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The Happy End for (Some) Romani Migrant Children

It is generally acknowledged that in the last thirty years, migration policy and multiculturalism in the public policies have been on the list of the most discussed and polarising topics in the British public sphere. Negatively constructed identity of Slovak/East European Romani migrants as “the country´s social welfare system abusers“ and “the non-integrateable community members“ had its lion share in a growing anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalist sentiment in the mainstream population and, ultimately, the United Kingdom´s leaving the EU.

In late 2019, a short-term field research on social adaptation of the emigrated Roma in the UK was conducted by Klara Kohoutová, Veronika Pastrnáková and Ondrej Ficeri of the Social Science Institute, Slovak Academy of Science, in the counties of South York and Derby. They went specifically to the towns with ethnically heterogeneous neighbourhoods and high concentration of the immigrated Romani, like Sheffield – Page Hall, Rotherham – East Wood, Derby – Normanton. The results were presented and discussed at a webinar and are in line with all previous findings in the aggregate. In this post, however, I would like to focus on a positive example, which contradicts the statistics and prevailing media narrative.

It is a sad fact that in Slovak education system thousands of Romani children fail a grade every year. What´s more, this usually happens more than once during their school attendance so eventually, there are youngsters leaving school after 6th or 7th grade, having already become virtually unemployable and facing very weak future prospects in general. 

In the UK, instead of forcing kids to repeat a year – which is always humiliating and deprives them not only of time, but also of classmates, they let even the weakest pupils move forward while providing extra support. So, the most important lesson (some) Romani children (can) learn in British schools (if they are lucky enough to have parents who send them there while working in the UK) is belief in their own abilities. For the first time they (may) hear from a respected authority they can “become anything they want to if they try hard enough” – and they may really do as the authority means it and even takes action to help them make it happen.

Milan Popík from Pavlovce nad Uhom, East Slovakia, is 21 years old. He works at Doncaster airport as a customs officer and wants to become a detective, so he also studies criminology at the University of Sheffield. His parents migrated to the UK when he was 4 years old. Both of them worked hard and managed to set a good example to their son. This is what Milan says about his British teachers, whom he regards as a sort of “deus ex machina” having caused his success:

“The pupil´s future depends on the teacher, on the way they treat them. If the teacher shows support and love to the kid, if they show him or her that they do have a chance to achieve something in life, the kid can do great things. In England, teachers constantly motivate kids, force them to move forward, never just leave them alone. Contrarily, here in Slovakia teachers are sometimes relieved if (Romani) kids do not turn up because they do not listen and disrupt the classes. In England, it is different – the teachers really want each kid to come to schools every day to be constantly improving their reading and writing skills, so that later they have a chance to change their life.“

Na Slovensku sme považovaní za hlúpych cigáňov. V Anglicku vraj rasizmus  nie je | Čumil

Of course, in regard to many Slovak teachers, his generalisations are neither fair nor true – but they probably are in regard to the prevailing approach of the Slovak officials and society to the Romani pupils (note: I am stating the fact regardless the reasons).

Milan is a sort of celebrity and a positive role model in his native village. He is aware how important it is for the local children to see his success – although the sad point is all of them consider such success impossible in Slovakia, which results in boosted chances of their future emigration. Sure, the issues of generational poverty, racism and historically-embedded prejudice are far too complex to be dealt with in this post, and they also occur in the UK (just remember the recent amount of hate received by the unfortunate dark-skinned penalty kicker in the lost final EC match).

Nevertheless, despite all Brexit implications and generally negative reputation of the Romani immigrants in the UK, there are still some of them using the opportunity to prove themselves against all odds.

Sources: https://www.sav.sk/index.php?doc=services-news&source_no=20&news_no=8846, https://dennikn.sk/2453597/pracuje-ako-colnik-na-anglickom-letisku-chce-byt-detektivom-neviem-ci-by-som-na-slovensku-vobec-dokoncil-skolu-video/?ref=tema

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Another Brexit Externality: Au pairs Wanted, Still not Allowed

As was mentioned in my previous blog, majority of the Slovak interviewees first came to Britain as au pairs. Until recently, it was the easiest and most affordable way for a young foreigner with a lack of qualifications or skills to find a job and explore the UK by living with the host family and taking care of their children. Unfortunately, the new visa rules do not take the European au pair system into account so many British parents have started considering which of them gives up work. “Brexit killed our business,” Cynthia Cary of the Rainbow Au Pairs agency said.

