The truth about Romania's gypsies: Not coming over here, not stealing our jobs

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New Neighbours of 2014, Part 1: Right-wing politicians and media are stoking fears that Romanian Gypsies plan to flock to Britain. But the reality is very different, the residents of the country's worst slums tell Jerome Taylor

A freezing wind sweeps in across the Romanian countryside. The sweet stench of garbage catches at the back of the throat, and feral dogs chase one another over the heaps of filth. This rubbish dump, for Claudia Greta and her family, is home, her house a ramshackle single-storey shack. Claudia, 40, is one of more than 1,500 Roma Gypsies who live in a sprawling, fetid encampment on a landfill site outside Romania's second-largest city Cluj-Napoca. The residents of Pata Rat – half of them are children – have been forcibly moved there over the past 15 years. Claudia opens the shack door to a room little bigger than a caravan and sighs: "Look where we live. We live on top of garbage."

Many Romanians have been perplexed by the British Government's determination to dissuade them from coming to the UK. Next year, the quotas which let EU countries limit the number of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants crossing their borders will be lifted – allowing 29 million people free travel and working rights across Europe. But Britain wants to deter them from crossing the Channel.

Suspicions have been raised in Bucharest and Sofia that what the UK Government really fears – but dares not say publicly – is the mass migration of Roma, Europe's most marginalised and maligned minority. That, in turn, has created further animosity towards the Roma, with other Romanians and Bulgarians blaming those communities for tarnishing their country's image.

For the garbage-dump Roma people of Pata Rat, there's little reason to feel loyalty to their homeland. Many have been forcibly moved there by the local authorities. In the most recent eviction, two years ago, nearly 400 Roma were given two days' notice to move out of houses where families had been living without conflict for generations. The European Roma Rights Centre is fighting a court battle to have their evictions quashed. "For 20 years we lived in real homes in the centre of town," says Claudia. "We paid rent, we paid electricity, we didn't steal anything. We had jobs and we found work. Our kids went to school, they went to internet cafés or down to the library. Now look where we live. We live on top of garbage. Where we are now, we can't do anything."

Claudia is adamant that no matter how badly treated her family is, she will stay in Romania.

"If we are not even accepted in our own country, what is the chance somewhere else will accept us?" she asks. "My children are here, my mother is here. This is where I was born. All we want is to be able to live and work. We want to stay in Romania."

It is a testament to how strongly she feels that, despite the discrimination, Romania is still her homeland. But others are thinking about leaving. Her sister Elena, who lives up the road in a similar-sized room that sleeps eight of her family, is willing to look outside Romania's borders.

"If I could provide a better life and condition for my children, I would think about getting away," she admits. "If there was a way to escape this discrimination, then of course I would go. But no one wants to leave."

She adds: "I have thought about political asylum in the UK. Some people from Spain, Brazil and Great Britain promised to help after the eviction. But no one did anything."

The situation in this landfill slum is just one example of the multiple persecutions Roma face across much of Eastern, Central and Southern Europe. And it is a form of oppression that is beginning to have a direct impact in Britain. Over the past four years, increasing numbers of Roma have appeared in Western European cities, from Berlin to Paris, Stockholm and London. Romania and Bulgaria have the largest Roma populations. No one knows how many of the estimated 90,000 Romanians in Britain are Roma, but it is a fraction of the one million Gypsies who live in France and Germany. Yet this trickle towards Britain could become a torrent come 2014, when the two nations are given full movement rights.

The small but steady increase of Roma arrivals in Western Europe has already led to a plethora of scare stories from populist media which portray them as endemically criminal communities thriving on begging networks and illegal settlements. Last year, a Swiss magazine ran a cover story about Roma arrivals under the headline: "They come. They Steal. They go." The cover featured a picture of a young Roma boy holding a gun. It later turned out to be a toy.

While some Roma are involved in crime (or, more often than not, forcibly trafficked into crime networks by organised syndicates, or pushed there by poverty), the reports rarely stop to ask why so many people are on the move. The simple answer is that Europe's Roma are trying to escape a new wave of oppression that has swept across Eastern, Central and Southern Europe. Unlike those who migrate for economic reasons, many Roma say they are seizing the opportunity to find a home without harassment. Those who fight for Roma rights make the argument that those who head to the West are as much political refugees as they are economic ones.

Persecution of Roma, who trace their lineage back to northern India but have lived in Europe for more than 1,500 years, is well documented. Alongside Jews, gays and the disabled, they were targeted by the Nazis for extermination. But while European views on Judaism, homosexuality and disability have come on in leaps and bounds in the past six decades, the attitude towards the Roma still drips with prejudice.

Nowhere is this more visible than in those nations that are supposedly traditional Roma homelands, where for centuries they were historically viewed as slaves for the region's landed aristocracies. All across Central and Eastern Europe today, discrimination against Gypsy communities is virulent and rising. The global economic crash hit the region hard and the Roma are an easy target.

Far-right groups are resurgent in Hungary, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, with attacks on Roma villagers now commonplace. Last summer an off-duty policeman in Slovakia went on the rampage, killing three people from a Gypsy community.

In Romania the far right has been kept in check, but not for altruistic reasons. "There isn't really much need for extreme-right groups because you find racism and stereotyping in all the mainstream parties," explains Marian Mandache, head of Romani Criss, a Bucharest-based group that campaigns for Roma rights. "Roma face hardship, exclusion and discrimination in almost all fields of public life."

