Miroslav Sandor is angry. He’s a Roma community activist who has lived in the Page Hall area of north Sheffield for five years.
And he’s shocked at the things that are being said about the area.
“I don’t really recognise this area as it’s presented in the papers,” he told Socialist Worker in the Pakistan Community Association on Page Hall Road.
Sections of the British media, along with prominent politicians, have recently claimed that Page Hall is wracked by ethnic division and on the verge of riots. They blamed this on Roma people living in the area.
Miroslav said, “I’m angry and I’m really upset at what I’m reading. It’s racism.”
The papers report a “huge influx” of Roma to the area—although they can never give any figures to back up their claim. In fact many Roma, such as Miroslav, have lived in Page Hall for years—some for a decade or more.
“There’s a lot of racism going round now,” said Miroslav. “But it hasn’t been like this in Page Hall before. Only since about five months ago.
“It’s weird. Everyone is blaming us.”
So what’s behind the sudden panic? For Michal Daduc, a Roma advocacy worker who has been working in Page Hall, the panic is directly linked to a wider scare over immigration.
“It’s a political strategy,” he told Socialist Worker. “It’s happening because people from Romania and Bulgaria will have more freedom to come here from next January.”
Some media reports have confused Roma with people from Romania. This fits with the generalised panic that some politicians want to whip up over immigration in Britain.
“The Daily Telegraph had a picture of a caravan with a story about Page Hall,” said Michal. “And Czech and Slovakian Roma don’t live in caravans. They should know which people and group they are talking about because we are not living in caravans.”
Sheffield Labour MP and former home secretary David Blunkett was one of those who got the ball rolling in the panic around Page Hall. He claimed that the “behaviour” of Roma there was antagonising other people and would cause “an explosion”.
“We had a meeting in the House of Commons on 28 October and Mr David Blunkett was with us,” said Michal.
“We were talking about Roma issues in the UK. But Mr Blunkett was sheepish, he was quiet and he said nothing.
“So I’m surprised that then he came with this message blaming us. And now the British media has put the wood on the fire.”
Miroslav said Blunkett had been in contact since his comments helped spark a media scare over Roma.
“Now he’s sending chocolate and saying ‘I apologise, I should not have said those things’,” said Miroslav. “And I say yes David Blunkett, OK, that’s fine.
“But you said something that is not right. It’s too late. You’ve done a really bad thing for this community. That’s the problem.”
The media, without a hint of irony, have tried to pit “respectable” Pakistani families against “feckless” Roma. Presumably they hope people won’t remember that Pakistani Muslims were their previous target not many months ago.
When Socialist Worker visited the area, a police car drove up and down Page Hall Road at least once an hour throughout the day. The patrols are apparently needed to keep two warring sides apart—yet there wasn’t much for them to do.
Gulnaz works in the Pakistan Community Association on Page Hall Road. She told Socialist Worker that much of the media coverage about Roma and Pakistani divisions had been “unbalanced”.
“We’re actually getting on quite well,” she added.
Ibrahim Saleh, who works in the Hinde Street Mini Market a few yards away, agreed. “I get on with them,” he said of Roma people living in the area.
Ibrahim said it was wrong to stereotype all Roma as behaving in a certain way. “There’s good and bad in every culture,” he said. He was also optimistic about the future.
“Sometimes if people don’t speak English it’s hard to communicate,” he said. “But the next generation is growing up with other people and going to school, they will be able to communicate.”
Bhupinder, who lives near Page Hall, said it was important to defend Roma. “They have a right to be here like everybody else,” she told Socialist Worker.
“People from different backgrounds have a lot of things in common—unemployment and poverty for example. And Roma and Asian people both face discrimination from the system itself.”
Roma in the area say there weren’t problems there until recently. Miroslav said Roma have been “very happy” living in Page Hall.
But it seems the onslaught against Roma from the media and politicians has encouraged anti-Roma racism over relatively trivial things.
One man waiting for a bus said the area had “gone downhill” because of Roma living there. “They eat outside on the street,” he explained, gesturing to the takeaway shops opposite.
A shopkeeper said there were “hygiene” problems with Roma and that they put rubbish in the streets.
The amount of litter in Page Hall looks no different to that in many places across Britain. And there aren’t sofas and stained mattresses piled up in gardens, as the Guardian described in an article last week.
Some in Page Hall have put more serious accusations against Roma.
