“Romanians are coming” – alternatives to a patronising view

The first episode of Channel 4’s series of three “Romanians are coming” has stormed much debate among the Romanian Diaspora. We have received messages from all over the world about how resentful Romanian students and LSRS volunteers felt while watching the show. No wonder why that was the case. The first episode of the ‘trilogy’ is indeed slanderous and it does put the Romanian community in the UK in a rather promiscuous light. But things are not that straightforward as they look for us and the documentary needs to be acknowledged for the way in which it covers this entire situation and wraps it in a romanticised and emotional set of stories.

It is impossible not to notice the absence of any direct British influence on what it is shown on TV. The narrator is Romanian, the subjects are Romanians and everything else seems to be Romanian. This is tricky because it creates the effect that the documentary ‘offers a voice’ to the Romanians and allows them to speak for themselves. This could easily and overtly empower the narrator and further mislead the viewers, creating a supposed self-explanatory image of an entire community. As shown in the first episode, Romanians talk dirty about each other and about Romania. Equally they reiterate stereotypes about the Romanians with the accordions, the poor rural-like images of Romanian peripheries, the low standards of English language or the lack of information Romanians have when they come in the UK solely to claim benefits.  What else could be more convincing than someone’s self-representation? Would you not trust them mocking themselves? The power of the media portrayals should not be, under any circumstance, overlooked. Of course, this could be outrageous for our community as we know matters are not as they are represented.

This is Romania, too! (credits: Hotel City Centre)

This is Romania, too! (credits: Hotel City Centre)

All these make a clear, argued response even more complicated. We need to be able to respond in such a way that the non-Romanians would clearly understand what is wrong with this documentary, in particular, and with the patronising ways of picturing Romanians in the UK or around the world, more generally. We equally need to be careful not to re-emphasise stereotypes and draw lines between different categories of Romanian immigrants in the UK. That would make us as guilty and patronising as the Channel 4 documentary. There are serious inconsistencies in this first episode which need to be addressed and explained: the misrepresentation of a heterogeneous/diverse community, a process of labelling and universalising the Romanian identity as belonging to the lower parts of the social hierarchy or even the images of the poor Romanian peripheries. None of these are key features of our country and our identity. This does not necessarily create exclusion, but it rather presents an inescapable image of the ‘poor immigrants trying to make a decent living in the wealthy United Kingdom’. Such issues have been addressed by various actors of the community such as the Romanian Embassy,  foreigners living in Romania and even the Vice-Chancellor of The University of Essex. There are others as well, too many to reference here without missing someone. LSRS would like to reiterate its support for all these thoughtful initiatives and remind everyone of the LSRS, ARISS and our partner Romanian Societies’ joint public press release which still remains valid for the present circumstances. Rather than trying to directly deconstruct and combat all those presented in the documentary, we would like to propose an alternative and more positive view of the entire situation.

First of all, we all need to be sensitive to the diversity of the Romanian community which should be the starting point for every public position about us, the Romanians. We are students, bankers, care workers, businessmen, low-paid workers, nurses, academics, builders, doctors, fruit pickers, sportsmen etc. It would be a mistake to focus on any one side of the argument and pretend that would be illustrative enough for the entire Romanian community in the UK (or elsewhere). The discourses in Britain usually celebrate diversity. We should also do that in practice. The subjects of the first episode are indeed part of the Romanian community, but they are not entirely representative for it. While acknowledging their life stories and their power to battle through hardship and social inequalities, they represent only one side of our community. We should neither disregard nor take them as the archetype of the Romanian identity. We would simply homogenise an entire group down to a particular identity and we would exclude (as the documentary does) the other social categories of Romanians, overlooking the plurality of our group. Consequently, the first two questions for Channel 4 producers would be: Why choose to highlight only these people in your first episode? And how did you recruit your participants? No official institution or group of representatives have been approached for this matter – which is deeply concerning and questions the ethics behind Channel 4’s production.

Second of all, let us focus on the Romanian student community in the UK and on The League of Romanian Students Abroad’s stance on this. If we are to be honest and true to ourselves we should concentrate on our own experiences and expertise. We would like to reiterate the importance of the Romanian students in the UK which represent an equally important part of the community and also a strategic asset for both the Romanian and the British societies. We would like to claim once again that Romanian students are representative of the true features of the Romanian community in Britain. Consequently, as Romanians in the UK, we take direct offence in the attempt to label our community in such a homogeneous way. The intellectual competences of Romanian students in the Britain have been constantly recognised by the British academia, employers and peers alike. Romanian students are continually evaluated to be among the best within British education. As proud representatives of their country in the United Kingdom, Romanian students have created one of the most cohesive institutional frameworks in Europe for the promotion of their culture and spirit within the academic environments in which they live and work. At a micro level, relationships between Romanian and non-Romanian nationals in the UK resulting from this framework are indicative not only of the collaboration and shared values between Romanians, Britons and other internationals, but also of the intrinsic and wide-ranging academic co-operation that our students are experiencing throughout their time here, in the UK. We would also like to assure everyone that we do not promote an alternative false image of a totally saintly Romanian community in Britain. On the contrary, we know there are problems and we would like to express, once again, our support in combating any crime and abuse towards anyone. However, we consider these are not defining features of our community and everyone should be more sensitive to such misrepresentations of the Romanian community.

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We are Romanians, too!

As indicated earlier, this entire debate is not necessarily new. Last major debate came around the 1st of January 2014 when the Romanian nationals were granted free access to the British labour market. That was an important political moment in the UK which re-opened an older debate on immigration. Moments are always important and we should not overlook them. Therefore, a new question for Channel 4 arises: Why did you choose to present this documentary now? The times are interesting and this 3-episode series has come when things seemed to settle down. Then why reignite this subject again? Interestingly, there are less then 3 months until the General Elections in the UK – some of the most unpredictable and open elections in the British history. This could indicate that there might be a political reason behind this documentary. Then, the question of ‘why now?’ seems legit and we would like Channel 4 to answer it in all their honesty.

Finally, we should not disregard that there are two more episodes and we should maintain a balanced and expectative position until the remaining two chapters are aired. How will the other episodes be? One can speculate that Channel 4, a profit-seeking business, has used this first episode to raise attention on this issue, create controversy and increase their revenues as well as their audience for the next episodes – which may be more objective. This would again be condemnable, but we cannot develop more on speculations. We will see if this is the case, but until then we should maintain our clear position and militate for a diverse representation of the Romanian community in the UK, where students, among others, play a significant role which balanced with the media-perpetuated image, creates a rather more optimistic, positive and beneficial framework of such a heterogeneous and vibrant community of Romanian nationals in the United Kingdom. Once again, we would like to invite you to read the very well thought and presented answers to Channel 4’s series which could be found towards the beginning of this article If there is any other balanced and appropriate opinion which has slipped our attention, please send it to contact@uk.lsrs.ro and we will promote it. Until then, let’s wait and see how the next two episodes will be. Maybe we were all wrong.

Yours sincerely,
Team LSRS UK and everyone else supporting our vision. 

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