Brexit and Roma: What does the future hold?
Travelling communities – including Roma and Gypsies – are some of the most discriminated against minority groups in Europe. They have long been the targets of prejudice and hate and have experienced widespread inequalities across almost area of society since they have existed. In the UK alone, both Roma and Irish-Gypsies are disadvantaged in the education, health, and business sectors (to name a few). They are regularly discriminated against – by individuals, groups and authorities – and they are often cut off from vital services.
Despite these inequalities, the UK remains a relatively safe place for Travellers when compared to its neighbouring countries, and as such has become a long-standing refuge from states which are less tolerant. In the run up to and during the Second World War, for instance, Romani Gypsies fled Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries for the UK when they were persecuted by the Nazi regime. Equally, over the last century, Roma have fled places like Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic where they are commonly the targets of persistent persecution and racism. As such, the UK has historically acted as a refuge of sorts for Travelling communities, with Roma either officially claiming asylum or utilising free movement laws to move here. The latter has long been a core facet to Roma culture, which centres around nomadic principles; the ability to move easily across borders and maintain mobility in this respect is therefore a vital part of their lifestyle.
Brexit, and the end of free movement it promises, greatly threatens the future mobility of Roma and Gypsy communities, both in and outside of the UK. And it does this in multiple ways. Firstly, it threatens it on a fundamental level; the end of free movement will mean that moving from or into the UK from any European country will be more complex at the border. More documentation will be required at customs, and visa restrictions will apply for anyone looking to visit, work in, or study in Britain. This threatens Romani and Gypsy lifestyle principles, as such restrictions would effectively end their ability to be ‘rootless’, as is central to nomadic practices. What’s more, this loss of mobility also presents extra hurdles for those looking to flee persecution and discrimination in other EU countries. Needing to secure a visa, or claim political asylum makes the process that much harder – particularly for groups like Roma who are often cut off from legal services
Equally, Brexit also poses a threat for European Roma populations already living in the UK. Although Johnson and his cabinet may have promised to ensure that the rights of European nationals living in the UK remain the same after Brexit, there are uncertainties about what will happen to those who do not register to keep them in time for the deadline. As it stands, any EU national who arrived in the UK before or during the implementation period (which ends on 31st January 2020), can register for settled status in the UK which secures their right of abode. Currently, there is less than a year to register, and still an estimated 500,000 people yet to do so.
According to Mihai Bica, a representative from the Roma Support Group, a huge portion of this total is made up by members of Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities. This disparity, she suggests, is down to a combination of three factors: a lack of resources and services to inform Roma of their rights; an inability to access or use the online tools required to register; and a lack of supporting documentation.
In the wake of the Windrush scandal, the idea that Travelling communities could be left to fall through the cracks of the system is extremely worrying, particularly since they are already ostracised from society. Roma and Gypsies have long been the bearers of racism and xenophobia, at both a public and political level. Communities face a string of inequalities across the education, social, health, and business sectors, to name a few. At the other end of the spectrum, they are subject to serious and life-threatening hate crime.
And Brexit has a part to play in this too. Since the referendum result in 2016, hate crime has spiked, rising by almost double in four years; social landscapes have changed drastically and anti-migrant and anti-other attitudes have been normalised in many sections of British society, and even harnessed by pro-Leave groups and organisations.
Unfortunately, though, it is not only in its impact on mobility, status, and attitudes that Brexit is set to hurt Travelling communities. As it stands, the EU currently holds a budget of €11.6 billion for social research and strategy – about 20% of this is dedicated to social inclusion. This is used within minority communities, including Roma, for integration schemes which aim to open up dialogues with and promote the inclusion of Travelling communities. Once the UK entirely leaves the EU at the end of the year, this budget will be lost, and it is unclear what it will be replaced with (if it is replaced with anything at all).
As such, it would seem that Brexit’s threat to the Roma and Travelling communities is three-fold; individuals are set to lose their movement rights, lose access to funding, and be put at a further risk of discrimination and hate crime. Urgent and vast work must be conducted to prevent and address these issues. Support must be given to inform and assist unregistered European Roma living in and entering the UK during the next year, and schemes must be put into place to continue with and improve on EU Roma integration and inclusion efforts. Equally, dialogues must be started in every sector, particularly education which forms the attitudes of children of young people, to promote understanding and representation of Gypsy culture – it is only through this that racist, xenophobic and discriminative attitudes can be challenged.
Luna Williams is the political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation that assists migrants emigrating to the UK and Ireland.