On Romanian migrants, from a Romanian migrant
Since 2012, I have ‘officially’ been a Romanian migrant in the United Kingdom. When mentioning my nationality, I have witnessed both positive and negative reactions from different groups of people. In 2013, just before work restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians were lifted, there was extensive negative (tabloid) media coverage on the ‘Romanian invasion’. I started commenting on news articles through social media. I also became an avid reader of the British tabloid press… for research purposes only! Since then, I have been studying Romanian migration. In more formal interview settings, I listened to approximately 50 stories of Romanian migrants. Adding discussions taking place informally, this number exceeds one hundred. Drawing on my preliminary MPhil research findings (approximately 30 interviews), I offer some answers regarding the two most frequent questions I was asked by British people to comment on.
“Why do SO MANY Romanians come over here?”
The subjective ‘so many’ is not completely invented. Office for National Statistics reports show Romanians as top EU nationality with NINo registrations in 2015 (170,000). In the same year, Romanians made it in the ‘top five nationalities by country of last residence’. Why do they come? Usually (but not always) the answer revolves around ‘more money’ and ‘more opportunities’. However, more often than not, Romanians expectations before leaving their home country did not materialise. For example, many of them end up having a job in cleaning, retail or construction, despite being educated to degree level or higher. Moreover, many are initially unaware of the cost of living, especially in London. Most of my interviewees underline how the cost of a ‘quality’ lifestyle is lower in Romania. They frequently mention being happier in Romania, having better food, warmer weather and interacting with ‘friendlier’ people. Nevertheless, working in England for a period is worthwhile. Why are they willing to make this compromise? On the one hand, some plan to return to Romania to buy a property or offer their family a better life by using the money earned abroad. On the other hand, some are decided to settle in the United Kingdom. Those hope for a better job in the future, once they gain more English language skills, qualifications and/or work experience. And then there are, as usual, the ones who are undecided.
“Are Romanians REALLY discriminated in England?”
There are many dimensions to how and why Romanians experience or, indeed, do not experience discrimination. For example, an interviewee told me that her job in a hotel was made redundant. She soon found out that the other person made redundant was in fact the only other Romanian working there. Another example is one participant who criticised his local supermarket for refusing to employ Romanians on the justification that a Romanian had once stolen from the shop. In addition to discrimination by businesses, Romanians also get negative reactions from some British people they meet. For instance, one of my interviewees described how someone accused her of coming to ‘steal British jobs and men’. Others remembered situations where British people associated them with ‘gypsies’ who engage in criminal activities. However, what is left out of this discrimination debate is how Romanians’ stereotypes about other people, and, interestingly, about their own group, contribute in maintaining or even provoking such practices in society. This is what I am currently researching at Cambridge.
But do Romanians react when they are discriminated against? From what I have heard so far, the answer is no, not really. Why? A first finding is that very few are informed about their own rights. For example, many of my participants did not know that EU citizens cannot vote in the upcoming referendum. Some of them were not even aware that a referendum on Britain’s membership will take place. Needless to say, those Romanians did not know all their rights. Romanians have little access to media offering this type of information. Many do not have television and do not read newspapers. In addition to that, many Romanians work long hours, sometimes even 70-80 hours per week (especially those in lower-skilled occupations, such as the day labourers, cleaners and kitchen porters I met). This leaves little spare time to seek information in the media or elsewhere. Hence some participants proposed that migrants should be given, when entering the UK, a booklet containing information about the socio-political situation in Britain, alongside details on migrants’ rights and useful contacts. A second finding is that migrants feel uncomfortable talking to institutions or groups dealing with racism because they do not speak fluent English or simply because they think they will not be ‘taken seriously’ by British authorities.
There are obviously more questions about the topic. Nevertheless I hope this article underlined a few important points needing to be considered in the complex - and sometimes contradictory - picture of Romanians’ experiences in the UK.
Alexandra Bulat is currently a MPhil student in the Sociology department at the University of Cambridge, supervised by Dr Jeff Miley. She has a first class BA degree in Sociology and Media Studies from the University of Sussex. Her current research is on Romanians’ experiences in the United Kingdom, focusing on their attitudes towards the British and other migrants. She previously interviewed Romanians for the YMOBILITY project (www.ymobility.eu) in 2015-6 and worked on British attitudes towards Romanians as a Junior Research Associate at the University of Sussex in 2014. She is looking to engage in conversations with other people with an interest in EU migration (and migration to the UK more generally). If interested, please contact by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.