When in Rome… or Romania?

When in Rome... or Romania?

Just this morning I happened to read what would otherwise be a rather horrifying story about a spate of racist attacks in Northern Ireland which led to over a hundred Romanians fleeing their homes for the sanctuary of a local church.

I say “otherwise” because I know better – and that behind this pall of fetid smoke lies a fire that has been slowly burning across much of Europe for centuries.

This sort of thing is nothing new. For those of us who have some salient knowledge of the old Communist Europe – I do not include the majority of mainstream journalists in this number – these problems have been going on for years, and have already started to weave into the social fabric of a number of Western European countries.

First, it should be categorically stated that thuggery of this sort has no place on the streets of a civilised country such as ours. However, for any system to work properly we need to have right guidance from those in authority. Unfortunately, those to whom we should look to for this guidance have only succeeded in mismanaging the situation, to the point where once quiet streets have become centres for a new form of urban warfare and violence.

Right, that’s the disclaimer done with.

The first thing that annoyed me about this and every other article that reported this incident is the naming of the victims of this thuggery as “Romanians” – specifically, in some cases, “hard-working Romanians”. While journalists hungry for a story can easily be sucked into believing that this, those of us who have even a cursory knowledge of Eastern and Central Europe know this is not the case at all.

These people are Romanian by nationality only; in fact, they are as far removed from their countrymen as they are from a Norwegian or a Frenchman. They are not Romanians, but Romanies – in more common parlance, gypsies. Rather than being hard-working, these people have over the centuries acquired a well-earned reputation as beggars, thieves, pimps and vagabonds – the sort of ne’er-do-well that gives many a dingy railway station in Eastern Europe it’s nasty veneer. It’s not quite Hostel, but it comes pretty close.

How do I know? Because, unlike many of these so-called journalists, I have actually visited a number of these countries and witnessed these people in action at first hand. In the Czech Republic young girls were being “sold” in broad daylight by the womenfolk; the men meanwhile would be selling junk on the street by day, and donning their evening best to hassle foreign tourists outside popular pubs and clubs by night. In downtown Bucharest I witnessed one of them on the early morning metro with a live sheep: it was like a scene from Borat – which, incidentally, was filmed in the Romanian town of Glod which has a majority Romany population.

Gypsies: problem people or simply misunderstood?

The tourist guides – most of which are probably written in some Islington bedsit – condemn local populations for being “racist”; and to be fair when one first arrives and sees poor, bedraggled Romany folk shuffle their way across town with their life’s possessions and get glared at in the street one can very easily reach the conclusion that the locals are a nasty bunch. This is the view one gets if one visits these countries for a short while, of course: actually living there creates a completely different impression.

I spent the best part of three months in the Czech city of Pilsen (Plzeň) in 1993, long before that country had any idea of joining the European Union. In fact, when I arrived the bloodless separation of Czechoslovakia had just taken place. It was a hot, sticky May afternoon, and after changing money at the local branch of the Komerční banka some of us decided to have a walk across the town. Making our way past the imposing Gothic cathedral, we stumbled upon an extraordinary sight: a gaggle of women and girls sitting under a bridge. Some of the younger girls were were clad in outfits that went way beyond standard warm weather requirements, and my first thought was that they were prostitutes. However the fact that elderly women and children were with them made me think that something else was afoot.

A few weeks into our stay – it was a glorious summer spent supping golden Pilsen beer and gorging on now much-loved Czech staples such as Beef Svíčková na Smetaně and Knedliky – we had got to know a number of locals, from fellow students at the University of West Bohemia through to the lecturers. One of the lecturers was an animated, urbane chap with a very pro-Western outlook: someone who summed up all that was good about post-Cold War Eastern Europe. A small group of us went to lunch on a number of occasions with him, and we were often treated to stories of the dark old days of Communism.

On one occasion, one of our number stepped up and asked about the Romanies, and how they fitted into Czech society – at which Dr Winter’s smiling face was transformed into a dark scowl. He went on to provide us with a number of tales about the local gypsy population, from their role as local criminals and gangsters to how they destroyed flats that had been provided for them by ripping out and selling all of the fixtures and fittings. One of the most bizarre stories was how a Romany family had turned a tenth floor apartment into a stable – literally, for the police had to call in a vet to put down a fully-grown mare.

