Reporting team: Annabelle Baka, Milena Paraschiv
Dozens of Romanian citizens of Roma ethnicity are continuing to sleep rough in one of London’s elite neighbourhoods despite EU legislation giving authorities the power to deport those not actively looking for work.
On January 1, 2014, the work restrictions on Romanians in the UK were lifted, giving them the right to work and claim benefits since joining the EU in 2007. Previously, they were only able to work if they were self-employed or worked in seasonal jobs.
Britons feared an invasion of Romanians and panicked that they would take all of ‘our jobs’. This was not the case, however, there have been large numbers of Roma gypsies who have come to Britain and have been sleeping rough or camping out on the streets of London. Roma travellers have been camping around Marble Arch and Park Lane since 2011.
Artefact spoke to the current rough sleepers in the area who have decided to camp out near Oxford Circus, Britain’s busiest shopping street and a favourite tourist destination.
We arrive in Marble Arch Underground Station in the pouring rain. One man is reading his newspaper on the floor by the exit while just a few footsteps away, two others chat on the stairs surrounded by luggage.
As we walk past, we immediately spot a group of nine people who found shelter under one of the three archways of the famous Marble Arch monument.
Photographs taken show a group of seven men and two women of Roma gypsy descent coming from Romania camped out at the centre of Marble Arch seeking shelter through rain, in an area where homes can sell for tens of millions of pounds.
Vladimir, a middle-aged man tells us he arrived in London two days ago. He left his family in Romania in search for a job and better life but instead he finds himself jobless, begging in Marble Arch.
“I just arrived two days ago and I am searching for a job. We’ve tried several times at the Job Centre and we’ve been told to wait” he told us.
He also said that while waiting, he would attempt to find a job in another place: “Even on the black market, I will be very happy to find something there. It’s really hard. Basically, I’m just trying to live until I find a job. You know, it’s hard we don’t have many possibilities here because none of us speak English.”
Like dozens of others, Vladimir cannot apply for a job until he gets a National Insurance Number from the Job Centre, which is a legal requirement for anyone who would like to work in the UK.
More than 152,000 Romanians registered for National Insurance (NI) numbers in 2014/15 compared to 47,000 in 2013 according to The Daily Telegraph.
This indicates that the number of Romanians that are looking to work in the UK has risen since the work restrictions were lifted. Many of them leave their country due to the difficulties of finding a job with the minimum wage of £1 an hour (compared to £6.70 in the UK).
The Roma gypsies all tell us that they have arrived in London to look for work. They go on to say that they chose Marble Arch because it is bigger than the other spots in London. They believe they are more likely to find a job here due to the high numbers of businesses and shops.
So how long have they been here? It might be hard to tell, one lady simply states that, “we’ve been here for a long time”. One man shouts out “I’ve been here for two months”, while another says, “two days from my side”. However, none of them have managed to find a job.
We spoke to a Job Centre Advertiser who confirmed the steps a Romanian migrant would have to take if they would like to receive a National Insurance Number.
“They would have to call up this number (03456000643) and request for a National Insurance number, they will then receive a reference number and a date for their appointment. Prior to the appointment they would need to have proof of a UK address and a valid passport or a European ID. They cannot apply for a National Insurance number if they do not have a UK address,” the spokesman said.
Back in Marble Arch, Corina, one of the two ladies in the group asks us if we could possibly help her with a pair of shoes because her feets are soaking wet.
After talking about the weather outside and their lack of food, the group of seven men and two young women moved on to tell us about their struggles with the residents, and the police that chase them away.
They explained that there have been issues of misrepresentation in the media, which has led to a mistrust of journalists. They explain that they do not want to be filmed by us as the British media has denigrated their image.
Gheorghe tells us “The reason why we are not letting you record is because a lot of people have come and took interviews and photographed us and use it as false stories. They were saying that all gypsies here, including myself, drink, dance, beg and don’t do anything else. I was ashamed to go back home and see my face on TV with such a horrible story.”
Another man, Radu, approached us with a piece of paper. He was arrested for begging and sent for a trial in Highbury Corner Magistrates Court. He asked for directions and we offered to help him by writing down how to get there on the piece of paper.
Radu and the others admit that they are not very educated. This is also one of the reasons why they struggle to find jobs in Romania, as many of them are illiterate.
According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Romanian’s literacy rate is 99% among the youth population; which is higher than the average youth literacy rate in other upper middle-income countries.
Despite the struggle of finding a job and surviving in London, they still have hope in a city that they believe is the dreamland. They are determined and most certainly remain humorous.
Gigi, one of the men, asked jokingly if we could find him an English girlfriend he could marry, who could also help him get a job.
We crossed the street to speak with another group who were begging; they tell us the same thing: “Please do not film us”.
We started by asking them if they are Romanians. One of the ladies expressed her pride about being of Roma descent. ”I’m a gypsy!” she shouts in a poor English while beating her chest.
There are currently around 11 million Roma travellers in Europe. Everywhere around the continent these people are disadvantaged and unemployed and most of us know next to nothing about them or where they are coming from.
New genetic studies show that their ancestors migrated from northwest India 1,500 years ago and not Egypt as previously believed.
