Roma community ‘here to stay’ in Sheffield after fleeing racism and discrimination in Slovakia, says academic

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An academic who has spent years researching the Roma culture both in Slovakia and Sheffield says racism and discrimation in their home country and the promise of a better life in the UK are the main drivers of the large-scale immigration that has taken place over the last two decades.

Dr Mark Payne, who is a lecturer in language and education at the University of Sheffield, has followed the community from the tiny villages in eastern Slovakia from which they originate to the British neighbourhoods they now call home.

He says he has found them to be a complicated culture which defies easy explanation, and that it is a mistake to view them as a homogeneous group, but that one thing that unites most of the approximately 6,000 Roma Slovaks who currently live in Sheffield is their desire to stay.

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The history of the Roma people is as fascinating as it is complicated.

Page Hall Road in Fir Vale.Page Hall Road in Fir Vale.
Page Hall Road in Fir Vale.

Originally migrating from India around 1,500 years ago, they arrived in the Balkans within the last millennium before dispersing across the continent of Europe.

Very often the victims of persecution, this reached its zenith when the Roma were killed in their hundreds of thousands by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

“They have always been outsiders on the fringes of society,” said Mark.

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“The Roma in Slovakia are often pushed to the edge of the towns and villages where they live and some of the living conditions are really bad with no water or sanitation.

Dr Mark Payne.Dr Mark Payne.
Dr Mark Payne.

“During the communist times, it sort of worked as everyone was in theory equal but when economic troubles came with capitalism the Roma became scapegoats.”

Against this backdrop, when Slovakia joined the European Union on May 1, 2004, many Roma saw it as an opportunity to live a better life.

As well as Sheffield, Roma communities settled in places like Peterborough, Doncaster and Newport, probably because there were already small communities in those areas who had fled communism.

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In addition to escaping persecution in Slovakia, they were also attracted to the promise of higher-paying jobs, a more generous benefits system and a better education for their children.

Page Hall, Sheffield.Page Hall, Sheffield.
Page Hall, Sheffield.

“To say that 100 per cent of the people who come here are here to work is nonsense but to say they are all here to claim benefits is also totally wrong,” said Mark.

“A man I know who has been here at least nine years and has had three kids here never stops - and another man has just moved to Crookes and is doing a BA.”

Mark says that while there are undoubtedly continuing problems of litter and sporadic violence in the area, his sense is that things are improving as the 'shock of the new’ begins to dissipate and the community becomes better established.

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He said: “It is never going to be the most middle-class neighbourhood and some of the rubbish down there is inexcusable.

Willloughby Street, Page Hall.Willloughby Street, Page Hall.
Willloughby Street, Page Hall.

“But my sense is that things are getting better and that the Romas are certainly here to stay.”

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