Over the last few months, the UK and European press have dedicated extensive column inches to the Roma community, with the majority of coverage being negative. Much of the adverse reporting focuses on the widely recognized and highly visible problem of Roma arriving in the UK to beg on our streets, litter our countryside and instigate waves of crime.
The true Roma story, however, is infinitely more layered and complicated than the hostile portrayal commonly relied upon in the media, explains Sarah Wade, co-founder of Humanitas.
Back in 2001 I launched the charity Romanian Relief (now known as Humanitas, where I work as the CEO) and for the past 13 years I have worked to provide care and support, education and health care to thousands of Eastern Europe's most vulnerable children and adults. But whilst living and working in Romania I have witnessed first-hand the true severity of this degenerative situation.
An estimated 10-12 million Roma live throughout Europe, making them the EU's biggest ethic minority. These people are discriminated against within their respective countries - which means even their birth country considers them to be the outcasts - they are the ignored, the disenfranchised, the forgotten - and the prejudice they suffer on a daily basis is greater than we can possibly imagine. 90% of Roma live in extreme poverty. In Romania - a member country of the EU and three-hour flight from London where we run ten Humanitas projects - the Roma we work closely with live in segregated communities, sprawling slum camps consisting of hundreds of small mud huts, where there is no access to water, electricity or sanitation and often eight or more people live in one cramped room. Disease is rife; these Roma communities suffer tuberculosis, viral hepatitis B and C, HIV and various parasitic infections that plague their population. Yet we expect these people to somehow assimilate themselves into civilisation - to live by our rules and standards. We expect them to work and provide for their families without any rights or support from local authorities or Governments in power, without medical care and social services. And, unlike other developing countries that receive aid from the international community, the Roma receive very little compassion and understanding from the wider world despite their grim plight.
This latter point has previous form throughout history. The Roma arrived in Europe from India over a thousand years ago, and have been unwelcome in Europe during the ages. In the fifteenth century, Hungary and Romania enslaved the Roma to farm the land and even Hitler played his part - Deeming the Roma to be 'racially inferior', the Nazis subjected the Roma to internment, forced labour, and murder, exterminating around 25% of all European Roma. The Holocaust Museum says the Roma's fate "in some ways paralleled that of the Jews. Of slightly less than 1 million Roma believed to have been living in Europe before the war, the Germans and their Axis partners killed up to 220,000." - CNN Report, 2013B
Back in the present day, a huge percentage of the Roma population lack any form of education - it is difficult to go to school without shoes, clean clothes, money for schoolbooks or even a parent who understands the importance of education. It's extremely difficult to go to school when everyone in the class, including the teacher, discriminates against you, your classmates spit at you in the playground or perhaps your parents rely on you to work from the age of 7 to help provide for the family. It then becomes even harder later on in life to find a good job without having received an education. For the modern-day Roma, this is their reality - an endless cycle of poverty and isolation.
Most Roma families in Romania will have between 5-8 children; due in part to a total lack of education or family planning options. Parents are either forced to abandon their children because they don't have the means to provide for them or they are forced to find a way to provide. The Roma people are forced into desperate situations, eventually turning to crime, prostitution or begging.
In any other situation, around the world, we would be outraged to learn that millions of people were being persecuted, amid abject poverty, deep-rooted racial abuse and neglect. Yet, these people, currently the most abused community on our continent, don't seem to count. In fact, most factions of the media seem intent on perpetuating this neglect, encouraging us to jump to conclusions and stereotyping an entire race amid assumptions that pockets of criminality accurately represent an entire population numbering between 10 -12 million within Europe.
The Roma situation will never improve unless action is taken and in the meantime, these families will continue to flood the UK because of their desperate state.
My adopted son is Roma. He is bilingual, polite, educated and has an amazing personality. The only difference between him and most of his Roma contemporaries is that he has been cared for, educated, accepted and loved. Unfortunately millions of other Roma children (and adults) will never receive such support.
We have worked side-by-side with Roma communities for the past 13 years.
I would be lying if I said it has always been easy to work with the Roma population - it hasn't been easy at all. Ours is an incredibly challenging environment to work in, but our success stories easily outweigh our difficulties. I have seen first hand the consequences of suppressing an entirely marginalised ethnic population but I have also seen the potential within each individual I work with combined with the resourcefulness and amazing resilience that the Roma hold in their hearts. If I could spread one Christmas message this year, it would be to ask humanity to spare a thought for the Roma who, contrary to popular opinion, remain in desperate need of our help and compassion.