“A flood of Romanian gypsy children has left a British town facing financial crisis,” screamed the Daily Mail last week. “Roma children flood into Slough,” said the BBC.
Even New York’s Post Chronicle and Qatar’s Gulf Times picked up the scare about the “town hit by a gypsy invasion”.
The “invaders” were in fact 88 child refugees from Romania who turned up unaccompanied in Slough. The Tory led council then complained that it did not have sufficient funds to look after them – triggering the press storm.
Slough, in Berkshire, is a town built on immigration. It was the site of the world’s first industrial estate in the 1920s. Workers from across the country and abroad moved there. Today it has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in Britain.
Growth in the local economy has attracted new economic migrants to the town in recent years. The majority work in low paid jobs earning an average of £5.50 an hour.
But the largest group of people moving in to Slough – some 30 percent – are from elsewhere in England. These are followed by workers from Poland and the Netherlands, according to council figures.
Nevertheless, the government insists that Slough’s population is falling and that it does not need to build any new houses until 2016.
This housing freeze has led to overcrowding and pressure on rents and house prices.
The new migrant workers pay taxes – but some 95 percent of this revenue goes straight to the treasury. The council says it is £15 million out of pocket and needs a bigger share of the money to expand local services.
Slough’s council leader Richard Stokes has directed his fire against central government’s population figures rather than the immigrants themselves.
“The migrants that come to Slough are hard working and bring great benefit to the local economy, but the council remains severely under funded because of these poor statistics,” he said.
But on a national level both the Tories and New Labour are desperate for the votes they think they can grab by appearing “tough on immigrants”. This encourages a climate of hysteria over immigration that leads to a vicious cycle.
This creates crises on the ground – which in turn feed more tabloid scare stories about Britain being “flooded”. The political spectrum ratchets steadily to the right – and it is all working people, migrant or otherwise, who lose out.
Behind the image of “scrounging gypsies” lies a wave of murderous racism directed against Roma communities across Europe.
According to reports in the Romanian press, the children who appeared in Slough come from the town of Tandarei in the south of the country.
Tandarei came to notoriety in 1997 when a racist mob and local police launched a pogrom against local Roma, burning homes, schools and a church.
The 1.8 million Roma Gypsies in Romania face systematic discrimination, police violence and racism. Many workers conceal their ethnicity as they fear for their jobs. A recent opinion poll found that a third of Romanians want laws to ban Roma from public buildings.
Roma children are often dumped in special needs schools despite their academic achievements. They are routinely denied social services.
The Roma have faced centuries of persecution. During the Second World War hundreds of thousands of Roma from the region around Tandarei were killed by the Nazis.
Following the Communist takeover in 1945 they faced a campaign of forced assimilation and the destruction of their culture. The Roma, who were once prized for their skills as craftspeople, were driven into poverty and destitution.
The Communist regime collapsed in 1989 – but the persecution intensified. In January this year there was a violent campaign to drive Roma out of mixed areas and close down their camps.
This was just the latest in a series of pogroms across Romania. In May 2001 the mayor of Targu Mures recruited locals in his campaign to “clean the town of Roma”.
Up to 100 men were arrested and held in a castle. Three days later local authorities evicted Roma families from the mixed neighbourhoods in the city.
Later that year the mayor of Piatra Neamt in northeast Romania rounded up all the Roma and dumped them in an abandoned factory farm outside the town. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire fences and guarded by police patrols and dogs.
In May last year police raided the Roma community of Gepiu in the east of the country. They shackled their victims together and paraded them through the town, beating and humiliating them.
Last December police descended on families in Timisoara, setting fire to their homes and ordering them out of the city. They were left destitute after their belongings were dumped into a rubbish truck and taken away.
This discrimination is not limited to Romania. A recent legal case before the European court has brought to light years of forced sterilisation of Roma women in the Czech Republic.
Pogroms and ethnic cleansing have been reported in Slovakia, Serbia and Kosovo. A recent study found that 70 percent of Roma in Slovakia and 85 percent in the Czech Republic are unemployed.
It is these years of systematic discrimination that have driven many Roma to abandon their homes to find asylum elsewhere. But instead of welcoming these victims, they are blamed for driving towns like Slough into “financial ruin”.
For more information go to www.errc.org