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Talking to UKIP-Hating British Romanians About the General Election

What's it like to be a human political football?
29 April 2015, 5:00am

Andrea Sima (all photos author's own)

To be Romanian and living in Britain is to be both an outsider and the centre of attention. Romanians are talked about constantly, and not in a good way. At any given moment, someone, somewhere, is sitting in the corner of a pub, moaning to his mate about "all the Romanians... coming over here... taking our jobs."

The group now acts as a convenient stand-in for all the supposed ills and awfulness of immigration. Despite being kicked around in casual conversation, most Romanians living and working in the UK have no say in how this country is run.

According to a recent report by the Migrants' Rights Network, only 9 percent of Romanians living here will be eligible to vote at the general election.

Only 8,000 of an estimated 109,000 Romanians living in the UK will be able to enter the ballot box on the 7th of May, because the vast majority of them have not yet acquired citizenship.

Let's face it – 8,000 people don't exactly make for an intimidating voting block. Which means there's nothing to discourage opportunistic politicians having a pop any time they like. Step forward Nigel Farage, UKIP's chortling, tweed-wearing, chain smoker-in-chief. Nigel likes to talk about the Romanians. A lot.

Crime, housing pressures, stresses on the NHS – as far as Farage is concerned, no problem is unrelated to migration from Romania. Earlier in April, he even managed to make the prospect of a rise in the minimum wage an issue about Romanian immigrants, suggesting any raise would have the unwelcome effect of attracting more Romanians.

So how does it feel to be picked on and demonised by British politicians? Which party might the small number of Romanian-Brits be voting for? And who would Romanian citizens living here like to vote for, if they had the chance?

Andreea Sima is studying media in London, having worked as a waitress and nanny to help fund her studies. She also organised a demonstration outside Channel 4 HQ recently in protest against the show The Romanians Are Coming. This is the first UK general election she is eligible to vote in.

"It's frustrating to find such focus on Romanian people," she says. "It's only bad things ever shown on TV or talked about in the press. I really didn't expect it when I came to live in the UK. I think the Polish people got it for a while – they were used to discuss everything that was supposed to be bad about immigration. Now it seems to be our turn."

Who will Andrea be voting for?

"I think I'm probably going to vote for Labour and Ed Miliband," Andreea adds. "I like that Labour has talked about making student fees less expensive, and acknowledged how expensive housing can be. I prefer them to the Conservative Party, which is a fancier version of UKIP."

Victor Spirescu

Victor Spirescu was the first Romanian to arrive in Britain in January 2014, after temporary work restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens were lifted. He was greeted at Luton airport by a scrum of photographers and the camera-keen MP Keith Vaz. Victor has now settled down in South East London and runs a company installing ventilation systems.

"Most English people have been nice to me," he says. "But the attention on Romanians has been crazy. We are like any young Europeans – we come here to work hard. But people get us mixed up with the Roma gypsies, and so that creates negative perception."

So who would Victor vote for?

"Well, Nigel Farage – I wouldn't vote for him," he says. "UKIP attack Romanians, talking negatively all the time. We help grow the British economy. If you don't speak well of my nation, how can I like you?"

"I'm not really interested in politics – I'm here to work hard and make money. Maybe in a few years, because I have a business here, I'll become more interested in British politics. David Cameron seems an OK guy. Maybe I would vote for him if he's a business guy."

Dr Tommy Tomescu

Dr Tommy Tomescu is a Romanian dentist working in Britain since 2010, and is not eligible to vote. He runs the Europeans Party, a protest group that recently launched a claim at the High Court seeking to give EU citizens in the UK the same rights as citizens of Commonwealth countries living here: the right to vote at the general election.

"The present arrangement is not fair," he says. "If we are paying taxes here and are resident here, shouldn't we also be allowed to vote? It's not good for democracy. Don't we want people to integrate? Not being able to vote makes it too easy for politicians here to ignore or attack us."

When I ask him who he would vote for, Tommy gives Nigel Farage another reason to want to kick him out. "If I had a vote, if would be for a left-leaning party – Labour, Greens, or Lib Dems", he says. "I'm open-minded about which one. I wouldn't vote Conservative, and certainly not UKIP."

Some writers and academics are worried about an emerging class of "denizens": a young, international precariat left with few political rights as they are forced to move around the globe in search of work. And Britain has become one of the most expensive places in the world for newcomers to secure citizenship (and therefore voting rights): the naturalisation fee is £1,005.

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Dr Daniela Sime, a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, moved from Romania to the UK over 15 years ago, but remains unable to vote in her adopted country's general election.

Dr Sime says she's taking a stance against "the commercialisation of citizenship – I don't think it should cost anything at all. The majority of new arrivals have not been applying for citizenship because it's too expensive and they have other priorities."

"Some of us are citizens in all but name," she adds. "But it worries me that voting is something which segregates those with full rights and those without full rights. It feeds a sense of marginalisation."

The issue of voting rights for EU citizens living in Britain might seem like an obscure question, but it could become a very big deal in the event of a referendum on the UK leaving the EU, still a possibility before the end of 2017.

Until then, Romanians in Britain will just have to put up with Nigel Farage harumphing on about criminal gangs from post-communist countries and foreign languages heard on trains. Just like the rest of us.

@adamtomforrest

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