Alarm Sounded on Anti-Roma Rhetoric as Door Opens to More EU Workers
By Rowena Mason and Shiv Malik
Politicians are inflaming community tensions with anti-Roma rhetoric, an alliance of Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs has warned as Britain opens its borders to Bulgarian and Romanian workers.
MPs on the all-parliamentary party group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma sounded the alarm about provocative language as a prominent Tory council leader suggested some Roma are planning to come to the UK to "pickpocket and aggressively beg" following the end of labour market controls on the two eastern European countries.
On Tuesday, ahead of the restrictions expiring at midnight, Philippa Roe, of Westminster city council, blamed Roma in central London for already causing "a massive amount of disruption and low-level crime", including defecating on doorsteps. Speaking on the BBC, she called for more limits on benefits for new arrivals from EU countries and claimed there would be rising costs in council tax unless the government offers financial help.
"I know the vast majority of Romanians and Bulgarians planning to come to the UK are planning to work and contribute to society here," she said. "But I think the fear that everybody faces is those that come to Britain and either fail to find jobs and therefore fall back on our welfare system, or those who deliberately come here to pickpocket and aggressively beg.
"We have seen in the past 18 months particularly the Roma in central London causing a massive amount of disruption and low-level crime which has made a very negative impact on our communities. It's this minority one is really concerned about but it is this minority that has this really big impact."
Roma make up a tiny proportion of the population of Romania and Bulgaria but some politicians have concentrated their warnings about the end of transitional controls on the potential for more to enter Britain. This week an adviser to the Romanian prime minister hit back at scare stories, arguing millionaire bankers have caused more harm to society than Roma beggars.
Amid escalating rhetoric, the MPs on the all-party parliamentary group called for politicians to engage in "calm dialogue with local communities and an end to deliberately inflammatory language intended to stoke up community tension".
Andrew George, a Lib Dem MP who is chairman of the group, said these communities were suffering "collateral damage" and extra discrimination amid all the furore.
"What these groups are saying is that they are suffering even more," he told the Guardian. "They already exist in an environment of deep prejudice and community tension anyway. This is just setting them back after making some progress in some of the areas in which they have improved their relations. There is collateral damage going on for the wider traveller community."
The group includes David Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary, Sir Peter Bottomley, a former employment minister, and Kate Green, the shadow equalities minister. Separately, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, also warned that the government's "last-minute confusion and heightened rhetoric is alarming rather than reassuring, and risks fuelling hostility too".
Ukip and the right of the Tory party have been warning for months about the potential for a public backlash if new arrivals put pressure on squeezed public services and housing. Ukip leader Nigel Farage argues London is already suffering a "Romanian crime wave" and accused the coalition of preparing to welcome "foreign criminal gangs" from new EU member states.
Under pressure from dozens of MPs and local activists within his party, David Cameron has brought in new rules that stop EU immigrants getting benefits for at least three months after arriving and limit their claims to six months.
Despite the political frenzy, experts are not predicting a surge in immigrants from the two eastern European countries on the scale of migration from Poland in the 2000s. Professor John Salt, an academic at the University College London migration research unit, said advance air bookings from Bulgaria to the UK for the first three months of 2014 were down on last year and no carrier from the country had increased the number of flights.
Despite reports of tickets for packed flights leaving the region costing upwards of ?3,000, many airlines were offering seats on Tuesday to fly to the UK at between ?135 and ?250 for departure on New Year's Day. Eurolines, the main international bus operator at Victoria coach station in London, said it did not have any arrivals scheduled from Romania or Bulgaria until the morning of 2 January.
Sergiu Calauz, chief executive of the Romanian recruitment company Work Experience, said he had not seen an increase in the last few months of Romanians wanting to travel to the UK for work purposes. "Honestly, it's still the same," he said. With unemployment just under UK levels, skilled Romanians with good English were not generally out of a job, Calauz said.
Comparative figures from the International Labour Organisation from mid 2013 show Romania had a lower rate of unemployment (7.5%) than the UK (7.6%). Bulgaria's unemployment stood at 12.9%.
Asked whether the appetite amongst Romanians to migrate had increased because of the change in labour laws, he said: "It's too early [to tell] ... but Romanians are kind of conservatives. What I can tell you is the great people, the best people, those who are confident enough in their skills, they are abroad already. It's not like 1 January will wake them up."
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