In the light of the recent attacks on the Romanian community in the press, York students speak out about the reality of Romanian immigration in the UK.
In the light of the recent attacks of the right-wing populist press against Romanian immigration and the outspoken claim of a threat of“Thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians planning to flood the UK in 2014”, Romanian students in York and across the country have spoken out against this offensive upsurge of xenophobia.
It’s early on a Sunday morning, under the dim lights of the still unawakened Courtyard, that I meet Arina, Mihai, Ioan and Andrei, members of the Romanian Society in York and founders of the forum of Romanian Societies in the UK in April 2012.
While my eyes are still tired from too little sleep, the group of under-and-postgraduate students, finishing their take away coffee, are already very much alert. The atmosphere is relaxed but there is no doubt that we are about to embark on some serious discussion. I straighten up and open my eyes and ears.
The reason for our meeting is the publication on November 4th of a national press release, co-signed by the Association of Romanian Student Societies and the League of Romanian Student Abroad. The latter manifesto denounces the “pseudo-alarmists accounts” of Romanian immigration which, exacerbated by the current political climate, crystallised increasing hostility towards the Romanian community.
Indeed, despite Romania and Bulgaria having joined the European Union in 2007, both countries are still subject to workers restriction when immigrating to the UK. These restrictions were part of the deal made between the new member-countries and the EU as initial temporary restrictions on numbers allowed to come to the UK and an incentive for Romania and Bulgaria to improve wages and working conditions.
These restrictions could be prolonged by the hosting countries if they assumed that Romania and Bulgaria hadn’t met their target. France and the UK have used the maximum seven years extension of the legislation, therefore they are now legally compelled to abolish these restrictions by January 1st 2014.
The news, inflamed by conservative backbenchers and Ukip opportunists, has unleashed a violent media debate about immigration and has put increasing pressure on the government to act in favour of tighter immigration regulation.
It suddenly seemed as if the greatest threat to 21st century Britain was an invasion from the East of criminals and lazy, uneducated individuals eager to get hands on all available benefits, spoil the schools with dirty and aggressive children and seize all the jobs from the native population until it gets down on its knees, begging.
Today’s Daily Mail front page “Enough is Enough” calls on Mr. Cameron to go against Brussels’ regulation and maintain the workers restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians immigrants despite the threat of a fine. Such a political stand, unsurprisingly advocated by the latter paper, would have dire consequences on Britain’s future in the European Union.
According to Romanian student representative organisations, the Romanian student body in the UK “is immensely more representative of the features of the Romanian community in Britain” than any of the accounts found in the populist press. As such, the students have taken it upon themselves to speak out in the name of the whole of the Romanian community in the UK.
Mihai Cocoru, former chair of the Romanian society in York and vice-chair for national activity, has fought on both the York and national scene in order to ensure the integration of the Romanian community. He says:
The problem with the press in the UK is that they have been using the Ukip message in order to create sensation and increase their readership. But altogether they have presented very few convincing arguments. The alleged behaviour of Romanian immigrants is one that we do not tolerate.
Indeed, since the creation of the Romanian society in February 2011, dedicated groups of Romanian students have brought their support to the Romanian community established in York. They help and give advice to around fifty families in York with things such as enrolling at the Jobcentre, opening a bank account and obtaining a national insurance number. The credo of the Romanian society is however clear: there is a zero tolerance policy regarding the practice of any illegal activities.
Arina, who finished her Masters in York in June and is currently working as a Marketing Executive in the city, says that the majority of the Romanian community in York is middle class, educated and has a good command of English – which by Romanian standards is likely to mean absolutely fluent. Amongst them are a couple of doctors, the director of a clinic and the head of a local company.
The group of students seems to agree that all the Romanian families in York appear to have integrated perfectly well and that they themselves have never encountered any prejudices here because of their nationality.
Mihai confirms that York is a good example of the immigration of a group of people
with a set of skills who were willing to get the best out of their skills and therefore decided to come to Britain. But the reason for their coming is not because they thought there was milk and honey in the tap, which is what the press is successfully trying to convey.
Mihai is talking quickly in a perfectly mastered English: his tone is sharp and his determination is apparent through the weight he gives to each word.
He adds confidently:
I am a European, highly skilled individual and I can go wherever is best.
Yet, there is no doubt that “wherever is best” is tied to the prospect of a better pay: whilst social workers in the UK get a minimum of £12 an hour, in Romania they receive no more than £2.
Skills. The word is repeated over and over again, resonating like a chant in their mouths. Rarely have I witnessed that much determination from students at York: ambition does not even come close to describing what is driving the group of students.
Andrei, the society’s secretary and currently a second year computer science student, asserts that about 60 to 70 per cent of what he is studying this year he has already learnt in his school back in Romania. To the question what was his reason for coming to study in the UK, Andrei replied:
I want to study and learn as much as possible in my niche and then go back home and change something. I would like to start my own company and make a difference in Romania.
Ioan Polenciuc, chair of the Romanian society and doing his Phd in Physics adds that
Britain is benefiting from Romania’s brain drain. We would recommend that students go back to Romania.
Today, the UK is the host of no more than 200,000 Romanians; about 6,000 are students who usually make the top of their institution. According to the National Press Release of November the 4th, the UK Migration Advisory Committee has noted that the Romanian community in the UK is not only one of the youngest communities, but also has one of the lowest unemployment rates, close to 4.4%.
However, the latter figures are not the ones picked up by the press. On the contrary, a 26% rise of Romanian workers between April and June of this year, amounting the number of Romanians in the national workforce to 0.3%, has clearly aroused passions.
As British unemployment remains one of the country’s greatest concerns, headlines such as “How do I claim benefits when I get to Britain” and“Romanians rush for ‘Come to UK’ jobs” continue to flourish.
Yet, there will be no Romanian invasion in the coming year, as Mihai puts it:
Romanians who wanted to come to the UK already did despite the restrictions.
This is just another example to fit the uneasy debate on immigration. Yet again, it seems that the anger and fear which have invaded the public sphere are, above all, reflecting the country’s own anxieties about its job market, its social welfare system and its place in the European Union.
Aggressive press articles on Romanian immigration unfortunately still have a long life ahead, and yet, like Mihai, Arina, Ioan and Andrei leave the Courtyard, I cannot but believe that the Romanian case has got plenty of hope.
The York Romanian Society is an official spokesmen of the National Romanian Society. For more information about their activities in York and on the national scene, click here.
Published on The Yorker, November 22, 2013.