Skip to main content

A Roma Reality Check for the UK

Recent months have seen politicians and the media in the UK predicting an influx of Roma migrants from Bulgaria and Romania. Roma have been portrayed as a threat to British society in the form of welfare tourists and beggars. The reality is rather different. The UK is not among the preferred destinations of Roma from other EU countries, and the small number of Roma who have arrived in the UK have much to offer.

A recent Roma data study carried out by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, United Nations Development Program, World Bank, and European Commission interviewed Roma from 11 EU countries. The data suggest that Roma are more likely to head to Spain, Italy, Germany and Greece, for a variety of reasons, such as a warmer climate, family connections, or perceived cultural affinity.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said publicly that since travel restrictions were dropped on January 1, 2014, the numbers of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals overall coming to the UK is "reasonable." The Bulgarian and Romanian ambassadors to the UK confirm that the predicted wave of migrants has simply failed to emerge.

Research does appear to confirm that some Roma are leaving Bulgaria and Romania. Some EU member states, most notably France and Italy, have adopted controversial policies towards Roma migrating from other EU countries. In 2009, France deported some 10,000 Roma back to Bulgaria and Romania. A recent report finds that the number of forced evictions in France is increasing, numbering over 9,000 in 2012 and over 21,000 in 2013.

Italy’s response to Roma migrants settling in Rome and Milan has been to carry out forced evictions or provide segregated, substandard accommodation in camps far from services and residential neighborhoods. These practices clearly amount to a violation of human rights standards.

But evidence suggests that these policies and the anti-Roma rhetoric that accompanies them are also ineffective. Crackdowns simply reaffirm existing prejudices against Roma, increasing tensions between arrivals and the majority population that form a barrier to integration. Further, because conditions at home are so harsh, expelled Roma have nothing to lose by simply returning at a later date.

Governments cannot address Roma migration unless they improve their performance on Roma integration. The recent report of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, United Nations Development Program, World Bank and European Commission shows that Romanian and Bulgarian Roma head to other EU countries because they continue to face discrimination and social exclusion at home.

Approximately 90 percent live in households below the national poverty line. On average, only half of the Roma children surveyed attend preschool or kindergarten, and only 15 percent of young Roma adults surveyed had completed upper-secondary general or vocational education.

The lack of formal qualifications means fewer employment opportunities, which pushes Roma to search for work abroad. On average, less than 30 percent of surveyed Roma in Bulgaria and Romania are in paid employment. These conditions go a long way to explain why Roma are more interested in leaving Romania and Bulgaria than non-Roma (20 percent in Bulgaria and 15 percent in Romania, compared with 10 percent of non-Roma in each country).

Governments have little excuse for inaction. A template for improving the situation of Roma was adopted by the European Commission in 2011, called the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. Financial resources are also available from the EU. National governments have committed themselves to allocate at least 20 percent of  European Structural Funds (totalling over €74 billion between 2014 and 2020) to improve the socio-economic integration of Roma.

There is little accurate information on how much EU funding has thus far been used to improve the lives of Roma, but it seems that only a tiny fraction of EU money has been tapped. For instance, between 2007 and 2013, Romania had around €4.5 billion available. Over 60 percent of this overall sum went unclaimed by Romanian authorities, and only around €30 million seem to have been dedicated to Roma inclusion projects.

The EU framework requires each government to draw up and implement a national strategy to promote access to education, employment, healthcare and housing for Roma. However, lack of political will is hampering progress. For instance, the Romanian government only submitted its progress report on the strategy to the European Commission in January 2014, though it was due in November 2013.

Equal treatment for Roma is a human right. And for those unconvinced by the intrinsic value of human dignity, there is a pointed economic argument. Data shows that annual productivity losses due to Roma exclusion range from €526 million in Bulgaria to €887 million in Romania.

Creating equality for Roma in Romania and Bulgaria – and thus removing the factors causing them to leave – will take time, even if these governments implement their national strategies in earnest. In the meantime one can expect Romani EU citizens to continue to search for better opportunities abroad. However, some receiving countries, such as the UK, have not included Roma from other EU member-states in their national integration strategies. Evidence from the UK suggests that failing to invest in new arrivals is a wasted opportunity.

Research on Roma pupils in the UK who had previously studied in segregated or special schools in their countries of origin showed that 85% went on to complete their education successfully in UK mainstream schools. There is also evidence that many Roma who have migrated to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria have set up small small businesses. The UK – and other receiving countries – could take these positive examples and establish measures to allow new arrivals to contribute to their host societies.

The rate at which Roma use the right to free movement is likely to drop off if they enjoy the prospect of a decent life at home. But investment in Roma must come both from their home and their receiving countries.

Read more

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world