„Wish you weren’t here” - The response of the British press to Romani asylum seekers
Sections of the mainstream British press have traditionally indulged themselves in hostile reporting of immigration issues. The coverage of events last October, when a number of Czech and Slovak Roma arrived in the UK claiming political asylum, was no exception. Some 100 articles appeared over a seven day period informing readers of how Britain was about to be ‘over-run’ with thousands of Eastern European Roma and that tax payers were facing a bill of ?10 million. Headlines such as „Town’s tolerance snaps under Gypsy invasion” (Daily Telegraph, October 25, 1997) and „Port under siege” (Daily Express, October 21, 1997) constructed images of ‘war’ and ‘defence of the British nation’ rather than a society willing to offer sanctuary to a persecuted ethnic group. One newspaper went so far as to claim it had sent a tank to the port town of Dover to issue them („scrounging foreign gypsies”) with an ultimatum (Sunday Sport, October 21, 1997).
A Home Office press statement on October 24 reported that 247 Czech and Slovak Roma had arrived in the UK since October 17, 107 of whom had already been deported with those remaining being assessed as quickly as possible. This is in striking contrast to reports suggesting that 800 Roma asylum seekers were already in the country with 3,000 more on the way. A Daily Mail article of October 24 relied on ambiguous statements leaving readers to interpret the situation, that up to 30,000 Polish Roma were living near the Czech and Slovak borders, and that Bulgarian, Hungarian and Romanian Roma were believed to have viewed a Czech television documentary which preceeded the arrival of Roma asylum seekers to Britain. Such sensationalist reporting does little more than provoke alarm and prejudice in a readership which, more than likely, has had little access to the real version of events.
Articles frequently attributed the asylum seekers as ‘criminals’, ‘lazy’ and as a ‘socially backward’ race — familiar stereotypes of Roma, echoing nationalist diatribes from their countries of origin. Reports appeared of ‘mass shoplifting sprees’ by Slovak Roma but with no hard evidence to substantiate such claims. The Daily Mail reported on October 20 how staff at one charity shop in Dover have been sent on a training course to deal with shoplifters solely because of the Slovaks, which not only implied all Slovak Roma are thieves but denigrated them further by claiming they routinely stole from charity shops.
The most concerning feature of many reports was the failure to accept Roma as victims of persecution; claiming political asylum was seen as an effective method of gaining entry into the UK and an improved economic situation rather than being based on a genuine fear of persecution. When the acknowledgement of victimisation was present, it was in the context of isolated, random attacks rather than a pattern of abuse. For example, a Sun article of October 23 questioned, in response to one Romani man’s motives for seeking asylum for his family, whether one incident was grave enough for asylum to be granted in Britain. The incident to which the journalist referred involved a group of skinheads abducting and beating the Slovak Romani man’s son who was then dumped on a roadside at the edge of his hometown. Other newspapers accepted Roma did have difficulties although, according to a Daily Telegraph article of October 22, this that is not the same as suffering systematic persecution.
Institutionalised racism from the Slovak and Czech authorities was significantly under-reported. While excessive reference was made to the high percentage of Roma occupying Czech and Slovak prisons, there was no reference to police brutality or unfair judicial systems. In a number of newspapers, Slovak officials were quoted as welcoming the emigration of their ‘socially unadaptable’ Roma population. However, such remarks were contextualised in articles berating weak British immigration laws and the prospect of Britain having to ‘cope’ with Slovakia’s unwanted population.
It was perhaps inevitable that such knee-jerk press reporting would have consequences. An extremist right-wing group, the National Front, organised a demonstration to protest against the Roma which included a march past a hostel occupied by a number of the asylum seekers. Understandably, many Roma fled to London to avoid a confrontation which, one would imagine, had a frightening sense of déjá-vu. However, the welcome in London was none too warm either — arrangements were made for the immediate return of the Romani families to Dover.
The reaction of the British government was also deeply concerning. On October 27, seven days after the first wave of publicity, Home Secretary Jack Straw MP, announced new procedures to „speed up the decision-making process in abusive asylum claims”. This will reduce the time available to submit evidence in support of some asylum claims from 28 to five days.
It is troubling to think that political and economic motivations supersede fundamental human rights and it becomes difficult to conceptualise when or if the international community will begin to acknowledge the plight of the Romani population in Europe. Meanwhile, Roma continue to be subjected to persecution and racism. As one Slovak Romani asylum seeker in Dover told the British Refugee Council, „The situation for the Gypsies is getting worse. We want action.” The chances of the international community helping to bring about such action can only be hindered by prejudiced reporting as witnessed in the British press over the last few months.