inconvenient path full of risks in order to move their families into new locations and secure a better future for their children. They seek work in a range of sectors. Those who moved to the UK from Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic have had the right to take on employment in the UK since 2004.
For those who came from Romania, work opportunities have so far been limited to self-employment. Most of them are small business entrepreneurs. Some engage in gardening, decorating, or cleaning; others make due with selling newspapers or washing windows. Their children go to school, and some go on to college and even university. In January, full EU membership will allow Roma from Romania to seek work as employees. Their children who will be graduating from school in the next couple of years will have more choices open to them. However, new migrants who want to take advantage of the change in the status of Romanian citizens will only be able to settle in the UK if they can find work. This means finding a UK employer who would prefer to hire new arrivals rather than people who are already in the country. It is therefore very unlikely that the change in legislation will lead to a large wave of new migrants. Those Roma who wanted to move to the UK are already here.
Roma have lived amongst different nations for many centuries. Their culture has absorbed influences from many others and they are quick to learn other people's languages and customs. What the Roma lack is a land of their own and a state that can protect them. This has meant that Roma have always been vulnerable and that their culture has always been misrepresented. The baseless suspicions of child abduction raised against Roma families in Greece and Ireland just a few weeks ago are a perfect example.
Roma have been accused of stealing children since the Middle Ages. But such accusations tell us more about our images of fictional 'Gypsies' than about the behaviour of the Roma. In films, songs, and poems, Roma are depicted as 'free' and 'spiritual'. British people frequent Romani fortune-tellers in Blackpool and Scarborough because they actually believe that Romani people have supernatural powers. It's not the Gypsies, but their clients who are superstitious. Yet when it comes to accepting Roma as neighbours, society views them with suspicion. Because they have no country of their own, they are seen as rootless. Because they are self-employed, they are regarded as workshy. Because they socialise by having outdoor conversations with friends and family relations (rather than getting drunk in the pub or chanting slogans on football grounds) people accuse them of intimidating others.
The problem is not the behaviour of the Roma. The problem is the way in which Roma are perceived by others. Fantasises of 'Gypsies' are so powerful that they lead law enforcement officers to carry out medieval-style witch-hunts for alleged child kidnapping. And they lead politicians to lose any sense of fairness and political correctness and make accusations in a way that would be hard to imagine in connection with any other population group.
The reality on the ground proves that when prejudice is overcome and local agencies reach out to Roma, then the barriers disappear and give way to successful integration and inclusion. In Manchester, local schools, council agencies, voluntary organisations and the Romani Project at the University of Manchester have been working together for several years now to support Roma in a variety of areas.
We have helped teachers, police officers and social workers understand Roma culture and the Roma's expectations and needs. We have trained Roma mediators and they now work to support schools and other agencies. As a result, Roma receive appropriate support and take an active part in neighbourhood initiatives. Their children are successful at school and are developing an interest in a variety of career paths. Some have graduated from college, others are successful youth workers, and some have even won prizes for community volunteering work.
Earlier this year, Manchester City Council published its Roma Strategy Document
In the document, Manchester City Council reports how the main obstacle to Roma integration has been the perception of Roma by outsiders. Roma have been accused of not sending their children to school, yet the council reports that in Manchester school attendance rates of Roma children are now "outstripping the attendance rates of non-Roma children". They have been accused of dumping rubbish in the street, yet the council clearly states that Roma families observe the same neighbourhood standards as their neighbours "particularly with regard to waste management". Roma have been accused of criminality and child trafficking, yet the council and police have found no evidence of any such activities and the authorities even say that looking into these accusations has distracted them from more important work and has "delayed the integration process".
In Manchester, we take an active interest in our Roma neighbours. Students at the University of Manchester learn about Roma culture and take part in projects to support young Roma's literacy and IT skills. The university holds special visit days for schoolchildren of Roma background at which they can engage with audio-visual learning materials in the Romani language.
The University is also employing two Roma outreach workers who support the Roma community as part of a project funded by the EU, in partnership with Manchester City Council. The project is a European model for active engagement with Roma migrants. It shows how building bridges can prevent tensions and how the social inclusion of Roma depends in the first instance on society's willingness to accept and integrate them.
Some humility is called for. Brits have colonised the world and imposed their own culture on numerous other nations. They nearly obliterated the cultures and languages of dozens of peoples in North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Roma, by contrast, have no such ambitions. They are not here to destroy or even to challenge British culture. Roma are citizens of Europe. Since they have no country of their own, some even consider them to be "the true Europeans". What we need is tolerance and understanding, not scapegoating or scaremongering. Instead of criticising Roma behaviour, David Blunkett and Nick Clegg should call for a change in attitudes toward the Roma. We in Manchester are always happy to help.
Yaron Matras is professor of Linguistics at the University of Manchester, and editor of the journal Romani Studies. He has worked closely with the Open Society Institute's Roma programmes, is a founding member of the European Academic Network on Romani Studies, and has led several large-scale research projects on Romani language and culture, including an international research consortium on Romani migrations. He is the author of over a dozen books and numerous chapters and articles on Romani language and culture, and speaks the Romani language fluently. He is also the author of 'I met lucky people: The story of the Romani Gypsies', to appear with Penguin Press in February 2014.
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