We’re all Romanian immigrants, deal with it.

"Mos Nicolae Cobzarul", by Romanian painter Stefan Luchian. Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/dorinb/

“Mos Nicolae Cobzarul”, by Romanian painter Stefan Luchian. Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/dorinb/

The Evening Standard wrote about a group of homeless Romanians sleeping in Grosvenor Square, sheltering under the 9/11 memorial. After sharing this article with some of my Romanian friends who also study in the UK, I was surprised by their reaction to the way the Standard approached the story. Here are some of the problematic parts:

A group of American tourists were outraged when they stumbled across a gang of Romanians camped out in a 9/11 memorial garden in London.

The dozen eastern European travellers pitched up in the garden in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, created to commemorate the lives lost in the 2001 Twin Towers terror attack in New York.

What I found to be a common “concern” about the reporting was that the ES did not create enough of a gap between “us”, the Romanians who study, or work and pay taxes in the UK or anywhere else; and “them” – the Romanians who work illegally, or don’t work at all, or claim benefits through loopholes, or sleep rough and pickpocket you.

They did describe the group as “travellers”, but to Romanians who constantly vilify the rroma population this was not enough. To them, the ES should have mentioned that these guys were not just Romanians, but of rroma ethnicity – perhaps they should have dropped the connection to Romania completely.

Except they shouldn’t have, because if these people sleeping rough in the West End, or anywhere else in London or the UK, are officially Romanian nationals they should be described as that and nothing else. While this story was published in the context of increased suspicion about the motives of Romanian immigrants in the UK, the ES were right to identify this group of people as Romanians and not as simply travellers. I would however question their use of the word “gang”, which does imply “criminal” rather than “homeless”.

Perhaps we should focus on the fact that rough sleeping is a problem that transcends nationality and ethnicity. What would have the press coverage looked like if these people sheltering from the cold under the 9/11 memorial were British? Would they have been a gang, or victims of government cuts to the benefit system, or just too lazy to get a job? I confess that whenever I hear about theft, pickpockets, gangs or fraudsters I always think to myself “please don’t let them be Romanians”. As it happened, this time they were.

We’re not all the same. Some of us are good students, some of us are researchers or doctors, some are lawyers and some are engineers. Some are pickpockets, some are self-employed selling the Big Issue, and some claim benefits. But we can all be labeled as Romanian immigrants in the UK, and getting outraged at newspapers pointing that out is a bit daft.

What’s interesting is that when a Romanian immigrant does something great, their nationality slips down a few paragraphs, but when they’re found to be criminals it makes the headlines. But that’s another story for another day.