A number of the Czech students we met – friendly, open, pro-Western – shared this attitude, and it began to dawn on me that perhaps the problem was not the locals being a bunch of racists, but the gypsies themselves. One of the students finally explained the riddle of the gypsies under the bridge: it was in fact a multi-faceted operation, with the older women running the show and doing a spot of begging, the younger ones selling themselves, and the children and babies being used as little more than accessories to garner the sympathy of foolish Western tourists, particularly well-heeled visitors from Germany and Austria. One young student nurse told me how she had on occasions tried to help the Romany women and girls, only to find herself hitting her head against a brick wall.

This voyage of discovery in the Czech Republic opened my eyes to the activities of a people that were dispersed over much of Central and Eastern Europe, and much of what I saw was the same. The aggressive beggars in Budapest, poor enough to beg but well-off enough to purchase faux-designer outfits; the money-changers and other assorted con-artists in Sofia; the ever-so-persistent buskers in Bratislava; the plain clothes “police officers” in Bucharest. Oh, and the marching mauvais odeur in Plovdiv.

Even growing another set of eyes at the back of my head was not enough. When I was at Budapest main station as part of a three-man rail journey across the Balkans to Istanbul, one of us succeeded in taking our eyes away from one of the bags, only to see the empty floor where it had been seconds before. The bag had contained the cameras, and when we went to buy a cheap replacement in Sofia the friendly man at the shop warned us to keep it permanently attached to us as many of the cikan kids were very nimble-fingered. Good advice, but alas just a little too late.

Quite simply, when I was in Eastern Europe all those years ago I would never have believed I would one day see these same problems over here: the fact is that the vast majority of those who have made their way to these shores from the former Iron Curtain countries are hard-working, decent and honest, but there is a small and negatively potent minority that will always be trouble makers. It is news to us here in the UK, but this sort of thing has been going on in both Greece and Italy for years. In a number of Italian towns and cities there has been a steep rise in crime – from muggings, people trafficking and prostitution through rape and even murder (BBC News, Der Spiegel).

The statistics are shocking, and cannot be simply dismissed:

According to Rome’s Mayor Walter Veltroni, “In the first seven months of the year [2007], Romanians made up 75 percent of those who raped, stole and killed. We clearly have a specific problem.” The attacks have shocked the city, where street violence has long been unusual. According to the Italian news agency ANSA, Romanians committed 76 murders across Italy between January 2006 and June 2007 and were also responsible for half of the recorded rapes in the country for that period. They also topped the statistics for people trafficking and forced prostitution.

(Source: Der Spiegel)

The Italian government has constantly sailed close to the wind in its relationship with Romania as a result. “Romanian” immigrants are now the largest foreign immigrant community in Italy – a staggering statistic given that it has been less than twenty years since the fall of the Iron Curtain; the outskirts of Rome are now littered with shanty towns – for that, read ghettos – populated by Romanies who do precious little else but make their way into the busy city to commit crime. To its credit, the Romanian government – which unlike everyone else is able to distinguish between its law-abiding citizens and its criminals – has been fiercely critical of the kid-glove approach adopted by the Italians which has allowed for the creation of ghettos – or “bases for crime” in the words of Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu.

Which brings us back to the Belfast story.

What has happened here is indeed unfortunate, but it could have been easily avoided. We could have turned these people away at the gates rather than allow them to head en masse to a chosen location and set up what can only be described as a ghetto. What has happened in Belfast is clearly a shock for many, but it should not be too much of a surprise. After all, we have already seen what has happened in Italy, and what happens when local populations allow themselves and what might be very genuine feelings of goodwill to be taken advantage of by a group of newcomers, many of whom have no concept of civic society or morality.

Violence begets violence, and if the authorities continue to turn a blind eye to these problems and mask them with politically correct platitudes it can and will only get worse. We’d not only have gypsies running riot on the streets, but crazy vigilantes as well. In short, we’d have a situation perfectly ripe for the likes of the BNP – an empty vessel into which they can pour their own brand of poison.

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