Romanians recently overtook the Irish and Indians as the second biggest immigrant community in the UK, but they are among the most vulnerable in the country after Brexit, according to a leading charity advocating for east Europeans in the UK.
Many fill vital jobs that keep Britain’s supermarket shelves stocked, the elderly in care homes fed, and hotel rooms clean, but there have been fears that social and economic isolation among those in the low-skills sector would prove a calamitous mix for the many who would wish to remain in the country after Brexit.
“The majority of EU citizens are not very well informed about Brexit and the settled status and Romanians are no exception. The language barrier, the fact that most of Romanian citizens don’t follow UK media at all, makes them quite vulnerable,” says Florina Tudose, an outreach worker with the East European Resource Centre, which has repeatedly raised concerns with the Home Office.
“From our field research and extensive outreach within the Romanian community, we’ve noticed that many Romanians think that the settled status will be an automatic process, that as long as they pay taxes and are law-abiding citizens, everything is going to be OK,” she says.
The Guardian accompanied Tudose to meet some of the Romanians in communities in two areas of north London and found these fears were borne out.
One woman, in her 40s, in a Romanian butcher’s shop explained she had no worries about Brexit.
“I lived in Italy for 17 years, I didn’t know if I was illegal, nobody cared, I wasn’t stopped once, why should it be any different here?,” she says.
Others wrongly believed the Home Office knew who they were and, as long as they paid taxes, registration would be automatic.
“They will send us letters,” one 20-something shop assistant tells Tudose. “I am not worried at all about Brexit, why should I be? I’ve been here nine years and pay taxes and they will see that,” she says, betraying an alarming lack of knowledge about the Home Office plans or the consequences of not registering, which could include deportation or denial of re-entry into the country after a holiday.
“Sadly,” says Tudose, “You hear this a lot. How are the Home Office going to get to these people? This is why we are worried.”
A closer look at the Romanians interviewed by the Guardian reveal that all have come to Britain to better their lives, not to take benefits.
Several parents tell heartbreaking stories about leaving children behind with grandparents, so desperate have they been to provide for their families.
Although Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dictatorship collapsed almost 30 years ago and Romania had record growth of 7% last year, communism has cast a long shadow and the country remains ranked as the second poorest EU nation in Europe.
Others complained that British people were ignorant about Romania and Romanians, with one protesting: “if Romania is as bad as the British think why has Prince Charles bought so much property there?”
“What will England do without us?” says Dragoș, who works in a Romanian restaurant in Dollis Hill, north London, an area popular with Romanians.
He was lured to the UK from Germany by a large nursing home group in November 2016.
“British people accounted for just 10% of the staff. But they weren’t considered reliable. They would call in sick, especially after the weekends, and then the Romanians would be called to go in and cover for them. Half of the 35 staff were Romanian, just three or four were from the UK,” he says.
“It wasn’t fair. Last year in November, December, during the bad weather, they all called in to say they couldn’t come in. There was only two centimetres of snow. I had to take my car and personally pick up other Romanians. We couldn’t not go to work. These are elderly people, some have dementia, in my country you are one with the elderly, you have responsibilities and you get that drummed into you. Our work ethic and sense of responsibility is higher than it is here.”
Asked what he thinks the British think about Romanians, Dragoș says elliptically. “Every shepherd has its black sheep, so do countries.” He is referring to the “criminals” in his community, who he says give “Romanians a bad name”.
He shows me videos of fancy cars and lavish mansions in his town Țăndărei, known as the “Beverley Hills for Romanian gangsters”. It is a narrative that fits well with Brexiters and one that is often heard in the Romanian community, says Tudose.
Dragoș, like others, sees himself as a highly mobile worker feeding his family back home where his wife and seven-year-old daughter still live.
Over the past 20 years Dragoș has lived in Greece, Cyprus, Belgium, Holland, Malta, Italy and Germany. He speaks five languages and thinks Britain would “be in trouble” if it pulled up the drawbridge to EU citizens.
“Where will they get the women for all the low-skilled jobs?” If we go home, who is going to do the jobs? It is a bit racist, but it is their own decision. We are all here to work, we pay taxes, to pay rent, we pay insurance, buy food, pay bank fees. There will be a price to pay.”
Many Romanians are returning: Cătălin has a friend who runs a haulage company which cannot hire drivers and the economy back home is getting stronger. But he thinks Romanians will continue to migrate throughout Europe for years to come.