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19 December 2013

A misunderstood community: Roma people in Wales

A misunderstood community: Roma people in Wales

A training event was held in Cardiff recently to address safeguarding issues in East European Roma communities in Wales. While exact numbers of East European Roma in Wales are not known, conservative estimates put the number living in the UK at 200,000.

Roma history is an ancient, dramatic one of travel, persecution and survival. About 1,500 years ago the Roma left their homes in Northern India, and 600 years later began to migrate through the Balkans into Europe. The term Roma can lead one to assume these are Romanians, or perhaps gypsies, travellers etc but they are in contrast a sedentary ethnic group, living in various European nations.

One of the main reasons why exact numbers are not known is linked to the severe violence, imbedded poverty and harmful discrimination that they experience across Europe. Roma, Europe's largest ethnic group, often will not self-identify as such and those residing in the UK will prefer instead to say that they are Slovakian, Polish or Romanian, for example, in order to avoid being stereotyped and persecuted. To illustrate this, it is thought that of the hundreds of Roma currently in Cardiff schools, only about 6 per cent self-identify as Roma.

The media does its best to exacerbate negative stereotypes of Roma people. Remember the furore a few months ago when blonde haired children were discovered living among Roma communities in Greece and Ireland? DNA tests ultimately proved that the children were indeed of Roma ethnicity but the damage had been done and the stereotypical image of Roma as child-snatchers remained.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the UK's current policies on immigration and benefits, it must be remembered that Roma people from the EU enjoy freedom of movement within EU borders and are perfectly entitled to be here in the UK – just as UK citizens are able to live in countries such as Spain and France. Roma people migrate for various reasons – to flee persecution, for better employment prospects or a better quality of life – and should be treated with respect.

Many Roma are evangelical Christians, with Orthodox Christians also forming a significant part of Roma communities. This reality will present opportunities for evangelicals in Wales to establish links with Roma and probably some support services (eg ESOL classes) will spring up in a similar way to which churches have responded to the needs of asylum seekers and refugees.

Roma people take on a number of different jobs in the UK but the Big Issue stands out as being a life-blood to the community. Roma fulfil the Big Issue's criteria for vendors (eg no recourse to public funds) and Newport is not untypically high in having 80 per cent of its vendors as Roma. Without the Big Issue the community would suffer further deprivation.

There are certainly challenges facing Roma communities – subjects such as mental and sexual health are often taboo among them which presents concerns, while unacceptably low numbers of Roma children complete their education. Therefore, the training provided by the Roma Support Group in Cardiff recently was a much-needed opportunity for front-line practitioners to learn how to better support a vulnerable and yet grossly misunderstood community in our midst.

Jim Stewart, public affairs and advocacy officer, and Emeline Makin, public affairs and advocacy policy assistant, Evangelical Alliance Wales.