Romanian evictions:  a political matter not a private one...

The recent evictions of Romanians from a house in South Belfast should be considered a political matter concerning civil and socio-economic rights, rather than as a purely private dispute between individuals.

Commenting on the latest troubles of Romanian families in Belfast, I was concerned to hear Patrick Yu, speaking for the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities characterize these troubles as ‘purely a landlord and tenant dispute’*.

The news is that twenty-one Romanians were evicted from a house in south Belfast on August 25th and temporarily taken to emergency accommodation, seemingly due to unsatisfactory living conditions in the house, largely as a result of overcrowding.

It is tempting to point out the differences between this move and the Romanians’ troubles around two months ago in Belfast, which were the result of racist attacks.  However, there is a real risk in characterizing the current troubles as “a landlord and tenant dispute” that the matter is looked upon as a private, legal matter rather than an event which has taken place in a very particular political context which is rife with racism.

What racism?  The racism that I am referring to is the structural racism of the immigration legal provisions, which have created a hierarchical tier-system of socio-economic rights for different groups of European individuals in the UK (without speaking here of refugees from non-EEA countries).  Citizens are at the top of this hierarchy, followed by EEA nationals from the twenty first EEA countries.  EEA nationals from the first eight accession countries (“A8 nationals”) find themselves lower down, and, at the bottom of this hierarchy, are the Bulgarians and Romanians whose countries acceded to the EU in 2007 (“A2 nationals”).  Whilst all of the above have ‘freedom of movement’ within the EU, which means that, as European citizens, they do not need visas to come to the UK, the supposed absence of a border, set up to include some and exclude others, is largely an illusion.  Rather, the new border manifests itself in job centres, social security offices, doctors’ surgeries and housing queues:  according to their nationality, some of the above, citizens and EEA nationals, will have full legal rights but others, A8 nationals and A2 nationals, will generally have more limited rights.  The limited rights of the so-called A2s translate in practice for very many a complete lack of access to UK jobs and to most forms of social housing and welfare support.

Some people will say that it’s quite right that citizens have more rights than others present in the UK, although this proposition is highly debatable and not least from the point of view of socio-economic human rights.  To argue against those who would like to maintain the current hierarchy, it’s not, perhaps, necessary to point to historical incidences of segregating internal populations on the basis of race or nationality, such as those affecting the German Jews, the blacks in South Africa or in southern US states in the 1950s.  In reply to those who say that a tier-system of rights is for our common good, I would point out that the structural racism of the immigration system, as designed by the state and solidified in labyrinthine legislation, leads to an inflexibility that does not benefit our jobs market any more than it benefits the migrants who came here wanting to work.  In an article I wrote at the time of the racist attacks in Belfast, I said:

“The obstacles put in place by the Home Office are truly insurmountable for many and allow very little scope for manoeuvre. Travelling to a new, foreign city some 1,200 miles from home to find work, many Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants have shown job-seeking skills and determined resourcefulness worthy of hardened explorers and brave emigrants but there is no reward for this. Even local employers who are crying out for more workers often may not legally engage a Bulgarian or Romanian.”**

This inequality inevitably leads to deprivation amongst the Romanian community here, who may still try their luck at one family member obtaining permission to work or working illegally because the poverty they face here is often still lesser than in Romania.  Who would not seek a better life for himself and his family in this way?  In turn, the deprivation can lead to tensions within the local community, who can mistake the Romanians for work-shy dossers or worse, seeing only the effects of the rules on their lives, their begging and overcrowded living, rather than the state-orchestrated causes.  There’s no excuse for such racism but it is necessary to see the broader political picture to avoid seeing only snatches of the truth.

As I said, it is not necessary to use hyperbolic comparisons to highlight the tragedies of the situation for many Romanians in Belfast today.  It’s not necessary, for example, to say that the ‘band of Jewish-yellow’***, which marked out Jews from non-Jews during the Nazi era in Germany and led firstly to their ostracism within society and their lack of access to many civic and human rights, resonates again in the question:  ‘Are you an A2 national?’ to which, if the answer is affirmative, the response is a myriad of legally-sanctioned segregations and the denial of many rights and opportunities.

So to portray this current crisis as a private matter between individuals may be misleading:  better that we focus on challenging the inherent structural and systemic racism which limits and separates us all.

References

*’Romanians evicted in tenant dispute’, Belfast Telegraph, 26 August 2009

http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/community-telegraph/south-belfast/news/romanians-evicted-in-tenant-dispute-14468859.html

**’Shockwaves:  Romanians in Belfast’, Institute of Race Relations, 25 June 2009

http://www.irr.org.uk/2009/june/ha000051.html

***“We are returning to the Middle Ages. The yellow patch once again becomes a part of Jewish dress. Today an order was announced that all Jews, no matter what age or sex, have to wear a band of "Jewish-yellow," 10 centimetres wide, on their right arm, just below the armpit.”

-       Dawid Sierakowiak, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto

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