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Charities warn that thousands of Roma could be deported after Brexit.

Illustration: Rosie Carmichael

What’s in store for Bristol’s Roma and Irish Travellers after Brexit? As with everything involving our tortuous exit from the European Union, nothing is certain.

However, charities and spokespeople have warned that a large number of Roma from Eastern Europe could find themselves as illegal immigrants in post-Brexit Britain. Lack of documentation, difficulties with English, illiteracy, digital illiteracy and lack of access to a computer or smartphone – the application is done via an app or online – will all be significant barriers.

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At the Traveller Movement’s 2018 conference, charities and community leaders warned that thousands of Roma could find themselves in a Windrush-like scenario, with people who have the right to remain but will struggle to prove it facing deportation.

Last June, home secretary Sajid Javid said that EU nationals would easily be able to apply for settled status online. Irish Travellers will not have to apply to enter or remain, but like all other EU citizens, Roma – many of whom can’t read and don’t have access to a computer – will need to apply by June 2021 (or by the end of 2020 if we get a no-deal Brexit).

Sarah Zawacki, policy and information worker with the Roma Support Group, which has just finished piloting the application scheme with their members before everyone can apply in March, says that there isn’t enough support available. “The overall message that we’re getting from community members at the moment is one of fear, uncertainty and a feeling that they don’t know where to go and they don’t know how to get help,” she tells the Cable.

We don’t have any accurate numbers of Roma in the UK – the 2021 census is the first time Roma will be included as an ethnicity – but it’s estimated that there are around a million in the UK, and between 50 and 80 Eastern-European Roma families live in Bristol.

“Overwhelmingly the response has been people expressing almost a sense of helplessness in the face of this new requirement to secure their position in the UK”

The Roma Support Group, one of the few organisations working with Roma communities, trialled a mobile app (which only works on Android devices) with 69 of their members. Only seven were able to complete the applications on their own.

Zawacki has been running meetings and awareness sessions to help people understand what they need to do to secure their position in the UK. “Overwhelmingly the response has been people expressing almost a sense of helplessness in the face of this new requirement to secure their position in the UK,” she says.

She adds that people with the right to remain might not have all the documentation they need, despite having lived here for years. They may even have everything they need but not know. With different documents counting for different periods of time, she says it’s a complicated system to navigate.

“There are not very many organisations like us, there are going to be potentially very large numbers of people who going to be missed out, and so it’s hard to say what will happen to them exactly,” says Zawacki. “Will they be suddenly put into a position where they are basically illegally resident in the UK?”

Unaware of the need to apply

The issue isn’t just whether the support is available, but also if people are aware they need to apply for settled status. Alex Raikes, strategic director of Bristol anti-racism charity Stand Against Racism & Inequality (SARI), says that one of the biggest barriers to people reaching out for help is a “massive lack of trust” of institutions.

She argues that a funded voluntary organisation specifically dedicated to GRT people in Bristol, offering advocacy, legal advice, specialist support and outreach, is “almost essential if you want the outcomes to change”.

“We already know that dedicated health visitors, dedicated safeguarding and GRT specialists make a huge difference. And we know that works. We know it works for the community to have people that are their go-to people, who understand their needs and who are going to reach out in a very different way,” she says.

Natasha Lees, project worker at Avon and Bristol Law Centre’s Europe Direct Information Centre, says the centre hasn’t had any requests about the EU settlement scheme from any Roma or Travellers in Bristol.

She says that Roma may be facing similar obstacles to Somali people who were granted citizenship from other EU countries then arrived to the UK under free movement. Many don’t identify with the European nationality they acquired, and so will be less likely to engage with EU services and issues and may not be aware they need to apply again.

“I think this [issue] could well be heightened in the Roma communities,” she explains, adding that Roma also have “other intersecting, marginalising factors, which are already increasing the risk of their exclusion to services – and status.”

Less protection of Roma rights post-Brexit

Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority and one of the most deprived, suffering the highest levels of discrimination and poverty. The worry is that their situation could get even worse after Brexit. Roma, for the most part, live on the fringe of society – with language and literacy barriers and often living below the poverty line.

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For Zawacki, one of the biggest uncertainties post Brexit – and it’s something that she says isn’t being talked about enough – is what Roma rights will look like once the UK doesn’t have to abide by EU frameworks.

“There’s no real Roma-specific policy in the UK,” she explained. We’re already behind a lot of EU countries, the UK doesn’t have a national Roma integration strategy. Once we leave the EU, there will be no longer under any obligation to do anything about Roma inequality.

“Roma and Irish Traveller communities have often been demonised in the past, so I am concerned that the current situation is just increasing this prejudice”

“Right now most of the oversight of ensuring Roma equality comes from EU frameworks, and so when the UK is no longer bound by those frameworks, it’s unlikely that the government will prioritise Roma rights as an area for action.”

Race-based hate crime has soared in Bristol since the referendum. Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West called Brexit a “cause and consequence of hate crime”.

“The UK is a very divided country, with hate crime on the rise,” she tells the Cable. “Brexit is a cause and a consequence of this. Roma and Irish Traveller communities have often been demonised in the past, so I am concerned that the current situation is just increasing this prejudice.”

Persecution of Roma is nothing new. The Nazis and their collaborators killed over half of the Roma and Sinti populations in a genocide that has been all but ignored until recently, and they’re still among the most persecuted and discriminated against groups in the EU. With hate crime on the rise in Bristol and across the UK since the referendum, it’s not a good time to abandon the already limited integration policies that exist now.

Do you have a story to share for our series on our series on Bristol’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller populations? Get in touch by email or filling out the form: Interviews can be anonymous.

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