Roma Migration : a challenge or an opportunity for our cities?

On February 13th at the University of Manchester a panel discussion took place which consisted of:

Rt Hon David Blunkett, MP
Dr Michael Stewart, University College London, Dept of Anthropology
Carol Powell, Principal, Gorton Mount Primary Academy, Bright Futures Educational Trust
Fay Selvan , Chief Executive, The Big Life Company
Professor Yaron Matras, University of Manchester, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
Ramona Constantin, Romani Community Outreach worker. Migrant from Romania.
Dr Nissa Finney ( Chair), University of Manchester

In the 90 minute forum, the conversation was wide ranging but it started by addressing some of the issues that were experienced by the migration of Roma from a number of East European countries. The input was generally focused on experiences in the cities of Manchester and Sheffield.

Fay Selvan explained that many migrants started selling The Big Issue to gain a foothold into the job market. Her company was clear that it would not discriminate against anyone, and that everyone had the right to sell the paper. Ramona Constantin started her life in the UK, in 2009, with no English, having moved from Romania. Her first job was selling The Big Issue in Manchester. From these beginnings she was able to secure a job as an interpreter , and then a role within the ‘Big Issue in the North’ company.  She explained that for her first 25 years living in Romania – she was not happy.  Now, in the UK, with her 3 children, she no longer felt like a stranger.


Dr Nissa Finney, Carol Powell, and Fay Selvan

Carole Powell saw many challenges in her school with the acceptance of 20 children in the 9-11 age range. They hadn’t experienced any schooling , were very independent people by virtue of their life experience, most could not hold a pencil, and did not understand the discipline necessary to be part of a class environment. Through focused and sensitive attention, 5 years later, those children at Gorton Mount were making good progress.


David Blunkett

David Blunkett  highlighted that when the early Roma arrived in Sheffield in 2007 the numbers were low and were manageable however unfortunately they missed out on the New Deal for Communities programme.  He said that no one could have foreseen the massive increase in the migration that happened in the last few  years, and the special challenges that this has presented. His view was that the older children were the more problematic as they had experience of the deprivation, social conditions, exclusion and racism in their home country. One of the biggest challenges was the conditions in which they were living in the UK. Some extended families of 15-20 people were living in one house which presented many practical issues.

Michael Stewart provided some stark examples of how people were driven to skin bleaching in their home country to be less recognizable as Roma. Since arriving in the UK, they now felt free, and were beginning to enjoy a sense of freedom of expression in their culture. It was recognized that some cultural traditions, particularly around marriage, and the age at which this took place, presented clashes with UK law. On occasions there were charges of statutory rape.


Yaron Matras, David Blunkett

Yaron Matras summarized some of the key points as to why Roma were perceived as a challenge.  A  community that has large extended families which like to be near to each other  presents basic accommodation issues. For the established communities this gives the impression of being “taken over”.  They are generally considered to be less skilled, and with low literacy in English, this significantly reduces the work opportunities for the adult population. There were very few role models that people could aspire to, and no career structure that gave some pathway for development. His view was that the challenge was not to change their culture but to provide “enlightenment”.

The discussion opened up to address the positive aspects of Roma migration.

For the younger people there is a great opportunity to get a better education and develop a career path which was not available to their parents. This does present a cultural debate for the young girls  within the family where they would naturally be expected to have a family and bring up the children.

An interesting point was raised that any new group that was trying to engage with public service providers effectively represented a “mirror” for them. An opportunity exists for learning lessons from this to ensure that service provision was able to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of a diverse population.

Despite the challenges that many of the Roma would have been subjected to in their home country, and the general low level of education and literacy, they were considered to have a strong work ethic.  This was driven by the need to support the family.

The UK enjoys the involvement of many diverse cultures and the acceptance and understanding of the Roma culture will add to that richness.

The forum was necessarily very general and, in some cases, very academic but provided an informative overview of the situation with the Roma community. However, what it seemed to gloss over was the fact that “Roma” is a very generalized categorization and in some cases is very misleading. Whilst they all may share a common legacy from 1000 years ago, that bares little relevance in the modern world. There seems to be little connection between a British born Gypsy traveller, and a Slovakian born Roma. Their life experiences, challenges, social perspective in the UK and future needs are all quite different.

There were 2 comments that were made during the forum which I felt were most poignant. Fay Selvan addressed the point of how we respond to the challenge of the Roma community by asking a question of the existing population of the UK. “What country do we want to be in?” – a country that is civilized and welcoming to those that are fleeing from deprivation and persecution and that does its best to provide a better future for all, or one that resents anyone who we perceive as taking advantage of our resources?


Michael Stewart and Ramona Constantin

Ramona Constantin was asked to comment on the level of discrimination she experienced when she was living in Romania. She stated that when she was in Romania she didn’t know what it meant to be discriminated against – that was all she knew. It was only when she came to the UK, and enjoyed a much more inclusive and welcoming society did she reflect on her time in her home country and realized that her continual social exclusion was the source of her unhappiness and that migrating to the UK was what brought her freedom, opportunity and contentment.

Perhaps we should view this whole subject not just from the perspective of the opportunity that Roma can provide to our cities, but the opportunity that we can provide to them?

3 replies »

  1. I don’t understand the argument that “Roma is a very generalised category”. Why is Roma more generalised than, say, ‘Arabs’? Roma migrated to Europe 900 years ago, Arabic migrated to their present locations 1400 years ago; Roma share dialects of Romani, Arabs share (diverse) dialects of Arabic; Roma have different religions, as do Arabs (Sunni, Shia and Alawi Muslims; Orthodox and Catholic Christian; Jews; Druse); Roma share some customs and vary in others, and so do Arabs (some are bankers while others are camel-herders); So why is it ok to speak of an Arab nation, but not of a Roma nation with a shared destiny and shared interests?

    • Whilst one may wish to describe a Roma nation, in the same way that one may do so with other dispersed groups like Arabs, I’m not sure it serves any practical significance when trying to understand how to address the needs of the future, for the individuals concerned. How the interests of established British born Gypsies can be met in the UK will be quite different from that of Slovakian born Roma migrants. In this respect defining them all as Roma implies a common problem and therefore, potentially, a common solution. In my limited experience, the shared title of Roma seems to be about the only thing that brings them together….and even that is very tenuous. That was the point I was trying to make.

  2. I agree with Yaron Matras that the Roma comprise a nation, and this has been affirmed by successive World Roma Congresses since 1971. Although there is the European Roma and Traveller Forum, linked to the International Romani Union, and many other local organizations, Roma are mistakenly viewed and treated as having little or no political representation. The newly-proclaimed EU generated National Strategies are expected to include full participation of Roma representatives in their motoring and realization. Numbers of Roma activities in the UK and elsewhere are keen to see this happen. The
    pro-Roma march marking UN Anti-Racism in London on 22 March [11 am in
    Parliament Square], the London Roma Nation Day event on 7 April [12 noon
    St John’s Church, Waterloo] and the 8 April Romani heritage launch at the House of
    Commons, will all hopefully help to change that situation.

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