Following a break from the media glare, this week David Blunkett issued a characteristically forthright warning about the impact of growing numbers of Roma settlers across the UK.
Although a subsequent endorsement by Nigel Farage undermined much of his analysis, the former Home Secretary’s diagnosis was largely right: many communities are being left to deal with the unprecedented impacts of this new wave of migration. In the case of Roma migrants, small irritants (littering and loitering) and the grievances they give rise to are having an impact on race relations and are fostering growing unease. These resentment could potentially escalate if left unaddressed.
Blunkett is right that we should seek ways of changing problematic behaviours. But doing this by criminalising groups is not the only approach. High visibility interventions by police may satisfy local desire to see something done in the short-term, but could also cause lasting harm – hardening the attitudes of local people rather than promoting understanding and an openness to interaction.
Moreover, punitive strategies will do little to change behaviour and bridge what Blunkett calls the ‘cultural gulf’ which separates Roma newcomers and established residents. Behavioural change is a complex business. For it to work we need to understand the people who are arriving far better – their backgrounds, plans, aims and aspirations. But compulsion is more likely to cause retrenchment rather than integration. According to research by the Open Society Foundation, police targeting of visible minorities has had devastating effects on integration. It has pushed new residents to keep themselves to themselves.
In his remarks, David Blunkett points to a more constructive alternative. Integration is far better left to the armies of local groups and community organisations rather than the police. They enjoy the trust of residents and engage newcomers in the right spirit (welcoming and guiding, rather than punishing ). As Blunkett points out, no funding has gone a very long way under the Coalition (particularly since the abolition of the Migration Impact Fund).
Finally, parallels with the situation in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley may provide a sense of urgency. But these are not the same circumstances. In those towns, well-established communities lived alongside but lead separate lives – the result of long-held resentments and powerful structural factors. The issues arising in neighbourhoods like Page Hall are a product of a different set of factors: far from the stagnation that afflicted those Northern towns places like Sheffield are being buffeted by change, instability and the need to adapt at rapid speed.
Phoebe Griffith is Associate Director for Communities and Integration at IPPR