Roma are the victims – racism is the problem

By Jane West

The remarks by former Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, alleging that the ‘behaviour’ of incoming Roma migrants in Sheffield could lead to violent inter-community clashes and even riots have been seized on to whip up a further round of racism and anti-immigrant scape-goating.

UKIP’s Nigel Farage jumped in saying Blunkett should be ‘admired’ for making comments which he would have been condemned for.

Nick Clegg – whose priority seems to be to never be to the left of anyone in Labour – added to Blunkett’s comments by claiming that Roma immigrants behaved in a ‘sometimes intimidating, sometimes offensive’ way, and that they should act in a more British fashion.

Blunkett’s comments provided the Daily Mail with four days of continuous anti-Roma coverage full of lurid tales of babies being offered for sale, street-urination, and thefts – all unsubstantiated.

Mark Townsend, writing in the Observer on 16th November, catalogued not just the government’s failure to take any measures to support the Roma as a new ethnic minority, but the complete absence of any local evidence to support Blunkett’s inflammatory claims. ‘Empirically, there is little to substantiate the perception that Roma cause crime. … researchers have found no statistical link between the two. In Page Hall itself, not a single person, even among community leaders, can recall the arrest of a Roma person’, Townsend writes.

But the Roma are an easy target. In recent weeks anti-Roma hysteria has been whipped up to the point that in Ireland two Roma families were robbed of their children by the authorities on the basis they were fair, therefore probably not Roma, so possibly stolen. They were only returned after DNA testing proved their relationship.

This episode followed a similar episode in Greece where a Roma couple who had – entirely consensually, but without any legal paperwork – adopted a fair-haired child were accused of child abduction and worse. In Serbia, skinheads tried to seize a fair-haired Roma child from her home for the same reason.

In France the Roma have suffered mass deportations and evictions. Protests in schools across France when 15 year old Leonarda Dibrani was lifted by police while on a school trip and deported to Kosovo, meant the authorities were forced to say she could return to France. But without her family. Manuel Valls, the Socialist Party’s Interior Minister, justifying his heavy-handed treatment of France’s tiny Roma population of 17,000, has said that they are ‘different from us’, incapable of integrating in French society and their ‘vocation’ is to return to Eastern Europe.

It is deeply disheartening that a Labour politician, and former Home Secretary, should so carelessly throw oil on the fire of the anti-immigrant, anti-Roma prejudice and scape-goating that is deepening its hold on the right’s political agenda.

Perhaps this is not so surprising from someone who as Home Secretary in December 2001 called for ethnic minorities to adopt British ‘norms of acceptability’. Also in September 2002 he implied that Asian families failed to integrate because in ‘in as many as 30% of Asian British households…English is not spoken at home.’ And in 2003, he repudiated the ground-breaking conclusion of the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry that the police were ‘institutionally racist’.

However, his comments are deeply dangerous. First because they whip up further racism and encourage violence towards Roma migrants. If a senior mainstream politicians says that Roma ‘behavior’ – which appears to boil down to littering and hanging out talking on street corners – is alienating the resident community, then a whole swathe of public opinion will adopt the view that the Roma are a problem. And it can lead to violence, as we can be sure some racist violent thug somewhere will take his comments as justifying attacks on Roma people and their communities.

It also feeds the rising tide of racism in electoral politics.

Across Europe the neo-Nazi and populist racist right are on the rise. In France Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) have polled ahead of the traditional parties of the right as Hollande’s Socialists slump in the polls. The FN has recently formed an electoral bloc with Geert Wilders Islamophobic Freedom Party for the 2014 Euro-elections. They will run as the Alliance for Freedom, and are in negotiations with other far right populist parties in Europe – the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Belgian Vlaams Belang, the Italian Lega Nord , the Sweden Democrats and the Slovak National Party (SNS) – with the aim of winning sufficient seats (25) to form an official party group in the European Parliament.

So far this does not include UKIP, which has kept a distance from these more openly far right parties in Europe. But its politics on Europe and immigration are increasingly similar to some of these parties. In the local elections this year UKIP polled a shocking 23 per cent of the vote having run a campaign that focused on opposing ‘mass uncontrolled immigration’. The UKIP share of the vote was exaggerated by the partial nature of the elections – the poll was predominantly in the ‘counties’ which contain a disproportionately Tory, rightist electorate. But their success was enough to shift the priorities for the Tory campaign.

Since the 2013 local elections the Tory agenda has moved relentlessly to the right on immigration, with constant dog-whistle campaigns funded out of the public purse, like Teresa May’s ‘illegal immigrants go home’ advertising vans launched this summer.

With the polls consistently placing the Tories 7 points or more behind Labour and UKIP on 11 per cent or above the Tories have decided to try to win back lost UKIP voters by a turn to the right. This will accelerate now that expert in dog-whistle politics, Lynton Crosby, has agreed a full-time contract with the Tories to run their 2015 election campaign. He is reported to have told Cameron to ‘scrape the barnacles off the boat’ by abandoning other policies in favour of a total focus on welfare ‘scroungers’ and immigration.

Blunkett’s attacks on the Roma people are a dangerous ratcheting up of the mainstreaming of racist, scapegoating and anti-immigrant agendas that are becoming increasingly shrill as the Euro-elections in May next year approach.

Worse is likely when the barriers are lifted to migration from Romania and Bulgaria in January.

In a timely response to this, Unite Against Fascism has initiated a call for a broad campaign to ‘Stand up to racism’ culminating in a rally on UN anti-racist day next year – 22nd March – to galvanise the opposition to this new rise of racism. See the full list of signatories and add your name to the appeal on the UAF web-site.