Romanians in the UK: the less visible side of the debate

by Alexandra Bulat | University of Cambridge, MPhil ’16, Sociology

This report summarises the findings and themes from Alexandra Bulat’s (Sociology, University of Cambridge) MPhil dissertation, “Double standards?: Romanians’ attitudes towards the British, co-nationals and other minorities in the UK”, submitted June 2016. All participants’ names have been changed to respect their anonymity. This exploratory qualitative study draws mainly on the views and experiences of 45 Romanian citizens living in the UK. The analysis is based on 56 recorded interviews, 36 being conducted solely for the MPhil and 20 for YMOBILITY.

Sample characteristics:

  • 24 women, 21 men;
  • 9 students, 24 with degree-level education or higher (only 7 describing their job as ‘reflecting their qualifications’), 12 with college or lower;
  • age range: 18-54, mean 29 (1 missing);
  • ethnicity: 2 British Romanians, 2 Hungarian Romanians and 1 Moldovan Romanian; the rest Romanian only;
  • living in the UK for: range 3 months to 26 years; 1 born in the UK;
  • interview location: Greater London (28), Cambridge (10), Brighton (4), Chester (2), Birmingham (1);
  • recruitment through personal contacts, Romanian forums, Facebook groups, and Gumtree.

First, the findings expose discriminatory experiences Romanians encountered, particularly after disclosing their nationality. Second, they underline the attitudes Romanians have about the British, refugees, ethnic minority groups, and their own community in the UK. Their negative attitudes, although multifaceted, usually target non-European migrants. Participants tend to justify those views through a combination of unpleasant life experiences and information from third party sources. The British seem to receive more positive ratings—although they are still stereotyped—whereas other Europeans are almost invisible in the discussions. Regarding co-nationals, interviewees emphasise their feelings of disunity and skepticism towards Romanians in the UK. Taking all these attitudes into account, the dissertation argues there is an apparent contradictory discourse: while condemning negative attitudes towards them as migrants, Romanians reinforce negative stereotypes about other ethnic and national groups, who are usually also migrants.

Participants frequently referred to experiencing direct discrimination or not ‘feeling welcomed’ in the UK. The common themes are:

  1. Negative reactions when disclosing Romanian nationality. This ranged from associations to Roma’s criminal behaviour to linking Romanian women with prostitution. Simona, a student, met a British person who accused her of migrating to ‘steal our jobs and men’. They also described feeling that other migrants are more welcomed in the UK than they are. Ana underlined that Polish migrants ‘have not been put in such a negative light compared to Romanians and Bulgarians.’          
    They do not tell it straight to your face, but you feel it, you know it. (Irina)
  2. Deskilling migrants as indirect discrimination. Andreea completed a postgraduate degree in Accounting and was working as an unskilled labourer in a factory near Cambridge.Yet some Romanians were happy with their current job, even though it did not reflect their initial qualifications.
  3. Discrimination in the job market. Many cited unequal opportunities in the job market. Crina, who was unemployed, underlined this view: ‘Everyone knows, and it is known everywhere, if there are five people and three of them are British and they have the same qualifications, they will only look at the British’.  Others pointed out underpayment. Gigel previously worked for ‘£30-35 a day for a 10 hour shift’ in a car wash owned by British Indians, which has been successfully running for many years on cheap migrant labour. Many participants described direct discrimination during the job. Alex was called to fix a drain, but the client said ‘he does not welcome Romanians in their house’.
  4. Despite this rather discouraging picture, some participants have never felt disadvantaged. Some linked not feeling discriminated with their good work ethic. Avram, working in IT, illustrated this point: ‘Without bragging too much, let’s say I am the best in my department. There are 30 people there. So I have not been really affected because, in my case, the professional side compensates for weaker points.’ However, Avram pointed out later in the interview how his British co-workers were promoted quicker than he was, despite claiming he worked harder than they did.
  5. Participants who migrated to another country before arriving in the UK tended to feel more accepted. Lavinia, an A-level student who was living in Italy before relocating with both her parents, drew attention to the lack of discrimination Romanians face in the UK compared to Italy.

Romanian participants generally described the British as having the following characteristics:

  1. Lazy. The overwhelming majority of participants believed in this stereotype. Romanians in managerial positions found it difficult to employ Brits in lower-skilled jobs. Dumitru claimed: ‘Let me tell you something, do you know that I, from the position I have, have to employ people to clean this building right? Do you know that not even one English person applied for this job, to do cleaning here? Not even one Brit!’  [Romanians] work quicker than the English. The Brit is like: bro, lunch break at 12, it is my break. Our Romanian is like, no, bro. If I have three bricks left to stack, I stack them and take the break after. (Alex)
  2. Benefit scroungers. Ileana, unemployed but not claiming social support, mentioned that natives are the ones draining the system, despite them blaming the migrants for it: ‘All the Brits I met have houses taken on benefits, which makes me realise it is not the Romanians who are lazy, who do not want to work, who apply for benefits or take advantage.’
  3. A wide range of positive characterisations, despite these negative stereotypes. Common descriptors used by participants when asked about the British were ‘open-minded’ and ‘helpful’ vis-à-vis Romanians. The ‘civic spirit’ was appreciated as well. Simona drew attention of how supportive Brits are towards the homeless and refugees, and remarked how her university created scholarships for Syrians. Respecting the rule of law was also valued as a positive aspect of British society, as many participants left Romania because of its ‘corrupt system’.

