Roma in Panorata, Romania: “People always make the mistake of lumping Europe’s Roma together as a single entity” © AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, © getty images
You know the picture. Woman in a headscarf. Hand outstretched. Plaintive, somehow exotic face. An atmosphere of ill-health and dirt. A British park bench. This is the tabloid imagery that has been used more than any other to raise popular anxieties about a new flood of Eastern European migrants due to arrive this year. Not images of well-trained Romanian doctors, or polite Bulgarian baristas, migrating to plug gaps in our economy and take low-paying service jobs, but of poor, vagrant Roma, over here to beg and steal.
Part of this moral panic has been almost entirely synthetic. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail casually and repeatedly elide the idea of the Roma (an ethnic group with its largest populations in Central and Eastern Europe) and Romanians. (Confusingly the two words have nothing to do with each other). The right-wing press has also devoted a fantastic amount of attention to a small group of Romanian Roma—rarely numbering more than about 30 people—who have been sleeping rough and begging in Park Lane and Mayfair since late 2011, invoking vaguely sinister language all the while. “We can do nothing to stop the entire population of Transylvania—charming though most of them may be—from trying to pitch camp at Marble Arch,” said London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, presumably plucking the first Romanian region that came to mind, last November.
That’s not to say there haven’t been, and aren’t, specific cases of Roma migration from mainland Europe that—much like occasional clashes with Britain’s traveller communities—are causing real local pain. Westminster Council had to put up with some Roma squatting outside the Dorchester Hotel as it housed the International Olympic Committee during London 2012, and David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, recently warned of the potential for an “explosion” in the Page Hall neighbourhood of Sheffield, which has been overrun by some 900 Slovakian Roma families in recent years. Last year, the Metropolitan Police reported that half the begging and a third of the pickpocketing offences in London are now being committed by Romanians— with suspicions that Roma street gangs and organised crime will be over-represented in that number.
But a national emergency this is not. And neither is it plausible,…