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Andy Shallice from the Roma Support Group writes about what we can all learn from Roma


It’s a commonplace to see the word ‘Roma’ juxtaposed to ‘homeless’, ‘beggar’, ‘benefits’, ‘rubbish’ and ‘migrant’ – when not tied up with trafficking and stealing children.  Unless it’s an absence as in the current UK government’s National Roma Inclusion Strategy, which pointedly hardly refers to Roma at all.  So we are forced to accept Roma ‘deficiency’ and their need for assistance or support (or solidarity even…)


What a joy then to attend an event in Manchester last month[1] where a panel considered the opposite question – how do Roma pose an opportunity for UK cities?   We heard tough head teachers say that the presence of Roma children in school had “brought us an understanding of the work ethic, and how children can be resourceful and adapt, and – a little but important thing – how young children understood how to eat together and with adults….  In fact, Roma children have done us all a service by teaching us to be better at our jobs”.  A point a leading social entrepreneur made: “Personal social services in this country are organised for Mr & Mrs Average – but rarely for anyone slightly different, let alone chaotic.  Roma are different, and if we can co-develop services with Roma then everyone would benefit”.   A young Roma woman said that it was only coming to this country that (a) she knew what discrimination was, as she’d accepted the inevitability of exclusion in her country of birth, and that (b) she became aware of her own capabilities and contribution.  A university teacher spoke about the importance of family relationships, self-reliance, innovation and adaptability (especially to earn a living) – all those virtues that are supposedly upheld by leading politicians and newspaper editors.   A leading politician talked about how young Roma people can enable neighbourhoods to become stronger and more confident as barriers and misunderstandings get broken down initially between young people.  And finally, a writer reminded us that Britain has a long, but variable history of welcoming people trying to both make a better life and escaping oppressive treatment; “do we want to move back from being one of the most tolerant and multi-ethnic countries in the world – and if so, at what cost to many of us?”


There are some critics of migration and EU migrant communities, who focus on the incidents of people who appear willing to work for very low pay in appalling conditions, and families who appear to tolerate substandard and overcrowded housing.    But isn’t this a classic illustration of ‘blame the victim’?  Where are the regulations and enforcement actions taken by, for example, HMRC against rogue employers, or by housing authorities against unscrupulous landlords?  As the social entrepreneur said at the Manchester meeting, if we can develop good services with and for Roma, everyone benefits.


The Government don’t seem to have explored the opportunities that Roma bring.  Twenty years ago, there was a strong offer of friendship and potential welcome to the East/Central European states and peoples.  But is it only their doctors and IT specialists we want; and at a pinch, the hairdresser and plumber?  The Roma communities emerge from decades of forced assimilation or forced exclusion; the UK offers hope.  And the Roma bring with them behaviours and aptitudes that are sorely needed.  What a treat to attend a meeting where the words ‘Roma’ and ‘success’ and ‘opportunity’ were heard.  The Roma Support Group applauds this type of initiative, and welcomes a growing movement within the UK of determined Roma and non-Roma activists who want to concentrate on the potential, rather than allow the mindless stereotypes to prevail in what passes for our national narrative.

[1]Roma migrants: a challenge or an opportunity for our cities?”  Speakers included Yaron Matras (author of a new book – I met lucky people; the story of Romani gypsies); David Blunkett MP; Fay Selvan (The Big Life company); Ramona Constantin (Roma community worker); Carol Powell (local head teacher); Dr Michael Stewart (UCL)