The participants generally held the following attitudes toward other migrants and minorities:

  1. Indifference towards other Europeans, especially Westerners. Usually participants did not elaborate on these opinions, preferring to offer very brief descriptions of European migrants and include them all in the same category. For example, Vladimir stated: ‘Well, I think the French are okay, they are civilized. […] Same goes for Italians, Germans. I think these people are civilised and they wouldn’t disturb me.’
  2. Generally negative attitudes towards Syrian refugees, framed in broader attitudes towards Muslims. Romanians’ discourse about Syrians and Muslims reflects fear as a dominant theme. For example, Lorena, who worked in maintenance, stated ‘I hope they stay in their own country. I am afraid of them.’ Many participants doubted all refugees are ‘genuine’, expressing concern that some might be terrorists or have fake passports. For example, Renata said: ‘I cannot say I am a racist, but I do not think it will really be okay [to take in refugees], we don’t know why they are coming exactly, the issue seems very suspect to me.’ Moreover, participants usually associated Syrians’ religion with violence, in opposition to European Christians. Nevertheless, not all participants viewed Syrian refugees negatively. Crina met a refugee woman from Iraq and was ‘scared so badly’ when finding out this woman ‘had friends who died when there were bombs in that period.’ This contact made her empathetic.
    Generally, this negative attitude extended towards non-refugee Muslim minorities. For example, Lorena was persuaded that ‘they have this in their blood, I don’t know, this thing about war, terror attacks’. Alex, who witnessed the Paris bombings, was outspoken about this issue. ‘They have something against Christians’, he added, after describing Muslims as ‘extremely violent’. Nelu shared these views: ‘I do not believe in multiculturalism, especially if it is about Muslims’. However, all those who mentioned speaking to Muslims, having lived in a Muslim country before, or having Muslim friends, expressed a positive view. Sorina, for example, talked about her experience in Morocco: ‘I lived in a Muslim country and I can tell you that they were very friendly and very kind and they always wanted to help me. Therefore I will never be against them.’
  3. Generally negative views of Indians and Blacks, though expressed less frequently. Antoniu, an engineer who came to the UK looking for a job, was invited to an interview for a position in Slough and refused: ‘They called me asking if I want to work there. No, I do not want to go to Slough because there are very many Indians.’ Antoniu was content with his current job and especially with the area in which he lived: ‘It’s a good area, I do not see Indians, I do not see Blacks.’

Participants discussed co-nationals in the following ways:

  1. Overwhelmingly negative attitudes towards the Roma minority. Romanians differentiated themselves from the Roma through their perceived ‘whiteness’ and ‘culture’. Ileana stated, ‘At the beginning, even when I went to the shop to buy fruits, when they heard I am Romanian they said: Ah! You are a gypsy! I asked, what makes me a gypsy? Look at me, how I look like, I have blue eyes, I am white, I speak English, Italian, and I understand Portuguese and other languages.’ I am indeed disturbed if I am considered to be a gypsy because…why? Just because I have black hair? I nevertheless have white skin. (Margareta)
  2. Endorsement of most stereotypes—positive and negative—of Romanians, despite participants’ condemning of negative attitudes towards Romanians in the UK:
    1. Numbers. Romanians generally believed migrant numbers are higher than the official statistics. Usually the number was described in the millions. Participants drew attention to ‘cash-in-hand’ work, undocumented Romanians, overcrowding, and temporary workers as possible contributors to inaccurate statistics. Claudiu exemplified this perception: ‘If I look on the tube and everywhere on the streets really, I could say there are at least one million Romanians, at least one million [laughing]. This is my opinion; I do hope I am wrong! But if I go to Hounslow, there are Romanians, if I go to Wembley, there are Romanians, if I go to East London, I don’t know, East Ham, West Ham, it’s full of Romanians. If I go South, Romanians. Go North, Romanians. I do not think there is a single place in London without Romanians.’
    2. Criminals. While the Roma were accused of petty theft, shell games, and begging, Romanians were associated with fraud, swindles, and petty theft as well. Participants told stories of illegal activities that Romanians run in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Nora, working at the bank, said: ‘[I]t is not only ATM crime, it is also other types of fraud, cheques, confiscating certain things…this is done by Romanians because I saw reports about this.’
    3. Benefit recipients. Despite a consensus on limiting benefits for EU migrants, a few in my sample admitted to receiving social support. More than half stated that some Romanians (mostly of Roma ethnicity) would migrate for benefits. Sometimes, welfare support was not used entirely according to regulations. Lavinia’s father worked cash-in-hand in order to be eligible for housing benefit. Moreover, the college student quit her part-time job shortly after starting work when her parents informed her that extra earnings would disable them from receiving the same amount in welfare payments.
    4. Hard-working. Participants also endorsed the more positive stereotype of ‘hard-working Romanians’, situating themselves in opposition to ‘lazy Brits’. My interviewees suggested that Romanians tend to work in low-skilled jobs under bad conditions so they have more money to send back home to their families or spend by themselves. A few participants said Romanians generally sacrifice their living standards in order to ‘show off’ in Romania.
    5. Appearance and behaviour. British media also stereotyped Romanians visually, and some participants described Romanians similarly to the ‘chav’ stereotype in Britain. They agreed with common characterisations that Romanians are loud, unsocial, and wear tracksuits. Crina, when asked how she recognised a Romanian after claiming she was able to do so, stated: ‘Clothing, you first spot the clothing […] running top, tracksuits, oh God, those tracksuits.’

Cover image courtesy of Marek Wykowski.

Alexandra Bulat will be an ESRC-funded student at UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies (SSEES) from September 2016. She successfully completed an MPhil in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and holds 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. Alexandra previously interviewed Romanians for the YMOBILITY project in 2015-16 and studied 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 researching migration to the UK. If interested in more detailed findings for this study, please contact Alexandra.

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