An estimated 200,000 Roma migrants are living in Britain, new research shared exclusively with Channel 4 News reveals.
In 2011, the government said it believed “relatively few Roma citizens” lived in the UK, but it is now thought Britain has one of the biggest Roma populations in western Europe.
It didn’t happen suddenly, it was a trickling process. It kept going and going and more and more people arrived. Gulnaz Hussain
It is claimed most of the migrants have arrived since a number of eastern European countries, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic, joined the European Union in 2004.
The figures come from a major new study by researchers at the University of Salford, which concluded the migrant Roma population in Britain was “significant”, “increasing”, and that 200,000 was almost certainly a “conservative estimate.”
Roma are the biggest ethnic minority in Europe, with a population of around 12 million living mostly in eastern Europe, often in extreme poverty and subject to discrimination and segregation.
The researchers cited harsh conditions elsewhere as a significant “push factor” in Roma coming to the UK and reported that the rapid increase in Roma migrants was posing considerable challenges for local authorities, with staff often “overwhelmed”.
In the Page Hall area of Sheffield, Gulnaz Hussain, who runs an advice centre for immigrants, says the number of Roma families has rocketed from just one or two in 2004 to several hundred today.
We came here for a better life, having a job, having education for my children. I want to see a future. There was no future for me in Slovakia. Miroslav Sandor
“It’s a huge population that’s arrived,” she said. “It didn’t happen suddenly, it was a trickling process. It kept going and going and more and more people arrived.”
“The schools are full more or less. I don’t think we could accommodate more people arriving. I don’t think there’s any more room to house further people.”
Yorkshire and Humber is just one area identified as having a significant Roma population. Large numbers of Roma were also found to be living in London, the north west and the midlands.
“Roma are living in specific Roma areas across the country, in certain towns and cities, but not in others,” says David Brown of Migration Yorkshire, which contributed to the research.
“Normally, they’re following the first family who comes and that’s why you get the same ethnicities in the same areas.”
In Page Hall, most of the Roma community are thought to have migrated from just a handful of villages in Slovakia. In other parts of the UK there are significant Roma communities of Bulgarian, Romanian, Czech, Hungarian and Polish origin.
Miroslav Sandor came to the UK from Bystrany, in central-eastern Slovakia, in 2004. He is now a community worker in Sheffield, helping new arrivals to settle in.
“We came here for a better life, having a job, having education for my children,” he says. “I want to see a future. There was no future for me in Slovakia.”
Once these myths become entrenched, it will become a lot harder to include people. Roma will be a lot less inclined to integrate. David Brown
“The Roma who are coming here are coming from central and eastern Europe where they’ve been excluded and discriminated against for centuries, including right up to this present day,” says David Brown, who also heads up a national “Roma Network”, which provides advice and assistance to local authorities.
“In some countries, people are being spat at on the street. There are political parties who are openly saying that Roma should be attacked in vigilante groups.
“No wonder they want to leave those places, and no wonder they want to come here.”
What is not yet known is how much further the UK Roma population will grow when a number of restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants are lifted in January. Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage went on a “fact-finding” trip with Channel 4 News in April this year – and fears there will be a flood of migrants when the doors are opened.
While the report’s authors say there is “uncertainty” over the potential impact of the change, they note a “gathering sense” from front-line officers in local authorities that “the lifting of certain restrictions on entitlements would see an increase in people migrating to the UK.”
David Brown believes the increase will be modest, but says simply integrating those who have already come is a major challenge given the “myths” that surround the Roma community.
In recent weeks, two Roma families have been under the spotlight over alleged child abduction claims in Ireland and Greece, both of which appear to have been unfounded. In the Irish case, the alleged abductors were proven by DNA test to be the child’s parents.
It’s all hearsay, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it. Jane Howarth
“Some of the stuff we’ve had in the last couple of weeks obviously is not helpful in any way and it does not give a true reflection of the Roma community,” says Mr Brown.
“What we don’t want is to bring over all of those myths and all of those problems Europe has.”
“Once these myths become entrenched, it will become a lot harder to include people. Roma will be a lot less inclined to integrate. Local communities will become a lot less inclined to integrate with them.”
Gulnaz Hussain has already detected an increase in tensions in Page Hall, which she says prompted her organisation to publish a “myth-busting” document about the Roma community.
“A lot of work is going on to see how we can integrate them,” she said. “We as a migrant (Pakistani) community faced a lot of the same kind of issues they now face.”
However, some local residents remain deeply suspicious of their new neighbours.
A small group even organises its own nightly street patrols, in order, it claims, to “gather evidence” of alleged criminal activity and anti-social behaviour committed by the Roma population.
One of those on patrol is bar-worker Jane Howarth, who believes there are now child prostitution gangs operating in the area.
“It’s all hearsay, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it. Because we know people who have been propositioned,” she said.
Roma in the UK: the statistics There are an estimated 197,705 Roma in the UK, or whom 183,297 are in England, 3,030 in Scotland, 878 in Wales and 500 in Northern Ireland. 64.3 per cent of local authorities believe the number of Roma in their area is increasing - just 1.8 per cent believe it is decreasing.
In 2009, a previous study attempted to estimate the number of migrant Roma in the UK. The authors proposed an overall minimum population of 49,204 in England.
Miroslav Sandor also monitors activity around Page Hall, this time as part of a Roma-led street warden project. He says some of the more extreme claims made against the Roma community are baffling.
“I’m not seeing these problems myself,” Miroslav said. “I’m sick of it. I know my community are not bad people.”
In particular, there has been increasing tension in the area over the tendency of large groups of Roma to gather on the streets late at night.
Watch more: Life with the Roma... on the streets of London
“I’m from the Pakistani community and I used to hang about on the streets but these guys are something else,” says local resident Yousaf Mohammed.
But Miroslav believes the Roma migrants need time to adapt. In Slovakia, he explains, Roma often live in ghettoised communities and therefore have no-one to disturb.
“I try to educate the community to be not standing outside a long time,” he said. “People listen because I’m speaking the same language. They’re Roma, I’m Roma.”