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‘From every angle’: Brexit and its multi-faceted threat to Romani community

Campaigners march on Westminster in support of the Romani community. Photograph: The Traveller Movement/Facebook. - Credit: Archant

LUNA WILLIAM on how Brexit threatens the Romani community from all angles – including their rights, mobility, support and access to services as well as a rise in discriminatory attitudes.

The Romani community is one with a long and complicated history. Since its origin, members have faced prejudice, discrimination and persecution across Europe.

Now Romani — or Roma – are facing further hurdles in the UK. Since free movement laws, Roma have been able to easily move between countries and across borders in Europe; a practice which is not only central to preserving nomadic principles, but also to ensuring that members of these communities can seek refuge in safe countries should they need to.

Sadly, this need is not hypothetical, and has been utilised on various occasions throughout history, with perhaps the most significant example being during the Nazi regime, when the Roma were persecuted, imprisoned and murdered in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries. Then, Roma had to claim political asylum in the UK and other safe European countries; a route which was and is still fraught with legal issues.

The introduction of free movement laws, which followed the end of WWII, made it easier for both European economic migrants and asylum seekers to move to the UK in hopes of a better life.

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While the UK by no means provides an entirely non-discriminatory or equal society for Roma, it has acted as a refuge of sorts for those fleeing from more extreme forms of oppression and threat since then. In other European countries Roma, Gypsies and Travellers are severely mistreated; in Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, for example, it is not uncommon for them to be subjected to forced evictions, physical and verbal attacks and police brutality. In these countries, efforts to tackle these issues are far less structured than the UK and Roma are often unprotected or disbelieved by police and social services.

For these communities, mobility is the backbone to helping to escape this ongoing onslaught of discrimination. And it is difficult to overstate how much free movement plays a part in allowing this mobility to remain a reality. Now that Brexit has officially been triggered, it is only a matter of time until free movement laws cease to exist in Britain. With this, all future European entrants will be subject to UK visa restrictions, and will need to fork out anything between £300 and £2000 to visit, work, study or join family, all the while meeting visa duties and living with a limited leave to remain in the UK.

While Johnson’s latest immigration update does confirm that the rights of EU nationals who arrived in the UK before or during the implementation phase (ending in June next year) will be protected. In theory, this means that they will be able to retain their right of abode (meaning they have symbolic free movement), however, this only applies if they officially register for settled status.

Though this process has been dubbed as ‘simple and straightforward’ by Home Office officials, there are several communities who are likely to slip through the cracks of the EU Settlement Scheme – an issue which will cause huge problems for them in the coming years, as they will effectively become ‘undocumented’ and lose access to public services and funds.

The Roma is one of these communities. According to Mihai Bica, founder of the Roma Support Group, the Romani community is at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for settled status.

‘The Roma community is the most vulnerable group when it comes to accessing their future settled status,’ Bica suggests.

This difficulty, he says, is down to a combination of illiteracy and a lack of access to online resources and tools. As well as this, many Roma are not aware of their rights and how they will change after Brexit – and many who are don’t know how to begin the process of preserving them. In part, this is down to a lack of information, as well as a lack of support for those who have less of an aptitude for or access to technology.

The estimations for how many Roma and Gypsies live in the UK currently vary, but it is believed there are between 200,000 and 300,000 currently living in the UK.

What we do know is that there are supposedly around 900,000 Europeans still unregistered. According to the estimations of people like Bica, Roma form a large proportion of this, and with the deadline fast approaching this is deeply concerning.

Once the implementation phase has ended, all those who remain unregistered will lose their right to abode. In practice, this means that they could lose access to healthcare, housing, and education.

As in stands, the Roma are already disadvantaged in all of these areas; a report commissioned by the UN last year found that Roma, Gypsies and Travellers experienced the worst levels of racial discrimination and inequalities in every sector. In schools, 9 out of 10 Roma children were bullied, and many reported experiencing prejudices from educational staff. What’s more, the report found very little Roma representation across either the sector’s workforce or in British school’s curriculums.

In terms of healthcare, the report found that Roma are more likely than other ethnic-minority communities to be refused healthcare based on their ethnicity. As well as this, all Travelling communities in the UK were more likely to suffer from bad health across the board, including high infant mortality rates, high maternal mortality rates, lower life expectancy, lower child immunization levels, and a higher presence of anxiety and depression.

In housing, the situation was not much better. In one example given by the Rapporteur, Roma and Gypsies who were paying rent to councils were expected to bathe themselves and their children in ‘freezing cold amenity blocks with extortionate heating costs’. Meanwhile, elderly and disabled people were ‘having to go outside to a toilet block in the middle of a cold, Winter’s night’.

These living conditions are the norm for many members of the Roma community; despite paying rent and taxes to their local councils, they are still very often cut off from essential services on a daily basis. Currently, there is little financial support allocated to improving the lives of Roma specifically. While there are charity-lead integration and inclusion schemes in the UK, these are mostly funded by EU initiatives. As it stands, the European Social Fund and the European Research Fund allocate approximately £2.3 billion to the UK (according to their 2014-2020 budget) for the use of promoting social equality and inclusion – this is used to support ethnic minorities around the UK, including the Roma. This vital funding will be lost along with Brexit, and with it the progress such initiatives have started to make.

It seems, then, that Brexit threatens the Roma from all angles, posing a loss of their rights, mobility, support and access to services as well as a rise in discriminatory attitudes. Since the referendum result, racially motivated hate crime has almost doubled in the UK. Many forms of prejudice and racism have been normalised since the Leave campaign, and an ‘anti-other’ attitude seems to pervade a great deal of the discourse surrounding post-Brexit plans, in both public and political spheres. Being Roma has always been hard, but the UK has, until now, remained a relative haven amongst the rest of Europe for this community. Now, this haven is being threatened, and we must act quickly to tackle this. The threats posed by Brexit against this community are serious and dangerous, and we must be aware of them. Right now, we are taking a step back, when instead we should be leading the way towards social equality and inclusion.

– Luna Williams is the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation which provides advice and support for EU and non-EU nationals looking to migrate to the UK.

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