Relations between Roma immigrants and the locals in Sheffield are poisonous and worsening by the day.
A curfew is in place on the streets of Sheffield, but nobody appears to be paying much attention. It is past 9pm, the designated time when, since August, gangs of under-16s are banned from being out in the city’s Page Hall area. A police van trundles past.
“You ! How old are you ? Time to go home now,” says an officer pointing out of the window at a large group of youths clearly in their early teens. The children laugh and scatter into the alleys, before appearing back behind the van further up the one-way road. They resume their play: shouting, smoking, fighting, practising backflips against the walls of houses and kicking the ubiquitous piles of rubbish. Basharat Ali watches wearily from his doorstep. Tonight, the 26-year-old says, is a quiet night.
“At least in the winter they go home at some point,” says Ali, a team manager at the phone company EE who lives with his wife and 18-month-old daughter. “In the summer they were having parties all night, young children dancing in the street. We would have to go out at 11pm to try and move them away. Every night it was the same.”
Their home, he says, has been burgled three times in the past three months. On the first occasion the burglars kicked down his front door at 2am and stole his car keys. The other two times they smashed a back window stealing cash and a laptop. The police are investigating, but it is clear where he feels the blame lies. And he is not alone.
The spectre of the race riots that blighted the North 12 years ago has this week reappeared over the narrow terraced streets of Page Hall, the former estate of 19th-century magnate Mark Firth, one of the kings of this steel city. David Blunkett, a former Labour home secretary and MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, has warned that the antisocial behaviour of the thousands of Roma migrants who have moved here has resulted in “understandable tensions”. If the Roma do not change their ways, it is feared, the community could “explode” as Bradford, Oldham and Burnley did in the summer of 2001.
The riots (one night of violence in Bradford left 326 police injured and caused £11 million of damage) left lasting scars. To invoke their memory is a sign of how serious the situation has become. On Thursday, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Sheffield Hallam, warned Roma communities they must avoid “intimidating” locals and be “sensitive to the way life is lived in this country”.
But on the streets of Page Hall – the second most deprived part of the city – there are few signs of that. Battle lines are being drawn between the Roma (the city council says 1,500 Roma children live in Sheffield but do not know the exact number of adults) and the locals – predominantly Pakistani families who arrived to work in the mills in the 1950s and have laid down roots among the post-industrial rubble.
The atmosphere is poisonous, a breeding ground for trouble. Roma youths and adults hang around in groups, dozens at a time throughout the day and night. Rumours swirl between them and the Pakistani and white community, with each blaming the other for fuelling drugs, prostitution, and the increase of rubbish. There have been numerous reported fights. One Pakistani shopkeeper’s wife had her hand broken in a recent altercation with Roma youths. “It is all over now,” her husband says.
After dark on Hinde Street, the centre of the area where the Roma live, a furious Pakistani man runs out of his house screaming at the children who have been pelting his walls with a blue Manchester City football. He grabs the ball, and leads me inside.
On the television in the living room, his 34-year-old wife and four young children silently watch footage from CCTV cameras positioned outside their modest home. “We have four cameras,” says the 36-year-old baker, who does not want his family named. “A lot of our neighbours do as well. Every day it is the same. We regret ever buying a house here. It cost £50,000; it was all we could afford. I’m always ringing the police but if they come the children just go and hide in the alleyways. We just want one quiet night.”
A report published last month estimated that there are 200,000 Roma in Britain; in 2011 the Government claimed that “relatively few” had settled here. The Page Hall Roma come from a clutch of four or five towns and villages in eastern Slovakia. They started arriving after Britain opened its borders to EU migrants in 2004, something which Jack Straw, another former Labour home secretary, admitted this week had been a “spectacular mistake”.
Whole extended families have moved over, fleeing from the prejudice and hostility to which Europe’s estimated 10 million Roma have long been subjected. They are also attracted by Page Hall’s cheap rents (£400-£500 a month).
One landlord, who has Roma families in two properties, tells me they are excellent tenants, but says other landlords cram several families into small two-up, two-down terraced homes where “seven or eight children” end up sleeping on the carpet.
According to residents, in recent months the Roma numbers have rocketed. School places are in short supply and the Page Hall Medical Centre lists 860 Slovak Roma on its books (11.7 per cent of the total). Farzhad Khan, 72, who moved from Pakistan 39 years ago to work in the mills, says: “My health is suffering. Every time I go to the doctors now I’m told they are full up.”
Over Styrofoam cups of sweet black tea, I sit in on a private late-night meeting between 20 members of the more-established Roma community. All are men and say they were among the first wave to arrive in 2004. Their families followed. They are devout Christians – they rent out a hall to worship twice a week and show me video clips of congregations. Despite living and working here (in factories, supermarkets and as delivery drivers) for nearly a decade and their children going to local schools, most speak through a translator. “People don’t send the money back home to their families,” says Thomas, a father-of-two who earns £230 working 40 hours a week in a food-packing factory, “because they are already living here as well.”
The Roma say they are proud to live in England and want to work, an opportunity denied in Slovakia. It is an attitude not shared by all. Throughout the day, hordes of young Roma men pack out the gambling machines at a nearby betting shop. Others simply walk the streets, content to pick up benefits to which nationals from EU countries are entitled.
A 22-year-old teaching assistant at a nearby school says: “They bring the forms for me to translate and they are getting £500 a week in benefits for just sitting at home.”
Those that are working, though, feel they are being victimised for their race. Last month’s case of the blonde-haired Maria – where a Greek Roma couple were charged with child abduction – has not helped.
This week, one chip shop owner, Colin Barton, told me that a Roma man recently tried to sell him a baby over the counter for £250. The police have interviewed him twice, but found no evidence to support the claim.
Barton is one of the few white faces I came across in the area. Others stare into pint glasses at the nearby Firth Park Working Men’s Club. Here too, the community feels polarised; the language incendiary. “There is going to be a battle eventually,” warns Pete, a 50-year-old construction worker.
Some £55,000 of taxpayers’ money has been invested in the Pakistan Community Advice Centre to help new arrivals settle. It also helps train Roma volunteers to become teaching assistants and organises Roma-led community evening patrols. In August, South Yorkshire Police introduced the dispersal order ban to large groups congregating and prevent antisocial behaviour. Residents say it is ineffective, but yesterday it was extended until February.
But Migration Yorkshire, which coordinates EU Roma inclusion, says Sheffield is actually one of the best examples of integration at work; out of the estimated 25,451 Roma spread through Yorkshire (the third largest number behind the North West and London). Residents, however, still feel the authorities have got their head in the sand.
As I walked the rubbish-strewn streets with one council cabinet member – where every hole dug up for roadworks has been turned into a mini-landfill site – he suggested that the litter levels were as a result of it being a windy day. At that moment, two young Roma children were kicking a cardboard box to pieces directly in front of us.
In reality, the council says there is not much it can do without better national direction and acceptance of the problems, particularly with Britain’s borders opening up to Bulgaria and Romania next year.
But for those who live in Page Hall, the community feels at breaking point. “When it goes off, it will be like an atom bomb here,” a shopkeeper warns as he picks up a broken glass bottle from the street.
A group of Roma youths swagger past. Nobody looks anybody in the eye.
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