Wednesday 7 December 2016

Avoiding stereotypes about Romanians living in Brent

I made representations to Brent's Equalities Committee last night about a report on the borough's Eastern European Community. LINK Although the report's recommendations are mainly non-controversial I argued that statements in the report were likely to reinforce stereotypes about the Romanian community. They focused on single men despite the fact that there are many Romanian families settled in the borough and contributing to the community. Reminding the Committee of the Counci's policy on hate crime I warned that in the present climate the report could reinforce prejudice and as it was in the public domain potentially damaging to the council.

The report's opening paragraph states:
This cross-Council group has been established to look at the socio-economic barriers and challenges experienced by the Eastern European communities living in Brent and make recommendations to address these. The scope of the group does not cover rough sleepers, overcrowding and anti-social behaviour because these themes are either within the scope of other forums or will be considered as separate work streams.
But then goes on to give 'anecdotal  evidence':
The two largest Eastern European groups in Brent are Polish and Romanian. The Polish community is on the whole quite well settled and has an established support network in Brent. Unlike the Polish community, the Romanian community does not have access to an established support network. The majority of the Romanians in Brent are single men and/or economic migrants who are financially supporting their families back in Romania. Some of them are coming to Brent to do seasonal casual work, they are not interested in interacting with Council’s and NHS services and often do not have National Insurance numbers. They often sleep rough and/or in overcrowded conditions, their health needs are often unmet. There has also been an increase in female sex workers from Eastern Europe who are often subject to abuse and violence and who also experience health inequalities
The focus on single men ignores the fact that later there is data from nurseries and schools that indicate significant number of Romanian children in Brent schools. 500 children (3%) speak Romanian as a first language and 384 (2%) Polish. In primary schools 1,164 (4%) of children speak Romanian as first language and 1,000 (4%) Polish.

In comparison there were 24 rough sleepers in Brent on 25th November 2016 (compared with 64 last year) and 'Romanian and Polish are the two largest groups of rough sleepers in Brent'.

The focus on barriers perhaps inevitably means a concentration on the negatives so in my presentation I wanted to focus on the positive side for balance.

I spoke about my experience as a governor at a school where 12.5% of the children speak Romanian (compared with 4.5% Polish) where the Romanian children are very much part of the school community with some sitting on the Pupil School Council and involved in the many extra-curricular activities, including music and choir.  They are proud of their country of origin but see themselves as now part of the UK.  Many have been at the school for 5 or 6 years although their sense of security was shaken by the EU Referendum result.

There are no issues regarding attendance etc and a Romanian parent (a teacher at another school) is standing in the current Parent Governor election.

In the local community longer-term settlement is also indicated by the number of Romanian shops opening up in Wembley, Preston and on the borough boundary in Burnt Oak.

A further indicator of settlement is the establishment of Romanian Orthodox churches in the borough. A long lease has been taken out on the Old St Andrews Church in Kingsbury and it has a large congregation that spills over into the churchyard on Sunday mornings.  A London based Romanian language newspaper is distributed and there is a community notice board in addition to the services which are attended by many family groups.

I read the committee an e-mail from a local Romanian in reaction to the report. She said:
I think the Romanians are worried for the following reasons:

They do not know yet the effects of Brexit for them. eg They may lose their jobs and they will have to leave the UK
There have been malicious newspaper articles in the UK about Roamnians involved in organised crime such as huuman trafficking, beggars, thieves
Loss of benefits for families with low income
Loss of access to the NHS
In response officers argued that the report was the first step in an new approach and was focused on barriers to the progress of Eastern European communities and as it could not cover all of them, looked at the two largest from Poland and Romania.

They said that there had been 'no negativity' at the Round Table meeting on November 30th with 15 or so organisations that serve the Eastern European community and that the recommendations had been welcomed.  They said that there  data behind the report but that only a limited amount was available.   The community was not always aware of support groups but future activity would be based on the community's own assessment of its needs.  The scope of the proposals will be expanded out into the community as a whole and more research would be undertaken. Genevie George, Partnerships and Engagement Manager, who has been in post for 2 months, emphasised that the report was a starting point.

They acknowledged that 'precarious work' was an issue and the need for workers to know about their rights. Brent was working with Work Rights Centre with sessions every Saturday at Wembley Library.

During discussion councillors paid tribute to the contribution of Eastern Europeans to Brent and approved the recommendations.  They thought it important for the council to undertake positive public relations about the Eastern European community and looekd forward to the rpgress of our newest community. In a caveat Cllr Thomas said that the Council had to be careful not to be seen to be doing more for one community than for others in Brent. He suggested that the research and work on this report could have been done by Brent CVS as they had the capacity to undertake it while the Council was shedding staff.

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