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What will Brexit mean for the Roma community?

Written by
Luna Williams, Immigration Advice Service
Date of Publication:
19 February 2020

Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities have had a long history in Europe – and this has been invariably intertwined with persecution and discrimination. In the UK, Travelling communities experience some of the worst racism, prejudice and social inequality of any minority group. Despite this, the country has acted as a refuge of sorts for both Romani and Irish travellers, when cast in the same light as some of our neighbours. Historically, the ability to preserve nomadic principles under free movement laws has allowed this to happen, with many European Travelling communities using them to flee and escape persecution from other EU countries.

Now, these laws are subject to end in the UK; at the end of this year, free movement will become entirely void, and European and British nationals will be subject to mobility and residential restrictions when moving across the UK's border. This, along with rising levels of existing discrimination and prejudice against Travelling communities, poses a very real threat to Roma.

Discrimination and inequality

A report commissioned by the UN last year found that Roma and Gypsies living in the UK have long endured a "state of invisibility, marginalization and exclusion" and that this pervades almost every area of their life. Mrs. E. Tendayi Achiume, a UN Special Rapporteur, conducted the investigation into the presence of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia on behalf of the UN in Britain last Summer. In her research, Achiume spoke with representatives from across both the Romani and Irish-Gypsy communities, as well as Traveller-focussed charities and organisations.

The social, health, education and business sectors all presented cases of wide-spread prejudice and ingrained inequalities against Travelling communities, who were found to experience some of the highest levels of discrimination and underrepresentation across them all.

In schools, the report finds, Roma and Irish-Gypsy children are subject to especially high levels of targeted bullying. As well as this, there is also evidence to suggest that exclusions are given more readily and appeals less often in cases involving children from Travelling communities. Equally, Achiume also notes that there are "very few" teachers of a Roma, Gypsy, or Travelling background in UK schools and that British school curriculum's have "virtually no representation" of these communities. This underrepresentation perpetuates issues with discrimination against Gypsy communities; settled children do not learn to understand Roma or Gypsy culture, and children from Travelling communities feel more alienated.

The situation is not much better in healthcare. According to the report, Gypsies and Travellers experience a higher risk of ongoing physical and mental health issues and are often unable to access the support need. Equally, very few resources are afforded by local councils and authorities to inform or assist Roma with minor ailments, sexual health support, or prescriptions.

Travelling communities also experience inequalities across other sectors – including in employment, business and housing. In almost every area of public life, in fact, they face barriers and extra hurdles. People from Travelling communities are routinely denied their basic rights and are often also subject to ill-treatment from those who are supposed to protect them, such as councils and the police.

What's more, there has undoubtedly been a palpable tension within minority communities since the referendum. More and more people are reporting acts of discrimination – with the Leave result, in many eyes, propelling racist attitudes to the forefront of political and public discourse. Hate crime has risen by just under 40% in England and Wales since 2016 and many previously unacceptable attitudes and behaviours have been normalised by the anti-migrant rhetoric which was utilised by the winning Leave campaign.

For the Roma, antiziganism and antigypsyism are sadly, not alien concepts. However, with xenophobia now being normalised within much of public thought thanks to (at least in part) the referendum result, the rising probability of discrimination and hate crime against Roma and Gypsy communities forms just one string in Brexit's bow against them.

Loss of mobility

Mobility is central to the nomadic lifestyle. The ability to be 'rootless' and move freely is at the core of Gypsy culture; it is this principle that allows these communities to remain unsettled. But Brexit greatly threatens this.

At the end of January, Brexit was officially triggered, along with the start of the 'implementation phase'. This means that free movement, in its current form, has become finite; once this transitional period is over, new European entrants to the UK will be subject to the same immigration controls as non-EU migrants.

In practice, this means that nomadic principles for many migrant Roma and Irish-Gypsies are in jeopardy. Moving across borders will become far less straightforward, especially without the right documents – something that many Travellers don't possess. Individuals and families from Europe will be required to apply for a UK visa to gain first-time access to the UK, and this requires careful planning, restrictions, and costs -- the limitations involved with this are likely to cause issues for those who follow a nomadic way of life.

Insecure status

This issue is not only problematic for Roma who plan to enter the UK after the transitional period; it also presents challenges for those who are already living in the UK.

While it is true that the rights of Europeans who arrived in the UK before/during the implementation phase are to be protected, there are fears within Travelling communities about how realistic this promise is. To secure their rights post-Brexit, EU nationals who currently live in the UK must apply for settled status before the end of the implementation period (31st December 2020). If they miss this deadline, they risk losing access to services, the job market, and public funds.

Of the estimated 3.5 million Europeans living in the UK, there are still around 500,000 still left to be registered under the scheme. Many of these are believed to be vulnerable, elderly and isolated people, who do not have access to/the ability to use online tools or are without the correct supporting paperwork. Unfortunately, many members of Travelling communities fit into these categories

According to Mihai Bica, a representative from the Roma Support Group, the Roma are some of the "most vulnerable when it comes to accessing their future settled status". This, she suggests, is primarily down to a lack of documentation – many Roma are self-employed due to the nature of their lifestyle and the freedom this allows, and the EU Settlement Scheme has already caused a string of issues for those unable to produce job contracts and P60s.

What happens next?

Migrant Roma and Irish-Gypsies (with citizenship to the Republic of Ireland) must be given the proper resources to ensure that they understand and are able to understand what they are entitled to as citizens of the EU. Funds should be deployed at a local and national level to offer access for vulnerable and isolated people, including members of Gypsy communities. These could be used to deploy trained staff who can assist individuals with registering their status, or informing them of the documentation required to do so. Opening pop-up advice clinics could be one method to use to do this.

Likewise, antiziganism and antigypsyism must be tackled and eradicated. This starts in schools; curriculums should be reviewed and teachers trained to ensure that Gypsy-culture is represented and that constructive, educative conversations are begun between settled and Travelling children. After this, zero tolerance must be allowed for anti-gypsy hate crime, and councils and authority figures should be called out if involved in this or allowing this to take place.

Brexit is the source of a multitude of threats for Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, and we must act quickly and urgently to engage in the proper dialogues and take the proper actions to prevent these threats from becoming a reality.