Panorama programme on Roma Child Trafficking highlights need for a better response from community organisations
Rita Chadha is the Chief Executive Officer of RAMFEL (Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London). RAMFEL provides high quality and effective advice, support and advocacy services to asylum seekers, migrants , refugees and BAME communities to enable them to make a positive contribution to their local community.
Watching the Panorama programme on Roma Child Trafficking last week, it is easy to convince oneself that the argument is either on one side simply about criminality, exploitation and immigration or on the other about institutional racism and a failure to respect different cultures. The documentary and its subsequent positioning also suggests that ‘immigration’ issues are contained within a vacuum of space and time, in which they have no connection to the everyday life of communities and neighbourhoods.
Within the London borough of Redbridge nothing could be further from the truth. Prior to the raids almost a year ago as part of Operation Norman (also known as Golf – apparently it is not just “illegals” that are allowed to have pseudonyms), there had already been considerable unrest in one locality in relation to the presence of the Roma community.
Dissatisfaction with public services rapidly translated into what was perceived by some as a localised racist ideology. The issue was one of sufficient concern to call for a targeted multi agency approach that focused on dealing with anti social behaviour.
When the issues were deemed low risk it was then considered that the matter was of a community cohesion concern. Even the presentation of a 200 strong petition asking for the Roma to move on was not deemed of sufficient concern for action to be taken.
However this did not stop Operation Norman barging into Redbridge and taking 15 children from their families into reception centres only to return them to the same families at the end of the day.
At the time RAMFEL immediately made representations on behalf of the community to the local authority, local NHS and the police asking for an explanation. Amazingly one of those rare incidences when multi agency working actually worked (but you should have heard what was said off the record about one another) and they hid behind the principle of safeguarding.
Let us be absolutely clear, we are not questioning the police intelligence on the issue, what we questioned at the time was the local response to making sure that a whole community was not stigmatised and marginalised for the perceived actions of a few.
And so it was that meetings were convened (known by RAMFEL as appeasement meetings) where promises are made to learn lessons and do better. Metropolitan Police Authority even promised to give us a copy of their power point presentation so that we could better understand the issue. Unfortunately however despite six months of continuous asking we never received it, apparently too large a file for the MPA to email to us, but not too large for them to email to the Panorama documentary crew.
Oh what a poisoned web we weave when we first practice to deceive. And so we come full circle. The documentary was screened last week, and within five minutes of the documentary being aired we had emailed senior staff at the London borough of Redbridge asking them to advise what they would do under the Equality Act 2010 to foster good relations. We were told somebody would get back to us….
What is it that makes some local authorities so scared talking about migration? Until we can foster good relations at the local level, and local councils in particular provide the leadership that is required, we will always remain unable to fully challenge the prejudice and discrimination.
We can spend all the time we like, mediating between the grand political narratives and rhetoric of left and right, what we need are opportunities to engage, debate and yes indeed argue safely about the issue as adults.
Donna Covey from the Refugee Council argued last week we need the government to promote a more positive discussion on asylum, in response to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory findings that the public would like to see a reduction in the number of asylum seekers. That is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, what we need is as refugee and migrant organisations to seize the mantel and initiative.
Fostering good relations starts with friendships, schools, and neighbourhoods, it is up to refugee and migrant organisations to use the full weight of the local mechanisms of consultation and engagement (as imperfect as they maybe) to fight against the growing tide of suspicion and prejudice on all issues related to migration. For that we as refugee and migrant organisations must be constructively critical, creative and convincing throughout the town halls of England.