The recent racist attacks against migrant workers have turned my stomach. But two things have shocked me more than the attacks themselves.
The first shock was the police tactics in dealing with this crisis. The Romanians have apparently been moved en masse under armed guard to a secret location.
A large proportion of the local community had been standing up for the Romanian victims of attack and doing all it could to keep them safe inside their home area. By moving the Romanians away after their initial shelter in the City Church, the Police Service of Northern Ireland did not send out a clear message that they were backing up the local community to keep the Romanians safe where they were. In a city where the ‘peace walls’ segregating Protestant and Catholic communities have grown in size and number since the agreement over ten years ago, the result of the police intervention is more separatism and isolation: the consequence a ghetto of uprooted Romanians living in hiding somewhere in Belfast.
Where or when else would an entire group of people have been re-located from where they were living because of a threat from local racists? I’ve never heard of this massive segregation happening, even during the worst race riots in the North of England. It has bleak resonances of ‘protective custody’, the tactic used to isolate prisoners at risk from harm from other prisoners when prison conditions have broken down (the same euphemistic term, Schutzhaft in German, was used by the Nazis when they were separating the Jews from their German-citizen neighbours and moving them into the camps).
Where the intervention by state agents is to remove any group of people from their homes and thereby from their full participation in their community, that state becomes highly questionable.
The second shock is the revelation of the living conditions in which the Romanians found themselves in in Belfast. It has been reported that many Romanian families were living crammed in just a few houses, with a family of eighteen living on a single floor in one house.
The blame for this situation needs to be put squarely at the feet of the Home Office civil servants who are the architects of the immigration rules and regulations for so-called ‘A2 nationals’. ‘A2 national’ is EU-speak for someone from Bulgaria and Romania, countries which joined the EU on 1 January 2007. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU allowed their peoples the right to move freely to the UK, but domestic immigration laws continue to drastically limit their right to work here.
It hardly needs spelling out that there is a lot of abject poverty in both Bulgaria and Romania. In large areas of rural Romania, 95 per cent of households have no running water. Imagine you’re a Bulgarian or a Romanian and a poor one: visa controls are gone from 2007, wouldn’t you jump at the chance to move somewhere which seemed to hold the promise of a better life for you and your family? Once here, you find that you cannot just go looking for a job. You have to apply for work authorisation to the Home Office: there are no less than seven forms to fill out for different categories of work and residence, ranging in length from eight to seventeen pages each. Specific penalties for not doing this correctly include a £1,000 fine or three months in prison.
One local Belfast woman is quoted as saying: ‘[The Romanians] are living on top of each other. They’re begging outside shops and banks. They send their kids out to sell roses outside bars at night. They shouldn’t be allowed to use their kids like that. They shouldn’t even be allowed into the country because they don’t want to work.’ The Romanians may desperately want to work but they are largely prevented from accessing the job market. The opportunities for Bulgarians and Romanians to work legally can be summed up as extremely limited, restricted, for example, to sector-based food-processing or seasonal agricultural jobs, which were soon filled, or to odd and obscure jobs such as ‘servant in a diplomatic household’ or ‘minister of religion’ that the civil servants, with unknown logic, must have deemed needed filling.
Only those who are legally working and appropriately registered have rights to access welfare benefits such as housing benefit or homelessness assistance. As a result, many of those who wanted to work cannot do so and they will not be entitled to any benefits.
I am not arguing against the Romanians coming here in the first place. Since time immemorial, people have travelled across the globe to look for a better life. Surely this is a positive thing? More restrictions on the right to travel would lead to us all living in the little box into which we are born with not a hope of seeing anything or anybody a bit different. Who wants that?
A better approach would have been to match freedom of movement with freedom of work. Then, migrant workers could be flexible about coming and going and taking up jobs – and local employers could be flexible about offering employment as the need arises. Instead of this, the Home Office introduced a rigid, prescriptive system which purported to foresee job shortages and to set, if not in stone, then in countless forms and formalities, endless rules and requirements for migrant workers to fulfil to access only those jobs. The obstacles put in place by the Home Office are truly insurmountable for many and allow very little scope for manoeuvre. Travelling to a new, foreign city some 1,200 miles from home to find work, many Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants have shown job-seeking skills and determined resourcefulness worthy of hardened explorers and brave emigrants but there is no reward for this. Even local employers who are crying out for more workers often may not legally engage a Bulgarian or Romanian.
If the Romanians had been given freedom of movement, genuinely free from a labyrinth of restrictive rules and regulations and could work freely, things might have turned out better all round. Far from taking locals’ jobs: with complete freedom to work here, the Romanians would already have faced many, normal hurdles in getting a job in competition with workers from here. Just imagine yourself heading off to Romania to find work, perhaps cabbage-picking or chicken-processing, and you can appreciate just how hard this might be.
Rather than any negative, cultural difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’, rather than any mythical Eastern European work-shy nature, these very tight immigration rules and regulations are what lead to Bulgarians and Romanians in Belfast not working and living on top of one another.
It’s not the Romanians who should be blamed for their apparently squalid living conditions, but the architects of the A2 national rules and regulations. Just as much as the racist attacks, it is these institutionally-racist obstacles to freedom and equality that should be condemned and challenged.
USA Today article: ‘Despite peace, Belfast walls are growing in size and number’
Read an IRR News story by Phil Scraton: ‘Fear and loathing in Belfast’