Adam Burgess looks behind the recent 'gypsy invasion' from Eastern Europe
'Ah, strawberry fields forever!' exclaimed a Bulgarian I met in Belgrade recently when I told him I lived in Kent. The hundreds of Eastern European students who spend their summers on the gruelling fruit picking jobs Kentish locals avoid have evidently spread the word about the 'garden of England'. Certainly in my small town, a summer visit to the supermarket or video shop guarantees the sound of numerous Slavonic languages as much as estuary English. But if young casual labour from the East has gone largely unnoticed, the latest arrivals have been made rather less welcome - at least by the authorities and the press.
Some 600 gypsies from the Czech and Slovak republics have come off the ferries at Dover since August, and the arrival of a further 180 in late October hit the national headlines. Predictably the Daily Mail, mouthpiece of middle class alarmism, devoted several pages to these 'unwelcome visitors in shellsuits'. Not just guilty of bad dress sense, they were apparently only the advance guard of an army of exotic loafers intent on fleecing our 'generous' benefits system. Even more predictably, New Labour got in on the hysteria. The government minister in charge promised a 'review' of pro-cedures - a barely disguised reassurance that 'caring, tolerant' Britain would be making sure that these undesirables don't even disembark in future.
But what prompted the mini-exodus of Eastern European gypsies, or 'Roma', in the first place? The immediate reason, widely cited in the press, was a Czech TV programme specifically aimed at gypsies that extolled the virtues of British life. The effectiveness of the programme, however, can only be understood in the context of the success of the West in politically reshaping Eastern Europe and promoting the ideal of 'our culture' throughout the region.
Dislocation of gypsies within the Czech and Slovak republics is the result of wider geopolit-ical developments, not least the fragmentation of the former Czechoslovakia. A key dynamic behind the old federation's split in late 1993 was the desire of the Czech leadership to join the West: specifically, to consolidate their growing relationship with the region's new master, Germany. Because of the entry requirements understood to be required of aspirant 'westerners', this necessitated ditching the allegedly more 'eastern' Slovaks. To complete the process of joining civilisation the Czechs then re-classified their gypsy population, which according to some accounts numbered about 250 000, as Slovaks.
In a European discourse shaped by the notion that everything associated with the West is desirable, the number of gypsies in Eastern European societies is treated as one measure of 'eastern-ness'. This is why every country is keen to hide the real numbers and it is consequently difficult to establish accurate statistics. With Czech citizenship being made deliberately difficult for Slovaks, the result was the displacement of many gypsies to Slovakia. They were greeted with hostility even by the resident gypsy populations who saw them as disturbing delicate relations with local authorities.
At the same time as this domestic upheaval, gypsies wanting to escape from their new situation found previous exit doors barred. In particular the tightening of German asylum rules and methods, including the use of radar to locate potential migrants, exacerbated fears among the Czechs that their country would become the new waiting room for anybody in the East seeking a better life in the West. An elaborate new security arrangement exists between Germany and its 'central' European neighbours, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, whereby they keep out potential immigrants from further east in return for the promise of entry to European institutions. Gypsies wishing to escape have had to try their luck further west, claiming political persecution back home.
Even with strict immigration controls, some gypsies do manage to slip through the net and start new lives in countries such as Britain. However, the fragile status of refugees in these countries means that their marginalisation only increases. The problem is not so much that they cannot get into Western countries, but that once in there the quasi-criminal status given to those seeking asylum means that they are denied the opportunity to start a new life. Full integration into Western society is made im-possible, and the gypsies' wandering status is confirmed.
Under these circumstances, even those who profess to have a sympathetic view of the gypsies of Eastern Europe tend merely to compound their problems. There are now hundreds of initiatives sponsored by Western charities and non governmental organisations aimed at both the improvement of the Roma's position within society, and the education of the population at large in treating the Roma more respectfully. Indeed, for anybody trying to gain access to the various funds for charity and educational work in Eastern Europe, reference to helping the Roma, or preaching their acceptance among the 'uncivil' masses, remains as good a guarantee of success as any. But by arguing the need to accept, indeed respect, the gypsies' status as a marginal cultural group rather than the need to challenge it, these initiatives are actually compounding the sense of separateness from society which underlies their second class status.
In romanticising the cultural exclusion of the gypsies or talking up political persecution that has driven them from their home country, those who engage in projects to give the gypsies more 'respect' fudge the real concern about the gypsies' immigration to the West. A desire for better living standards, to live in a country that does not simply aspire to be Western but is Western and where the chances of survival are not perfect but better, is generally considered to be an invalid reason for migrating. Political persecution is held up as the only acceptable excuse for leaving one's home country, while the more day-to-day reality of economic hardship is perceived as something those in the non-Western world simply have to put up with.
Shellsuits or not, what the Roma need is a chance to start a new life where they choose. But from East to West, all they are offered is the opportunity to become even more marginal from society than they were before.
Adam Burgess' new book, Divided Europe: The New Domination of the East is published by Pluto Press
Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998