Phil Henry, Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Derby
People often ask, Why do Roma come to Derby? But the town is no stranger to migration from the east. Since the Balkan wars in the 1990s, we have welcomed refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo; Derby is on the main bus route from Dover so it is a natural stopping off point.
The phenomenon of "chain migration" has seen many families join each other, often from the same region or even village. In Derby's case that includes primarily the Czech Republic and Slovakia, though groups are present from Poland, Romania, and Latvia. The Roma constitute around four to five thousand and are mainly located within a three-mile area in the Normanton and Arboretum wards.
The Multi-Faith Centre exists to unite the town's numerous faith groups to promote mutual understanding and to build respect for one another's culture. As it is our role to strengthen the links between communities in Derby, we decided to create and maintain Roma Community Care, the first Roma advocacy group to enable members of that community to amplify their voice here and to build partnerships with other organizations around the country.
Historically, the UK has comparatively less experience with Roma settlement, and this is reflected in legislation which has largely failed to respond to the increasing number migrating to Britain and the often special circumstances which many Roma face in their country of origin. We are campaigning for the UK to adopt a national Roma integration strategy.
In addition to aiding the Roma community in Derby with accessing information about health, housing, employment, education, and other needs, Roma Community Care acts as a conduit between local agencies, the voluntary sector, and the Roma community. We have a very strong understanding and partnership with the police, and over time we have been able to work with them to develop a strategy to deal with offenders from the community.
Occasional tensions that have arisen in the town, such as those involving the congregation of people outside on the street in the evening, can often be put down to a mutual lack of cultural understanding. By providing context to the police and residents, and to Roma community members too, we can avoid a standoff and instead work on engagement.
One of the issues that we advocate is for more Roma here to declare their ethnicity; many do not due to the negative media attention given to their group. This means that the true level of Roma presence in the UK is harder to gauge, and EU funds that could be made available to local authorities are not.
With the help of a grant from the Open Society Foundations, we were able to arrange several meetings of Roma community liaison groups. For example, in October 2013 we convened at the Houses of Parliament to establish a network for Roma communities across the UK. This was a valuable opportunity for an audience of parliamentarians and activists to hear about the positive initiatives that Roma Community Care are implementing, and how it can act as a template for others to use in their towns.
Michael Daduc, Roma Community Care
Many Roma in Derby are originally from Slovakia, including the infamous ghetto of Lunik 9, a borough in the eastern city of Kosice. Overcrowding in these crumbling tower blocks is a huge problem, as is the lack of clean water supplies, rubbish collection, electricity and hygiene. Growing up with an absence of public services is unthinkable to most people in Britain but this is the reality in parts of Eastern Europe, so we try to help those Roma to adopt the norms of British life.
In the last few years, the Roma community here has doubled. The local council new communities’ achievement team had to ensure that children were dispersed among different schools so that they were not a majority and the school did not become de facto segregated, like in the East.
Though it is not mentioned in the press when talking about Roma immigration, the chance to have their children educated in a school full of different ethnicities, where they are not picked on and separated from the rest of the class, is a major draw for Roma parents. People also may not realize that, for some Roma in Derby who speak Romani and their language from their own country, English can be more challenging to learn as it is a third language.
We do have a great relationship with the police in Derby, which is quite novel for many in the Roma community who have experienced police brutality in their homeland. Out of the many activities that are offered for youth, Oz Box is a very popular one, which is boxing complete with a ring and punching bags. Surprisingly even the local police have come down sometimes to spar with our kids. Through organizing events for all of the community, we hope to foster links and friendship with everyone in town.
The employment situation in Derby is challenging for everyone at the moment. Thankfully many of our community have managed to get jobs in factories and car washes for example, often working 12 hour days. However, we have to be vigilant against gangmasters who are exploiting poor Eastern European migrants in the area, including Roma, by forcing them into labor way below minimum wage. We have even heard of some gangmasters confiscating passports and denying basic rights, and we warn our community against getting involved with these people. In neighboring Sheffield, there have been a lot of tensions between Roma and other migrant communities, but I am pleased to say that by fostering cohesion and working on peaceful assimilation, we have not experienced this here.
On the April 6, we celebrated Roma Nation Day, which recognizes that the Roma people are a nation without a home. But ironically, so many now feel at home here in Derby.