Last month I was invited by the British Embassy in Romania to speak at a public human rights debate in Bucharest, on Roma in the media. I talked about a piece of research recently published in the online journal People, Policy and Place and I put this in the context of current British news articles and also ‘soft media’ representations of Roma in the UK, namely the TV series The Romanians Are Coming. I had two fellow panellists: a journalism academic from the University of Bucharest and a Romanian reporter/ head of the Roma Journalists Association. The issues of representation of Roma in the media are complex; my research had looked at British media, but my fellow reporter panellist gave examples of very negative portrayal of Roma people in the Romanian media. The issue of social exclusion of Roma and negativity in public, political and media discourse is not limited to Britain. The Roma, it seems, are a convenient media ‘folk devil’, in many parts of the globe.
The debate in Bucharest was for an audience, mainly consisting journalism students and political students at the University, but also included other guests, such as the Swedish Ambassador. I was expecting the questions from students to be filled with outrage at the way Roma are depicted, and indeed treated, not just in Romania, but across the globe. Actually the debate from students was different, quite acquiescent, with the exception of one who spoke quite passionately about the very recent evictions of Roma and their current living conditions on the street in the city.
Earlier in the day, I had been taken to Sector 5 of Bucharest – the poorest and most deprived area of the city. I visited an inspirational project in a school delivered by the Roma Policy Centre and met people who were passionate about the education of Roma children from the very poor neighbourhood. The project runs six, and sometimes seven, days every week – the younger children, whose school shift finishes in the middle of the day, attend the project to learn to read and write as well as street dancing, African drumming and many other creative and inspiring lessons. The volunteers, some of them Roma women from the neighbourhood, can see the impact this is having on the children and the respite it can give them from the extreme poverty and neglected conditions they are living in every day. Funding for the project is piecemeal and hard work; although EU structural funds are in place to fight poverty, translation of such funds into workable budgets and projects is more of a challenge. As with many innovative grassroots projects – more and more volunteer time can be eaten up with the grind of bidding for new funds.
I went with the project workers and a member of Embassy staff to look around the Ferentari ghetto; this is a place of extreme poverty and deprivation and home to the children I had met earlier in the day at the Roma Policy Centre project in the school. I saw needles on the ground – indicative of the drug problems in the area. The properties were in extreme disrepair, whilst some had water recently reinstalled, this perhaps only reached floor two of the buildings, with those living on higher floors missing out. Fuel poverty in this estate is so extreme, an upset man pushing a shopping trolley with an axe in it approached us wanting to talk to us about the state of the properties – he was going to try and find some wood to chop to heat his place and try and stay warm. The rubbish was piled high in some places and the roads were in poor repair. This was a neglected place further alienating its residents from the wider community – save for the schools project.
Reflecting on my visit to Ferentari, the inspirational project work by the Roma Policy Centre, and the quiet discussion at the public human rights debate hosted by the British Embassy and the University of Bucharest, I felt there was a palpable disconnect between the popular media perception of Roma issues, the reality of poverty and exclusion faced by Roma people, and the response to that by the wider community. Roma are Romanian citizens – not exclusively so, Roma come from all over Europe – but those Roma who live in Romania need to be seen as Romanian citizens. Equally in Britain, Gypsies and Travellers are British citizens; they should not be seen or discussed as ‘other’. When we talk about people as though they are not one of us, there is a danger they will be treated as not one of us – and that isn’t right.
Jo Richardson @socialhousing