The Documentary about Romanians that Sparked Protests in the UK

Romanians see the characters in the documentary as ethnically Roma, and therefore don’t like the idea of being lumped in with them.

On March 3, British TV Channel 4 aired the final episode of its three-part documentary The Romanians Are Coming, the story of several Romanian immigrants in the UK as told by the immigrants themselves. From the very first episode, in which three poor Romanians are shown seeking work and a better life in Britain, the series has spurred angry protests from both the Romanian diaspora in the UK and Romanians at home. Critics accuse the series of perpetuating negative stereotypes of Romanians living in the UK, who are largely perceived as criminals or poor people “leeching off” Britain’s social welfare system.

It was not surprising to me, therefore, that Romanians living in the UK immediately took to social networks to protest the documentary. As noted by many critics, the title of the series itself is inflammatory, insinuating that there is a wave of Romanians lining up at the British border like barbarians at the gate.

What was surprising to me, however, was that a good number of those dissociating their situation from the documentary could have starred in the series themselves. Many of them came to the UK from Romania for precisely the reasons featured in the series: to search for a better life for themselves and their families. How could they protest a depiction that mirrored their own story, even if under different circumstances?

The answer can only be that they see the characters in the documentary as ethnically Roma, and therefore don’t like the idea of being lumped in with them.

When people think of Romanian migrants, they often think of the Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority and a group that is widely disparaged by British media, political parties like UKIP, and Romanian authorities themselves. The Romanian government has often tried to distance Roma people from the Romanian national identity; Prime Minister Victor Ponta himself has made racist statements associating Roma with criminality in the UK. The Romanian diaspora’s fear of being associated with criminality and poverty actually represents their deeper fear of being associated with Roma. 

A big part of Romanian society does not believe that Roma can have dual or multiple identities. In their view, being Roma largely excludes that person from being Romanian at all. This is the essence of the reaction to the documentary, which was about the life of poor Romanian migrants, most of them actually non-Roma. 

Romanians have been confused with Roma in the Western collective psyche ever since Roma migrated West after the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime in 1989. Simply put, in many Western countries, people see all Romanians as Roma. It’s because of this that most Romanians living abroad, especially in Western Europe, take pains to emphasize that they are not. They have likely felt from time to time in their expat lives that revealing their nationality could leave them vulnerable to the kind of hostility typically aimed at Roma people.

As a Romanian living in Hungary who happens to have a “gypsy” name, I have felt the same attitude too, on more than one occasion. However, I also feel that we non-Roma, as the majority, have to acknowledge that Roma are also Romanian citizens, with the rights and obligations that citizenship entails. 

That’s why the outrage over the documentary that aired on Channel 4 is, in my view, a missed opportunity to discuss the actual problems it has dredged up: poverty, exclusion, inequality, discrimination, and most importantly, inconsistent government policies towards the poor, be they Roma or not.

Equality for the Roma minority is an issue across Europe, not just in Romania. The Open Society Human Rights Initiative supports rights advocates in nine Central European countries to document and challenge human rights abuses against Roma.

Few understand that poverty and exclusion are largely the result of centuries of oppression and denial of rights to Roma. The true takeaway for the Romanian diaspora protesting this documentary is: if you want to be treated equally as a minority abroad, you should start treating minorities equally at home. 

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Why we Romanians living in Britain are furious with this documentary???????????? It was a very manipulative artefact for the following reasons:
- it has selected marginal people, at the edge of the society (a semiliterate gypsy with 14 children living on casual labour jobs, a tax fraudster, a not so clever nurse) and presented them as normal, average Romanians looking for a job in the UK.
- it gave a disproportionate space to a minority who represents only 4% of Romania's population, to make it appear that all Romanians are actually that particular minority.
- none of those shown had a modicum of education, unlike most of Romanians who come to the UK, which have at least 10 years of mandatory education
The Romanian community in UK is made of 40% professionals with university degrees and 20% students.
- it was scripted. The self-confessed gypsy called Sandu was a paid actor who has also appeared in a French documentary about the gypsies from Pata Rat. He was paid to come to London; he was not a genuine work seeker from Romania but an actor purposely paid by Keo and Channel 4 to show how nice are the gypsies and what nasty "racists" are Romanians. Sandu turned to be charity worker for a pro-Roma NGO. He posted pictures of himself wearing a yellow star with the word "tigan " (gypsy) to protest against the alleged discriminations of Romanians (sic).

He was never a genuine Romanian seeking work in the UK but a militant with an agenda.

The purpose of the entire documentary was to create a friendlier image of the gypsies and associate the image of ethnic Romanians to illiterate child benefits seekers, fraudsters, criminals and low lives who have nothing to offer to the UK. This is called "discrimination by association" and it was done for electoral purposes, to further the anti-European agenda of the Conservative and UKIP parties. And the Romanian community had every right to protest this travesty of truth.

Thank you for this article. It is, indeed, very painful to see that Roma are victimized a second time (or a third, or fourth time...) by their own co-nationals. I found the pilot of this documentary very moving, and the humanity transpiring from the individual portraits is something that you can rarely see on Romanian TV. I agree, a missed opportunity. Romanians should be ashamed .

Am I right that the argument here is: the widespread prejudice against the Roma -- the belief that many of them, far more in proportion to their numbers than other ethnic groups, behave in an anti-social way -- is based on falsehoods.