According to Open Society Foundations the “Roma” are not a single, homogeneous group of people. They can include Romanichals in England; Kalé in Wales and Finland; travellers in Ireland (who are not Roma), Scotland, Sweden, and Norway; Manouche from France; Gitano from Spain; Sinti from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Italy; Ashakli from Kosovo; Egyptians from Albania; Beyash from Croatia; Romanlar from Turkey; Domari from Palestine and Egypt; Lom from Armenia, and many others.
An animated history of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers by Open Society Foundations
Back in Marble Arch the Romanian gypsies explain that they have been kicked out of Romania and have come here to seek for a better life.
At this point they start to get frustrated with the question and uncomfortable with the phones in our hand. They say to our Romanian reporter: “Why must you record us? That’s not going to help. You Romanians are the reason why we are here. No one wants us, not here or in Romania. We have no options but to beg. If you want to help us, help us with a job or some food, not a story”.
After one of the men began to shout “You kicked me out of your country!” we decided to leave.
We spoke to Elena Desde, Manager of Pret a Manger in Marble Arch, who told us about the the problems she encounters: “In the morning we open at six o’clock and find them sleeping outside. They don’t want to leave. Even though we asked them several times, it’s quite hard to make them leave. During the day they sit outside the shop, eating and making a mess and it puts our customers off.”
She also explained that they repeatedly made efforts to stop them from begging in front of the building: “There’s quite a lot of them: they are not aggressive. Many times they enter, they take some forks and spoons and leave. We are not allowed to give them any food. It’s not very pleasant that they are sleeping outside.”
She also fears for her safety: “In the morning I arrive at 4am and I am scared to open up. Sometimes there are more than 20 sleeping outside.”
The national charity Women’s Aid told us they don’t offer shelter or help for Romanian gypsies anymore “because of previous experiences.”
So what has been the response from the British media and the authorities?
Local residents and businesses have previously complained that members of these groups wash in fountains, dump rubbish and defecate in public, says the Daily Mail.
According to the Evening Standard, Westminster has held a summit with agencies including the Foreign Office and the Romanian Embassy.
In May police and UK Border Agency held a joint operation after Scotland Yard said some travellers were impersonating police and targeting tourists.
Westminster Council has a team which works with the Metropolitan Police and Home Office Immigration Enforcement to assess whether people have a right to be here and then deal with them accordingly.
EU legislation gives authorities the power to deport EU nationals who are not actively looking for work. More than 50 rough sleepers have been repatriated to Romania in the summer of 2012 but some have already returned.
In July 2013, immigration enforcement officers took part in a Metropolitan Police operation targeting a number of rough sleepers living in and around Marble Arch in London. They questioned 63 Romanian nationals, many of whom have indicated that they will return to their home country voluntarily.
In July 2015 officers from Westminster Police have joined forces with neighbouring boroughs Kensington and Chelsea and Camden to combat anti-social behaviour (ASB) and crime associated with rough sleepers under the banner of Operation Unite.
The Metropolitan Police refused to comment to Artefact, but Westminster Chief Inspector Louise Puddefoot has previously explained that they are committed to working alongside partners to “reduce anti-social behaviour and crime associated with people who choose to migrate to London for economic reasons and sleep in public spaces.”
Home Office spokesman Ben Stack said: “We work regularly with police, local authorities and other agencies to identify and deal with EU nationals who are not abiding by the rules – abuse of free movement will not be tolerated, and we will take action to remove perpetrators from the UK.”
Romanian General Police Inspectorate, the Centre for Information and Public Relations told Artefact that their officers have been working on the problem in London: “As requested by British authorities, Romanian police officers are currently participating in an activity organized by the British Transport Police that started on 31 October and will last for 12 months. The request comes following the important part a Romanian officer played in obtaining a significant decrease in crime during the period in which he was seconded to the British Transport Police in 2014.”
“Regulations introduced on 1 January 2014 mean that any EU national removed for not fulfilling the residence requirements can now be banned from re-entering the UK for 12 months, unless they can prove they have a valid reason to be here.” said Stack.
“This is just one of the ways we have been working across Government to protect public services and our welfare system, and address the factors that drive European immigration to Britain.” he added.
The Embassy of Romania said: “The issue of Romanian citizens who illegally occupy public spaces in central London is in the constant attention of the Embassy. At the request of British authorities, our institution provides support to identify possible criminal networks (begging, pick-pocketing, etc.). Socially, the Embassy seeks to ensure that Romanian citizens’ rights are respected and that social assistance services are given through various charities.”
Also according to Metropolitan Police, Westminster City Council Cabinet Member for Public Protection, Councillor Nickie Aiken said: “Anyone sleeping on the streets is at risk. We know that rough sleeping is detrimental to physical and mental health as well as the risk to safety.
“Throughout the borough we work hard to ensure that those found rough sleeping are quickly assessed and offered a route away from the street and those in genuine need are offered the support required to move away from rough sleeping through a large range of holistic services.”
She also told the Evening Standard that working with the police to remove these people from the area is like a revolving door. “It is like putting a plaster on a gaping hole in our borders. Unless we stop these people coming in this will not be resolved,” Aiken said.
All images by Milena Paraschiv