This article was originally published by VICE Romania
After watching the first episode of the new Channel 4 documentary series The Romanians Are Coming, a handful of offended Romanians gathered outside the network's headquarters in London on Sunday to protest. The miniseries follows a group of immigrants trying to make a life for themselves in the UK—but protesters felt that the show is biased and could have potentially catastrophic consequences for the already negative image of Romanians maybe Britons have.
Two petitions have been appeared on Change.org since the first episode aired last Tuesday. Both demand the show's cancelation, and one of them wants Channel 4 to publicly apologize. Combined, the petitions have collected nearly 10,000 signatures.
As a Romanian living in London, I felt the first episode of the show was sad and cheap, but heartfelt. I watched it with George, an English friend of mine who weirdly said that he sympathizes with the main character, Sandu—a Romanian gypsy who's got nine kids and no income. George says he realizes that not all Romanians are like Sandu, but "if I had watched the show without previously having met any Romanians, I would have thought that Romania is a ghetto country and that everyone lives with ten other people, all crammed up in one room."
The Romanians I know in London are divided into two categories: those who just refuse to watch the show, and those who do but have a lot of questions. Why did they choose to focus on Romanians in particular? Why is there an entire series dedicated to a single nation? Why didn't they do an episode for every EU country? Or about Eastern Europe? The least they could do is include the Bulgarians!
The program is indeed full of negative stereotypes—or at least embarrassing ones—but it also often squeezes in some numbers and statistics that show the truth isn't exactly as dark as anecdotal evidence might have you believe; out of 100,000 Romanians in the UK, only 2,500 Romanians are on public assistance, for example.
As expected the show is also causing a stir in Romania—following its premiere, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta pledged solidarity with the Romanians who live in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Bristol's Romanian consulate issued a statement saying that local Romanians feel humiliated, and Romania's foreign minister wrote to his counterpart, Philip Hammond, to complain that the show is biased.
The Telegraph also seems to believe that the program is prejudiced, but the other way around: Apparently "the show painted a picture of Romanian immigration that was pretty much the opposite of what it claimed." The Guardian on the other hand, appreciated the fact that the narrator is also an immigrant, as it gives the show a sense of authenticity. That sentiment was also shared by many of my British friends.
One of them, Andrew, got bored watching the show. "I watched about ten minutes and then I changed the channel. They said things that have already been said about poverty and gypsies—they used the same stereotypes." Just like George, Andrew felt he was "lucky" to have met Romanians that work in the UK, don't claim benefits, and have become his friends. "It's a shame that some Romanians come here with less than noble intentions, because they give the entire nation a bad name," he said. "Those who haven't met nice Romanians will believe in stereotypes."
Over 700 people confirmed that they would be attending Sunday's protest on Facebook, but less than 10 percent of them turned up. There I met Dragoş, who has been in the UK for about 18 years. He said he felt the show was "unfair and offensive. People in the UK already dislike Romanians and these kinds of programs only make matters worse. The question of where you're from is always followed by a moment of awkward silence when you say you're Romanian, here."
Cristian, the father of one of the students who organized the protest, was way angrier. He told me that, the day after the first episode aired, he went to work and all his coworkers gave him a pitiful look. "Their faces read 'God, you poor bastard, you crawled out of a hellhole. Thank God you came here.' They asked me: 'Is it true that you live with 20 other people in one room and that there's no electricity?' I tried telling them that I don't come from a cave nor a desert.
"I believe and hope in the power of the Romanian people's reaction," he went on. "The number of people gathered here today isn't important. What matters is that we're determined. A mother and her child were shivering in the cold for about two hours standing right here earlier, when they could have been sat at home watching TV. We respect the British, so we want them to respect our national identity too."
I stumble upon a young girl carrying a Romanian flag. Her name was also Anamaria and she came to the protest because "Romanians that are on the poor end of the income distribution are portrayed as average Romanians. But the images show a third world country. Channel 4's selection of characters is too narrow." Anamaria thinks this kind of discourse depends very much on the British political climate and that it will ease down after the general elections in May. "After all, all the studies claim that migration has a positive effect on British economy," she says.
The ugly truth is said by one of the show's protagonists: "We came here to take their jobs. But only the shitty jobs." Isn't that the case with immigration everywhere?