One white woman on Robey Street said she’d sold her house because of fights among Roma nearby.
And then there is Colin Barton, who owns the Halal Fisheries on Page Hall Road. He was sticking to his claim that Roma had tried to sell him a baby—although after the media furore he said, “I wish I’d never said owt now”.
Colin complained of groups of Roma being on the street late at night “singing” and of Roma girls “soliciting” in the streets.
Police have interviewed Colin twice and examined CCTV footage. They can find no evidence of Roma trying to sell a baby. And there are no records of a baby being born in the area recently.
“I don’t believe it,” said Miroslav. “They can’t just say these things, they need to have proof. I don’t believe any Roma communities would be selling children. They love their children. They’d never do that.”
Miroslav said lots of people from different backgrounds socialised on the street. And his description of why Roma spend time on the streets was somewhat different to Colin’s.
“They’re teenagers,” he said. “Everybody likes to be with girlfriends and boyfriends at that age. It’s a small area here and there’s no place for them to go.”
There are no cafes where people could sit and socialise. “If people say let’s go for a coffee and talk, they can’t,” said Miroslav. “If I want to have a chat and sit down I have to go to Meadowhall.”
As Michal put it, “What’s wrong with being on the street? This is our culture. We don’t want to stay in the house—we want to communicate, have fun.”
He also pointed out the hypocrisy of the attacks on Roma. “Most British people go to Spain for holidays,” he said.
“If they are in Spain they are also on the street, hanging around, drinking. It’s the same thing.”
There’s not much to do in Page Hall. The only community centre is the Pakistan Community Association, which mainly gives advice to residents.
There is one youth club there on a Friday and a children’s club once a week on Sundays. There isn’t a cinema, a leisure centre or anything else that people could go to entertain themselves.
“There’s not even a playground,” said Miroslav. “They need to build something for this community. But there’s nobody thinking about that.”
The real problem in Page Hall is poverty, not Roma people. Politicians want to whip up hate and division instead of tackling this. But not everyone’s fallen for it.
“A lot of what’s being said about Roma is no different to what was said just a few years ago about Pakistanis or young black boys,” said Bhupinder. “That they are hanging around on the streets, causing a nuisance, intimidating people.
“It’s as though the same thing just keeps going round and round targeting different groups. It’s racism.”
What makes Roma people travel to Britain?
Many Roma have come to Britain in search of a better life after facing persecution in their home countries.
Michal said, “Roma are moving to the UK because we are stigmatised, we are discriminated against in our countries of origin. We are segregated. We are coming here for a better life and for freedom.”
Roma are attacked for apparently not wanting to “integrate”. In fact they are often the ones forced into segregation.
Miroslav said, “We had racism where we come from, in Slovakia. Before there was one school and everybody would go together. Then they started opening two schools and separating people into Roma and Slovak.”
We’re often told that Roma come to Britain to take advantage of our “generous” benefits. In reality they are far from generous. And everyone should have the right to welfare and a decent standard of living.
But in any case the myth isn’t true.
In Page Hall some of the Roma condemned for “congregating” on the street are in fact waiting for lifts to work.
Miroslav said, “People came here because they are trying to do something for themselves. They don’t like sitting at home. They don’t like doing nothing.
“We’re here to work. I’ve been in Britain for 12 years and I’ve never been on jobseekers’ allowance.
"I’m paying National Insurance, I pay council tax, I pay my water bill, I pay everything. How can people still be against me?”
Poverty is the problem
Those targeting Page Hall in Sheffield claim their concerns are nothing to do with racism.
It must be a simple coincidence that the area is in the Burngreave ward—“Sheffield’s most culturally diverse ward” according to the council.
The 2011 Census showed that 62 percent of people in Burngreave were Black and Minority Ethnic (BME)—compared to the city average of 19.2 percent. Some 84.1 percent of school children aged 5 to 16 were BME in 2012/13.
Interestingly, the 2011 Census reported just 67 “Gypsies or Irish Travellers” in the entire ward.
Racist discrimination means black and Asian people are more likely to be trapped in poverty. So it’s no surprise that Burngreave is the third most deprived ward in Sheffield—and one of the most deprived in Britain.
Nearly 42 percent of children in the ward live in poverty. Life expectancy for women and men is the lowest in the city.
But for all the talk of “anti-social” Roma, the rate of anti-social behaviour in the ward is lower than the city average.