Last week, a friend of mine posted a photo on Facebook of a sign being used in a Tesco branch to deter thieves. It caught my attention because the sign was in my native language: Romanian.
My initial reaction was shock, and hurt that this sign made me and all Romanians look like thieves. My second reaction was disbelief – surely this must be fake? After some googling, I found that only was it real, but that only the Romanian Embassy and a few community leaders were talking about it.
This isn’t enough.
You see, it’s very rare that you hear anything good said publicly about the Romanian community. But for a major supermarket chain to single us out in this way and to send a message to the British public that reinforces the stereotype of the Romanian criminal is deeply shocking.
It’s especially troubling to see this just one month before Britain cuts its final ties with the EU, a time when we’re likely to see another rise in hate crimes against Eastern Europeans.
Tesco’s appalling behaviour – and the damaging stereotypes behind it – have not had the attention in the UK media that they should have. Romanians are the second most common non-British nationality in the UK. Data from the Office of National Statistics released in November 2019 shows that around 457,000 Romanian nationals are estimated to be living in the UK. Home Office data on the EU Settlement Scheme suggests that the numbers are even higher, with 670,600 applications (so far) from Romanians to stay in the UK after this year.
“In 2016, we were hurt by the result of the EU Referendum and the subsequent wave of hate crime. Now, with this sign, we’ve been hurt again.”
I present myself as Romanian from the Republic of Moldova. England has been my home for the last six years, and I can proudly say there is so much I’ve learned from the English community. I can also proudly say that I’ve shared many emotional moments with English people – and some of the best are when we’re talking about what we have in common, creating projects together, and all the while reducing stereotypes about us Romanians.
Being a migrant is not easy. I have to prove that my birthplace and ethnicity have nothing to do with my qualifications, emotional intelligence and my achievements. I have been stereotyped as ‘stealing’ employment opportunities from the British people. Even said as a joke, it’s never nice and always unfair. I will never forget the suspicious look when I handed my Romanian passport to the British person when I was opening my first English bank account in 2014.
For many years we have been fighting the stereotypes. In 2014, we were hurt when Nigel Farage said people would be “concerned” if a group of Romanian men “moved in next door”. In 2016, we were hurt by the result of the EU Referendum and the subsequent wave of hate crime. Now, with this sign, we’ve been hurt again.
That’s because this sign is more than a piece of paper. It’s an alarm bell, crying out that the discrimination towards our community is still very much present, whether in a supermarket aisle, at work, at school or in a newspaper column.
On TikTok, a Romanian comedian recently joked: “Back home I was just a guy, here I am Romanian.” His sentence made me laugh but it also made me realise that we have a reputation. We are famous, but for the wrong reasons. It’s drummed into everyone here in the UK time and again that Romanians are thieves, whether they’re stealing alcohol or jobs from British people.
“All I want to do is encourage people to be more open towards Romanians, open towards learning about our history, culture and values.”
I have a close connection to the Romanian community in the UK. Together with my colleagues from Romani Uniti din Anglia (RUDA), I support Romanian nationals from Birmingham and Sandwell to integrate into British society. It’s a powerful act of collaborating for the good of people.
I work hard to challenge the negative stereotypes about us Romanians, putting my days and nights into sharing our culture, values and history with people here in the UK. But this one sign crushes all that work.
However, being angry does not help. All I want to do is encourage people to be more open towards Romanians, open towards learning about our history, culture and values. You will soon see how close we are with the British people: that once we had a kingdom where our royal family was closely related to yours; that there are so many British nationals who move to the Romanian mountains and share their common values and build fantastic projects.
Where there is a will, there is a way. We’re just like you, and if you took some time to get to know us, I think we’d get on. But signs like the one Tesco chose to use have the potential to undo all the good being done.
Mariana Plamadeala is a Romanian migrant ambassador with Migrant Voice