Newspapers have been scaremongering over Europe’s Roma communities, some of whom will, from May, have the right to migrate to Britain. Are these the first shots in a press campaign against Blunkett’s ‘new migrants’?
The Sun claimed that it would be ‘tens of thousands’. The Sunday Times predicted 100,000. The Express announced that 1.6 million are ‘ready to flood in’. In the newspapers’ numbers game, no amount of exaggeration is excessive – but any amount of immigration is too much.
This time it is the anticipated migration to Britain of Roma (Gypsies) from countries set to join the European Union on 1 May. From May 2004, all citizens of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia will enjoy the same freedom of movement previously granted to citizens of other EU states. They will be allowed to settle in Britain and work just as, for example, Greeks, Portuguese and Italians have done for many years. If they are out of work, they will be able to claim benefits – but only after being in the UK for three months and passing a ‘habitual residence test’ to prove permanent settlement.
Denmark, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden have also announced that they will offer citizens of the new member states the right to work. France, Germany, Italy and Spain are planning to delay the right for up to seven years.
It appears that the anti-immigration lobbying group Migration Watch provided the impetus for this latest salvo. A week ago it published a briefing paper on the Balkans which attempted to analyse the problems faced by the countries of south-eastern Europe: Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosova, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia. Since the collapse of Communism, the paper suggests, the failure of the EU to facilitate social and economic development in these countries has led to large-scale migration to western Europe.
Oddly, Migration Watch decided that this paper should be a ‘wake-up call’ to the government, not for its policy on the development of the Balkans region, but for its policy of granting freedom of movement to the citizens of the ten new EU members – an entirely different set of countries with circumstances very different from the Balkan countries.
A couple of days later, the Sunday Times ran the story, but chose to focus specifically on an ‘influx’ of Roma. The newspaper compared the benefits available to an out of work, two-child family in the Czech Republic (£100 per month) with the benefits available in the UK.
The next day the Sun told its readers that ‘tens of thousands of gipsies are poised to flock to Britain’. A ‘special investigation’ in Slovakia featured Ryszard, whose family currently survive by begging. He had earlier lived in Liverpool, where his children attended school, but the family was deported last year. Under the heading ‘Britain’s Our Dream’, Ryszard was reported as saying that he planned to return to Liverpool and hoped to ‘get a big house with nine rooms’. The question of why the family was deported, at some expense, when they were shortly to be entitled to return to Britain anyway, was not asked.
No doubt the Sun would have approved of the deportation at the time, arguing that the family’s asylum case was ‘bogus’ and that the claim that Roma suffer persecution was false. But now the same newspaper tells its readers that Roma do indeed face persecution so severe that they are desperate to escape it and come to Britain. Previously, Roma were demonised as ‘illegal immigrants’ abusing the asylum system with false claims. Now that Roma are about to have the right to come here anyway and, hence, the legality of an asylum claim is irrelevant, the same newspaper is telling its readers how awful the situation is for the Roma in Slovakia, detailing the racial segregation, the extreme poverty and the lack of human rights: all to make it seem plausible that tens of thousands of Roma are poised for a mass exodus to the UK. A Sun reader who took all this seriously would have to believe that the persecution of the Roma only began this week.
Another day and the Daily Express jumps on the bandwagon, with a prediction of ‘1.6 million gipsies ready to flood in’ on the front cover. Only in small print on an inside page is the reader told that 1.6 million is actually the combined total number of Roma in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia: it is a ridiculous estimate of how many might settle in Britain.
With a heading of ‘The Great Invasion 2004, Where The Gipsies Are Coming From’, a map of Europe gives further illustration of the Express‘s message. Five red arrows are shown tearing across Europe towards Britain where they are met by a lone arrow directed back at them, painted with the Union Jack. The illustration is a parody of the title sequence from the television programme Dad’s Army, reinforcing the suggestion that Britain faces some kind of foreign occupation. An editorial comment begins by stating that Gypsies are ‘heading to Britain to leech on us’ and then apparently espouses the Gypsies’ cause by warning that if they are let in they will become ‘figures of hate’. Yet the Express‘s choice of metaphors – ‘flood’, ‘invasion’, ‘leech’ – does little to mitigate such hatred. If the same terminlology were used of Jews, wouldn’t an editor be forced to resign?
A more reasonable estimate of the number of migrants from the ten new member states was given by University College London, in research published last year, which estimated that the number of people coming to Britain is likely to be between 5,000 and 13,000 per year (of which Roma would make up an unspecified percentage). In the past, for example when Greece and Portugal joined the EU, commentators tended to overestimate the numbers of people willing to move to wealthier countries, wrongly assuming that human beings make decisions like economists on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. Predictions of an ‘influx’ of southern Europeans proved mistaken then, and are likely to be so again in the case of eastern Europeans.
Of course, the situation of the Roma is different, as the wholesale social persecution they suffer is unique in Europe. But the numbers willing and able to leave, are still unlikely to make much difference to the total level of immigration to Britain each year.
Blunkett’s new migrants
What underlies this week’s stories, though, is not numbers but the prejudice that Roma will come to Britain to scrounge, beg and steal. Although the new immigration rules will apply to any citizen of the new EU countries, newspapers have chosen to focus exclusively on Roma. That no mention is made of other groups, such as impoverished Polish farmers, who might with equal reason come to Britain from the new member-states, indicates the racial bias of this latest press onslaught.
Unsurprisingly, the real issues are obscured in this haze of press distortion. The government’s decsion to permit the free movement of migrant workers from new EU members is part of a new phase in Britain’s immigration policy – ‘managed migration’ – in which the government is attempting to fine-tune immigration rules more closely to the needs of British capitalism. The French and German governments – with their more regulated labour markets – see migration from eastern Europe as having only a negative economic impact. As a result, they have decided against allowing free movement to their countries by citizens from the new member states, for the first few years.
But Home secretary David Blunkett believes that countries like Britain with ‘flexible’ labour markets, where workers have less rights, can benefit economically from migration, if it is ‘carefully managed’. In particular, he hopes that eastern European workers will do the ultra-low-wage, dirty jobs that nobody else wants – for example, in London’s hotel and catering sectors. And, assuming they fill these vacancies, he would rather they came as workers than as asylum seekers.
While, on paper, these workers would be covered by normal employment legislation, in practice it may prove impossible for them to secure any rights. A report on migrant workers published by the TUC last year revealed that workers from existing EU countries, such as Portugual, can end up being paid below the minimum wage because of exploitation by intermediaries.
These issues are set to rise in importance over the coming years as Blunkett’s ‘new migrants’ – those coming to work from the expanded EU and those coming from further afield with work permits – slowly increase in number. Judging by the coverage this week, we can expect that the right-wing press will see these new migrants as just another group of foreigners to demonise – just as asylum seekers have been, and ‘new Commonwealth’ immigrants were before that – especially if they include existing figures of hate, such as Gypsies.