One of the biggest scandals across Europe is that of empty homes, previously snapped up by rich investors and now abandoned. The Green Party of England and Wales has been campaigning for a long time against the same phenomenon in the UK capital and it is heartening to see that the issue is now gaining European traction. However, perhaps not many people understand first-hand how the problem of not finding suitable housing or ending up homeless is compounded and magnified for recent European migrants to the UK.
Recently, I spent a day with a group of recent Roma migrants to the UK and was able to experience first-hand how the UK government’s political games to appear as right wing as possible can create ‘a perfect storm’ for Roma families, with the potential of pushing them further into a life of poverty and discrimination.
Life as an immigrant family in the UK
This Roma family came to the UK about 4-5 months ago. They are decent, hard-working and deeply religious people who talk proudly of their honesty and physical and spiritual cleanliness inspired by their Christianity. The family (predictably) lives in sub-prime and hugely expensive accommodation in a city just outside London and now faces imminent eviction by their private landlord who wants to redevelop the property. In the past 3 months, everyone in the family worked in as self-employed, something that it was possible to do without a National Insurance number the mother has obtained a permit to work as a street vendor of kitchen utensils and the father has been working regularly as a self-employed labourer (something it is possible to do without a National Insurance number). One of their sons has been working in the local garage washing cars, but was sacked as soon as he demanded to be given a proper contract and the minimum wage.
Now they are faced with barely 2 weeks’ notice to move at a time when after a long wait, they have just been granted their National Insurance numbers, and are busy looking for employment that will pay them at least the minimum wage. Their children have just joined the local primary school and are happy there, and proud of achieving accolades such as ‘100% attendance’ in the last week. All that is set to change because of their housing situation.
The mother was telling me that she had spent their last savings on trying to get established in the UK, and doesn’t even have enough to pay for her and her children’s fare back home to Eastern Europe. But in Eastern Europe they would face poverty and severe racism so they are all very reluctant to return there.
Free movement of individuals in the European Union
This family could easily be tided over and allowed to ‘get a foot on the ladder’ if they could apply for temporary benefits or social housing. But just as they prepare to do so, they are slammed by yet another immigration clamp-down by Iain Duncan Smith demanding that recent migrants show they have earned £150 per week for the past three months before they qualify for benefits. According to the EU, this measure and previous similar ones are illegal . But does the UK government care? Certainly not. It also seems to be oblivious to the fact that £149 per week is hard to achieve even for some long-standing UK citizens, when a living wage is but a glint in some of our eyes.
The UK is still a member of the EU. Like it or not, right now all EU governments have signed up to certain principles. One of these is the free movement of individuals from one EU country to another. Another is the fight against Romaphobia. While some may want to change this, the fact is that the UK’s membership of Europe brings with it certain responsibilities that it cannot shirk. If Europe is to function as an economic and political union, governments across Europe must work together to fulfil these responsibilities rather than evade them at every possible opportunity, with a brazen attitude of ‘catch me if you can’.
By Violeta VajdaVioleta is a London Green Party European Parliamentary candidate and a local Green Party Candidate in Lewisham, London. She works as a researcher studying how anti-Roma racism affects all Europeans. Follow her on Twitter @violetavajda