Migration was one of the key topics of brexit campaign. Au pairs are one of its victims. Since Britain´s definitive break with the EU, young Europeans wishing to get to know the country´s culture and improve their English need a work visa. To obtain it, au pairs must now earn a minimum of £20,000 (€23,341), which is significantly higher than the £5,000 per year typically given in the past. This low pay was acceptable with regard to free accommodation and meals provided by the host family in addition to salary. For the comparison, the cost of a British nanny is at around £2,000 per month, which is prohibitively expensive for most British families.

Cary explained since January her agency had seen applications fall by 90% – the same proportion of au pairs that would normally apply from the EU. Under the current regulations, the only foreign nationals who can work as au pairs are either Europeans who arrived in the UK before Brexit or nationals from nine countries including Canada, Australia and Japan under a youth mobility scheme. The pool of candidates from these remaining countries does not come close to filling the usual demand for 45,000 au pairs in the UK every year, the British Au Pair Agencies Association has said.

According to Zuzana Sekeráková Búriková of the Sociological Institute, Slovak Academy of Science, the author of the well-known book Au Pair, it is very hard to tell what happens next. “The UK migration officials do not reckon the country depends on foreign caregivers,“ says Sekeráková Búriková. “There will certainly be a crisis in this area. The point system applied in visa issuing process after brexit prefers workers with higher qualifications. Britain will certainly need to find ways of opening itself to the child or senior caregivers. “

However, Sekeráková Búriková reminds there is no guarantee the UK will open up to the Europeans, including Slovaks. It is even less likely the au pairs´ income would grow enough to meet the minimum level for a work visa. The UK agencies have even asked their government to extend the mobility scheme so the EU countries are included – with no response yet.

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Brexit: a Sad Story with Happy End for Slovaks in the UK

In the following article, we bring forward a brief report on the early-stage research conducted by the Slovak team from Matej Bel University, Banská Bystrica. In similarity to our V4 colleagues, we have recruited our interview partners either on personal-acquaintance basis, or with help of the social networks, especially the expat groups. All our interviews took place online and in those done in spring 2020, most of the interviewees were preoccupied with the new coronavirus and circumstances resulting from its outbreak rather than with Brexit. Consequently, they were inclined to see the importance or impact of Brexit on their lives considerably reduced. We dare to imply this with reference to the interviews from early 2021, in which Brexit seemed to play a more important role in people´s lives (again).

According to the official figures based on various statistics of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are app. 84 thousand Slovaks living in the UK. The number that the expat organizations have arrived at is slightly higher, app. 100 thousand. In 2019, before the actual Brexit and before Covid too, there were thousands of Slovaks worrying about possible negative impact of Brexit on their lives in the UK resulting in their considerations of return to Slovakia, the Slovak Embassy in the UK says. However, current statistics do not show materialization of these plans, even despite the fact mentioned above, i. e. people taking Brexit into account more intensely now than a year ago.

The most striking parallel between the Slovak interviewees we have talked to so far concerned the major milestones on the path to their present status of the EU citizens settled in the UK. Regardless their current occupation, all of them came first as au-pairs, including the males, with original intention to stay for 6-12 months, learn/improve the language and come back home to try the university (again). Instead, they studied in the UK and now all have attractive, rather high-ranking, and well-paid jobs in a tolerant multicultural environment. This gives them a steady anchor in the country and makes it easy for them to ignore scarcely occurring verbal attacks of unimportant strangers trying to send them away. Along with the UK´s specific charm (or London´s, for Jana), their spouses found in this “promised land” have caused that some have had children, and all are planning both near and far future within the British Isles. Despite that, however, most prefer keeping their Slovak passport as, according to Miro, “the British passport has become worthless not only due to Brexit.“ By the way, Miro is the only one considering leaving the UK, but not repatriation.

Those who emigrated before 2004 and so had the (repeated) experience of the “second-rate immigrants“ forced to undergo lengthy and rather humiliating procedure at the border, were quite emotional about the prospect of its coming back as a result of Brexit. The younger ones, like Mirka, were more relaxed about the idea of Brexit in general, but still insisted on their EU rather than UK citizenship. The reasons include their vivid relationships with the family, visits to the home country, wish to travel to other EU countries freely, and even Mirka´s potential return home for retirement. However, at the prospect of the new Slovak double-citizenship legislation, this issue will soon become irrelevant.

There is one more aspect that deserves a special focus. Stano enjoys the UK´s tolerance toward the queer people, which is a big contrast to the conservative majority in Slovakia. Interesting enough, his gay identity was not the reason that led him to the UK at the time of his arrival.  Now, however, it is one of the key items on the list of things that keep him there and prevent him from coming back home.

All in all, Slovaks in the UK we have talked to have observed and adapted to Brexit well. They do not intend to leave the UK now and are enthusiastic about building their lives in the country which has given them the opportunities they lacked at home. So far so good.