Last month, a small far-right group in western Romania proposed paying €300 (£254) to any Roma woman who came forward to be sterilised. Unusually, prosecutors opened a case against the group under the country's little-used hate crime laws. But earlier this week, the idea of forced sterilisations was lent a veneer of mainstream acceptability when the head of the National Liberal Party's youth wing, Rares Buglea, voiced his support for the idea on Facebook. In Baia Mare, a mining town in Romania's impoverished north, the mayor has been building walls around Roma areas – to the delight of the other residents.

Back in the rubbish-dump of Pata Rat, Romeo Greta Petra says he has plans to leave the squalor and discrimination behind him. Standing next to a single bathroom which serves 40 people, he declares that his family has simply had enough. "Just look at the filth in which they threw us," he says, sucking deeply on a rolled-up cigarette. "Come summer, we're going to leave. Everyone here just thinks we're garbage. If I could have the possibility, I would go with my whole family."

Pressed for further details about where he might head, he becomes more circumspect. But he explains that if his whole family can't leave, then he will pin his hopes on his eldest son, who is on the verge of finishing high school. "It's difficult to get a job at the best of times, but for Roma it is even harder," he says. "Every parent just wants what is best for their children. That's normal. I want him to go abroad, at least until he is 30. He can go abroad and save some money. Then he can come back to build a house."

In Romania's sprawling capital, the situation for Roma is equally grim. Bucharest has never been one of Europe's prettiest cities and it is still renowned for swathes of dilapidated Soviet-style apartment blocks. Roma tend to be concentrated in the worst suburbs, such as Ferentari and Plumbuita, where sewerage and electricity are virtually non-existent.

Most families tap illegally into the local energy supply, while in Plumbuita, two miles from Bucharest's commercial centre, asphalt highways give way to muddy tracks fringed by shacks with corrugated-iron roofs.

Local police accuse Roma groups of being behind much of the crime in Bucharest, a city that still has a significantly lower criminality rate than most Western European capitals. Activists say that while some Roma are pushed towards opportunistic crimes because of the poverty they live in, the majority try to get on with their lives. But the prejudices leave them acutely vulnerable to abuse from the authorities.

Over the past 10 years, Romani Criss has documented 50 instances in which Roma people have been killed or attacked in police-related incidents. But despite the filing of multiple criminal complaints, no police officer has yet been convicted of killing a Roma. In the past eight months alone, there have been three instances where Roma have been shot and killed by police.

Daniel Radu, a 22-year-old father of one, was killed after a police chase last June. His family have never spoken to the media before. But standing around a single electric heater in their tumbledown cottage in Tei, north Bucharest, they tell The Independent what happened.

According to his mother, Garofitsa, Daniel and a friend had been stealing materials from an abandoned building last June to construct a new roof on the family home. While driving back through town on a moped, they encountered a police car and made a break for it. Both Daniel and his friend jumped from a bridge into a lake that runs behind Tei.

While the two men were stranded in the lake, police fired three shots at them. The third hit Daniel above the eye, killing him instantly. "They could have waited for him to get out of the lake but instead they shot him," his mother explains. "He was no danger to anyone. If he was guilty of a crime, they should have put him in prison, not killed him."

The police have yet to comment publicly on the shooting and say they will not do so until the results of an ongoing investigation are revealed. Romani Criss is helping the family pay for legal representation."We are worried we won't get justice," says Daniel's older brother, Florea. "But that is all we want, justice."

All across the neighbourhood of Tei, locals have stories of police brutality. This week Romani Criss researchers logged an allegation that a man was hospitalised after a beating in a police station. Ionut Covataru, 17, lifts his shirt to reveal a vivid scar from an operation to drain blood from his lungs. His family have filed a complaint and are waiting to hear from prosecutors.

Analysts believe that the wider EU needs to take a much more active role in persuading the latest members of its expanding community to integrate Roma – and make them feel like there is something to stay for. If they don't, then Roma will inevitably seize the opportunity to head west.

Roma: the history of a persecuted people

Roma originate from India and by the 8th century had begun their long trek to Europe, via Mesopotamia and the near-east. They were probably living in Greece by 1200. They speak a language closely related to Sanskrit.

By the early 16th century they had reached most parts of Europe, including England and Scotland. Many were initially welcomed for their skills as craftsmen or as Christian pilgrims or penitents but from about 1500 attitudes changed.

Persecution became commonplace across Europe.

In Saxony, "gypsy hunts" were treated as public entertainment. In Prussia in 1725 King Friedrich Wilhelm I gave permission for all adult gypsies to be hanged without trial. Up to 500,000 Roma are believed to have been murdered during the Holocaust in Nazi concentration camps, pictured. From the 1970s until 1990 there was a programme of enforced sterilisation of Roma women by doctors in Czechoslovakia.

An estimated 400,000 live in ghettoes in Bulgaria. In 2009 in Ostrovany, Slovakia, a two-metre wall was erected with public money to cordon off the Roma from the rest of the town. Similar measures were adopted in Michalovce, Lomnika, Trebišov and Prešov.

An estimated 7 million to 8.5 million Roma live in Europe, with 90,000 to 120,000 estimated to be in the UK.

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