‘They are noisy and always hang out on the streets,’ says one of the local men. They loiter in male-only groups, whistle and make lewd remarks at women. They like to sing their songs loudly together and consume a lot of alcohol. Some locals find their behaviour intimidating. One local woman says: ‘It used to be a quiet street and we’ve never had problems. But now, ever since they’ve started to arrive, we can’t sleep. They are shouting outside and urinating just next to our doors.’ The same groups often end their nights out by visiting brothels. They have sex with local girls and with prostitutes from abroad. Some of these girls are part of a growing sex industry and women trafficking networks. Some of the locals they say it is becoming ‘unbearable.’
Does this rhetoric sound all too familiar to you? Who are these people and where do these scenes take place? And is it ‘their culture,’ which makes them behave in this way? And, if so, should we challenge them to change their behaviour and culture in order to make them more ‘sensitive to the way life is lived’ in Britain (Nick Clegg), or else face the prospects of a social ‘explosion’ (David Blunkett)?
The anonymity of the places and people is intentional here. The above quoted words have all appeared in British media in recent weeks. Various politicians use them. A moral paranoia, fuelled with anti-Gypsy sentiments, is concerned at the prospective impact central and eastern European Roma might have on their local communities, suggesting that the situation might explode into ‘riots.’ We heard the same inflammatory rhetoric about hordes of Gypsies ready to descend on us as we heard prior to the admission of the Czech Republic and Slovakia into the EU in 2004. In reality, these worries have never materialised.
But the worries I started with did not actually concern British neighbourhoods and its main protagonists are not Roma or eastern European migrants. I found them on the streets of Prague and the culprits are ‘British lads on the tour’. The number of British tourists in central eastern European cities has grown rapidly in recent years due to cheap low-cost airline flights, cheap beer and the availability of other ingredients crucial for ‘adventurous’ trips. And yet, despite the concerns of some of the locals about the behaviour of British tourists, I have never heard predictions of racial tension, riot, or networks of criminals implicated in trafficking. I have never seen a single British tourist at stag parties being asked ‘to be sensitive to the way life is lived’ in the Czech Republic. I have never heard any politicians alleging that the behaviour of British tourists is part of ‘their culture’ or that they are complicit in trafficking by having sex with underage girls in night clubs. Although I have seen many stag parties and university students on tour spending most of their time partying, I have also met other Brits who came to explore history, literature and architecture, or just moved there for work.
When I travel to central eastern Europe on one of the early low-cost flights, I often witness stag parties that have already started their celebrations on board (if not the night before). People can view this behaviour with a level of sympathy and tolerance. It is only ‘young lads having fun,’ I am told, despite their frequent sexism towards the air hostesses. Others, however, complain about what they consider offensive, intimidating and anti-social behaviour. Similarly, some of my Czech and Slovak Roma friends in Britain are upset by how some families throw away garbage, or are noisy on the streets. Others comment that young lads hanging out on streets and singing together are harmlessly entertaining themselves in places where there is otherwise ‘nothing to do’ and ‘nowhere to go.’ Given their usually miserable income from exploitative jobs, they cannot afford to go out or to rent apartments for themselves. Instead, they share accommodation with their extended families.
From the many years I have been living and working with Roma in Slovakia and Britain I know that many of them are very much aware of other people throwing their garbage on the streets. Those who do it, however, come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some of them are Roma, some white British, some of South Asian origins and other groups. My Roma friends made me aware of the differences within these groups, as much as of their concern at always being lumped together and stigmatised by various outsiders. Nothing can summarise this better than a remark made frequently by Roma migrants whenever any kind incident involving a Roma occurs: ‘And now they will blame all the Gypsies again.’ Roma are used to this type of stereotypical labelling from outsiders.
When it comes to Roma, many journalists and politicians have no problem engaging in sensationalist scaremongering. They lump them together by circumscribing them into ‘problem’ spaces in a rhetoric of cultural racism. One might add that this is nothing new. Roma/Gypsy groups have no powerful state or institutions defending them against such accusations. They have historically always been deployed as the internal Others of Europe, in which majorities can project the ‘folk devil’ category without fear of repercussion. Many times in history we have seen how such ‘witch hunts’ nourished by media and politicians have turned into violent crimes committed against those labelled as ‘Gypsies.’
One of the main differences in the perception of British tourists and Roma/Gypsies lies in the lenses we put on. While British tourists are seen as ‘desirable’ because of their potential economic impact for local entrepreneurs, Roma are never ‘welcomed’ and their alleged ‘negative’ difference is foregrounded. Yet, the Roma I have got to know over the course of many years adapt quickly to different facets of British social life and ‘culture.’ For those who might feel the need to measure their ‘integration’ on an imagined scale of ‘culture’, they dress like many other ordinary British working class people, proudly support British football teams and wear their jerseys with pride, they eat the same fish and chips, and their children pick up a thick local accents in their English.
Most of the Roma migrants I know work in the UK and contribute to the British economy. They often work at the bottom of the labour market and are employed through exploitative job agencies or without paperwork. Some spend long night shifts working at packing chickens so that you can enjoy eating these. All this, of course, is not specific to Roma migrants. Migrants’ exploitative labour conditions and inclusion in economic production process remain invisible to the public. We never read about this in the news. Instead of seeing these aspects of their lives, we hear about alleged ‘problems,’ about their ‘criminality,’ their ‘noise,’ or ‘anti-social behaviour.’
A long time ago, George Orwell wrote that ‘The worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them’. He argued that a language should be seen as ‘an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought,’ and suggested: ‘let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.’ With few exceptions the complicity between media and politicians evidences different forms of surrendering to various words. These words are not only concealing and preventing thought, but also distorting and worsening the lived realities of people. Words have the power to do things. Racialising and stigmatising categories only contribute to the making of problems and misinform the perceptions of ordinary people. It does not take much for overspill to occur from the epidemic violence of words spreading moral paranoia, to various forms of physical violence targeting those singled out as ‘different’ or as those who are seen as not ‘willing to adapt.’
It is shocking that someone with no understandings and knowledge of Roma groups and others living in these areas of urban poverty, can tell us that they need ‘to change their culture’ or become ‘more sensitive to the way life is lived in England.’ These words come from people whose lives are ‘culturally’ and ‘socially’ miles apart from the lives of Roma migrants but also of ordinary British poor people. If only the politicians and journalists would try to understand a bit more not only the lives of Roma migrants, but also the poverty conditions and structural inequalities in which so many different groups of people live in Britain today. They would be able to see that the problems faced by Roma migrants and the other locals living in the areas described as ‘problematic’ stem less from some kind of alleged ‘cultural differences’ and much more from the increasing vulnerability, structural inequalities, and swathes cut into state services for the poor. The recent frenzy of scaremongering deepens antagonisms between various people living in deprived urban areas. Buying into the cheap populist rhetoric might dominate public debates and might even buy politicians some political support, but it should not mask their own complicity in the growing sense of abandonment among the poor, migrants and British alike.