Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Feeding the hate: Tom Harris MP vilifies the Roma

The shrill and dangerous castigation of Roma and other East European migrants continues with a nasty polemic from Glasgow South MP, Tom Harris.

I'd say Harris was 'my MP', being a constituent of said electoral area. But, in effect, I am without one, 'disenfranchised', choosing not to recognise or seek the usual 'services' of a parliamentarian who voted for the mass slaughter of Iraq and has been so relentless in his attacks on asylum seekers
Still supporting war criminal Tony Blair to this day (Twitter bio: 'Proud Blairite'), Harris, as prior correspondence shows, is also a long-standing apologist for Israel's occupation and crimes.

The problem in this case isn't just Harris's amplification of residents' fears, it's his promotion of irrational suspicion and effective hatred of an entire people.

Just in case we don't recognise his 'rational' side, Harris commences his piece with this faux 'acknowledgement' of 'worthy' immigrants:  
Do I need to add all the usual caveats and qualifications before I continue? Okay, let's get it over with: the vast majority of immigrants from all over the world make a massively positive financial as well as personal and cultural contribution to the UK. Britain is far better off today than it would have been without immigration. Okay? Can I continue now?
And continue he does, with reactionary gusto, turning constituents' reported concerns into a sharp indictment of Roma 'lifestyle':     
...filthy and vastly overcrowded living arrangements, organised aggressive begging, the ghetto-isation of local streets where women no longer feel safe to walk due to the presence of large groups of (workless) men, the rifling through domestic wheelie bins by groups of women pushing oddly child-free prams, and a worrying increase in the reporting of aggressive and violent behavior in local schools.
It's not that we should be blind to difficult conditions and tensions; they are patently obvious to most residents and observers of Glasgow's south-side Govanhill area, an historic locale for multiple races of economic migrants and conflict-fleeing peoples: Irish, Jews, Pakistanis, Poles, Slovakians, and, soon to come, perhaps, more Romanians and Bulgarians.
What's problematic is the pernicious categorisation of those deemed 'wholly responsible' for the hostility and social decay - just as the Irish once were - a targeted rhetoric that recognises neither the wider economic/social context of such migrants' arrival, or the need for constructive action to improve the situation for all concerned.  
While many front-line social agencies in Glasgow and other migrant-receiving cities have learned the benefits of patient and careful nurturing of mixed-race communities, Harris offers only inflammatory words, generating even greater fear and alienation:        
In the meantime, my constituents become angrier and more resentful, because the lives they have worked so hard to build for themselves and their families are being impinged upon by people whose culture, way of life and attitude to authority and those around them are utterly alien. [My emphasis.]
Again, whatever concerns some people may have over the social effects of new immigration, what's achieved by such spurious denigration of an entire culture?    
Again, bear in mind, this coming from someone who endorsed the murderous invasion of Iraq, with mass war crimes like Fallujah, devastating an entire people, culture and way of life.
With no apparent remorse over his part in that vast atrocity, Harris is still only concerned with what 'dangers' present themselves at 'our' door: it "would be absurd to claim that all foreign cultures are beneficial to the UK."
He cites here as an "extreme example: female genital mutilation." Why this particular, lone example? No doubt because it helps reinforce the heavily-implied distinction between 'our essentially good' cultural practices against 'their generalised bad and barbaric' ones.

All of which feeds the standard framing on the Roma's supposed 'cultural propensity to criminality', rather than generations of persecution, poverty and forced movement.  The current crackdown against Roma groups over 'baby-stealing' is but another facet of that false cultural determinism.  

A useful antidote to Harris's bleak fearmongering can be found in Peter Ross's more people-engaging view of the Roma and life around Govanhill, recognising not only the economic/cultural complexities and problematics of a highly-fluid community, but also that which binds and connects people, however adversarial their situation:
The first Roma in Glasgow were asylum seekers from Slovakia, escaping racial hatred. Most, now, are economic migrants, coming from villages in the region of Michalovce. In Glasgow, they have found casual work in potato and chicken processing factories, though, increasingly, jobs are hard to come by. Romanian nationals have very restricted access to the benefits system, and there is anecdotal evidence that some Roma from that country, now living in Govanhill, cannot afford to feed themselves and thus go through the bins of private residences and shops, looking for food.
In seeking understanding of the Roma's street presence, Ross speaks with Marcela Adamova, "a 32-year-old Roma woman who came to Glasgow five years ago from Pavlovce nad Uhom, a town in eastern Slovakia. She works as a Roma support worker with Oxfam and runs Romano Lav, a community group."
The Roma are the most visible ethnic group, due to their habit of standing around outside chatting on street corners in largeish numbers, some even after darkness has fallen. There is nothing sinister in this; it is a cultural practice from back in the villages, but many locals feel suspicious and sometimes intimidated. “I hear some racist remarks, you know, ‘All these gypsies living in Govanhill are not bringing anything to society’,” says Adamova. “But the racism is not so strong as in Slovakia.”
Nor, again, is there any denial here of the social dereliction and ethnic tension:  
Govanhill would not be to everyone’s taste. It is a district of old four-storey tenements, from which satellite dishes sprout like fungus. Fly-tipping is endemic, and it is quite common to see people sifting this mess, looking for anything they can use. There is poverty and overcrowding; you hear about 14 people in two-bedroom flats. The area, too, has a reputation for violence and theft. Serious violent crime incidents are reported to be 59 per cent above the Scottish average, though police insist the crime rate is, in fact, falling and that, given the high population density, there is actually less villainy than they would expect.
Recognition without castigation. Why can't Harris, at least, adopt a similar tone?

Ross concludes with a hopeful message from Donegal man Tony Mai Gallagher, 71, a patron of nearby Kelly's bar for many a year: 
“We’ve got to be gentle with them, because when we came in, people weren’t too gentle to us,” he says. “Let’s just hope our new neighbours, our New Irish, settle in just as fast as we did. Harmony is what we need.”
Laudable words, indeed.

We needn't be misty-eyed here in romanticising the problems in Govanhill and other such places. There are all-too-visible issues and anxieties on display, confirming an urgent need for wholesale socio-economic assistance. Yet, beneath all of this fear and distrust there's also the capacity for basic human connection.  
In dark contrast, people like Tom Harris spread only more negativity, fear and antagonism.

Such language also keeps people attuned to the perpetual myths and fallacies over immigration numbers and costs, notably the 'expected flood of welfare-seeking' Romanians and Bulgarians from 2014

Even the neoliberal Economist dismiss the hype behind such changes, "suggest[ing] that immigration is more a problem of perception than of reality." 

Yet, even these kind of clarifications lack something more elementary: compassionate concern. What, more fundamentally, should we be saying about the very presentation of an issue that routinely starts from the question 'what will they contribute' rather than 'what can we do to help'?

None of this is of seeming significance to Harris, who appears more intent on feeding animosity than helping people build bridges, more concerned with defending neoliberal politics than denouncing them as the prime reason behind Govanhill's social tensions, just as they are in the places such people come from in often desperate and disappointing search of something better.        
The growing persecution and terror of Roma people across Eastern Europe, as alarmingly seen in Hungary, should be a warning to all politicians and media here who peddle such populist poison.

Meanwhile, beyond Tom Harris's malicious columns and fake calls for 'serious debate' on immigration, take heart from the Roma children of Govanhill as they voice their small desire to be wanted, secure and happy.

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