In other words, if you heard that a couple of dozen Roma families were moving into your neighborhood, there would be no more reason to be alarmed than if you heard that an equal number of Finnish families were moving in.

Is that the argument being made here?

If so, we need a campaign to bring the truth to the public, to show that the Roma crime rate is no higher than any other group's, that they make fine neighbors, etc.

Thank you for enlightening us on these issues. We should however, not forget that the Roma too are human beings and disadvantaged in many ways through stigma etc....

It's my privilege to read this analytic article. Thank you for imparting me the opportunity to know something about Europe in relation to migration, diaspora and human rights.

I think the immigrants issue is becoming a chaotic factor all over the world. War and displacement which had reached 50 million People in the last year is definitely changing the face of the globe. And personally I think to the worse. Complications of work, integration, leaching on the hosting country, cultural, religious clash, hate discourse, is an evident by product of the injustice in this world which made these people to become immigrants in the first place

The problem with Roma is of course two-sided, where both sides have to make changes. Bridges have to be built, and the only way it will, at last, create positive results is to widen understand on both sides. The problems have to be humanized and not just judged. Poverty, long time suppression have caused, ingrained problems within the Roma community - i.e. non violent, nevertheless petty criminality of not all, of course, but some Roma. To my mind, it is the duty of non-Roma who have caused these problems, to help with solving them in an understanding, feeling way.
Sonia Meyer
Dosha, flight of the Russian Gypsies.

Yes, it is a shame the only British politician to state clearly that the problem is not Romanian Roma but Romanioan racism is Nigel Farage. And that the Horniman Museum in London is show an exhibition about the Romanian experience whic includes the Saxon and Lipovanian minorities but leaves the Roma invisible.

Hi Thomas, I think you are right, and I realise that in spite of moves to engage with the issue of Roma within the Green Party (of England and Wales), we have not stated very clearly that when it comes to immigration, we need to think about the hidden racism against Roma in the whole debate. I aim to remedy this situation at least in my party, by making sure that this analysis is part of the Equality and Diversity Policy that we are working on.

There is so much to learn and to educate about Roma issues. Romania and its people must be hadrly educated. Roma, homophobia, etc are issues which the majority wont understand. The church, religion, communism, politicians with no experience, are few major factors which contribute to this negative view. Hardly to understand...

To know that people of the same nationality or historical backgrounds can continue to perpetuate an injustice, and to realise that those in a position to begin the process of change do not wish to do anything right is painful. thanks for highlighting the plight of the Roma people

Hello! Brilliant article, thank you SO much for writing it. As a Romanian who previously lived in the UK for many years I wholeheartedly agree with you and have often been infuriated by just this kind of documentary that I find profoundly racist and I always marvel at how the filmmakers don't challenge it. I edit the Equalities & Rights section of this blog and I wonder if we can cross-post your article to give it a wider UK readership? Please feel free to email me or - as I also live and work in Budapest - perhaps we can meet and talk?

Thanks for this timely article. I cant agree more, especially with the last sentence.

The intersection of Race/Ethnicity and xenophobia is contributing to the attitudes that people have about Roma and Romanians. Romanians (not all), but historically speaking have not accepted Roma as citizens of their country. Ironically, the Ceausescu regime was incorporating them for a time as "workers." legitimizing their place in Romanian society. Europeans more generally, especially during times of economic crisis resort to "Blut und Boden" arguments of who legitimately can claim a respective national identity. Fortunately not all people react in this manner, although their voices are rarely heard in the media. Romanian Roma were enslaved for hundreds of years and suffered varioius forms of discrimination, including death during World War II. By providing people the conditions of a better life through proper education, health care, housing, and so on the Roma will flourish. Romanian Roma are increasingly entering the workforce with higher education degrees. We need the media to pay attention to all the successess.

This "should be ashamed" mentality should probably stop and leave place for dialogue, education and better social policies.

This is not only an issue for Romania, but Europe as a whole, as Roma populations are everywhere in the continent. I think collective punishment (e.g.'Romanians' should be ashamed' - what does this simplistic outlook even mean?0 - or a black and white perspective would not get us to solutions, or constructive coexitence. Roma are and have been accepted by society in Romania. Romania has just elected an ethnic German president, minorities are treated well - there is a long way to go, and no country is perfect in this sense, but minorities are generally treated well - we can't see widespread hate crimes and murders targeting Roma families and children as for examples in Hungary. Where I come from in Romania, there are no huge problems, Roma children are educated alongside non-Roma children, communities live together.. I would also like more attention to be drawn to success stories, successful Roma artists, politicians, businessmen, who, unfortunately, not always take on the cause of the Roma.. There are many issues, but to brand the whole country as hopeless and racist is simply untrue. Please, do not give way to the appearances, but try and spend some time in the place and understand it before making sweeping generalisations, also - very important - focus on the positive, there are many positive stories that somehow just don't seem to make the news, or the subjects of above articles.. Thank you for reading..

@Dana - 'the humanity transpiring from the individual portraits is something that you can rarely see on Romanian TV.' - yes, if you only watch certain channels, again, the Romanian national TV - TVR is focusing on all minorities, weekly programmes in every minority language - even the commercial channels are making progress in stamping out racism and challenging stereotypes sometimes - it's not all negative. The Roma have a Roma party in Romania, an elected 'king', and are build the most spectacular houses specific to the Roma tradition in Europe..

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