Local Engagement for Roma Inclusion in Medway

PIF 11th June 2019

Dr David Smith presented research on the Local Engagement for Roma Inclusion (LERI) in Medway, Kent, which evolved from the EU framework for National Roma Integration Strategies and aimed to:

  1. Develop horizontal and vertical mediation and communication channels to enhance the social participation and engagement of Roma at the local level.
  2. Implement small-scale projects that were attuned to local circumstances and needs, based on issues identified in the fieldwork (participatory action research).

Location and population

The Medway towns grew up around Chatham Royal Dockyards, which closed in the 80s leading to unemployment and economic decline. Wages are still below average for the south east and there are some areas of high deprivation: this is where most Roma migrants are living. There was a big westward movement of Roma migrants in the late 1990s and particularly since 2011, with approximately 2000 Czech and Slovak Roma migrants arriving in Medway. There are high levels of overcrowding, unmet health needs, low engagement with available services, and poor marketable or language skills in adults. The vast majority of Roma men are working in low paid and exploitative work (e.g. in restaurants/takeaways, construction, agriculture, contract cleaning).

Research approach

The funder intended a Participatory Action Research approach proceeding through cycles of planning, action, reflection and evaluation with Roma involved in defining needs and co-production of interventions, and training of community mediators, etc. Many Roma children are attending the local high school, so this was a familiar site for many families and the school’s Slovak community liaison officer was instrumental in engaging the Roma community. However there were a number of challenges:

  • Local Roma subdivided by family/clan with no agreement over who should represent the ‘community’.
  • No experience of being ‘consulted’ or invited to participate and reacted with suspicion/scepticism initially.
  • The more articulate/confident community members with good English skills (mostly women and high school students) got involved, but difficult to engage men working long hours.
  • Exclusion of local Gypsies/Travellers due to divergence of issues and conflict between Traveller and Roma youths.

The fieldwork took place in 2013-2017 and involved various focus groups and interviews with Roma migrants, other eastern and central European migrants, Gypsy and Travellers, UK long-term residents, social workers, housing officers, councillors, teachers, community workers and other local stakeholders. The ‘Medway Czechoslovak Association’ for Roma and non-Roma (also other eastern and central European migrants) was established as a steering group, and there were various capacity building events to promote dialogue and understanding between Roma and services: education, social services, housing and police.


There were many findings around intra and inter community relations:

  • Positive aspects of being ‘invisible’ and not identified as Roma in the UK.
  • Dislike being called ‘Kosovans’ (as a generic terms for migrants from eastern and central Europe) and emphasise national hierarchies.
  • Identify by nationality rather than by ethnicity as most wanted to escape the Roma identity; increasing interaction with non-Roma Slovaks in UK.
  • Initial hostility and conflict from locals after arrival but now most feel more accepted. Locals reported as cordial but few friendships outside the immediate extended family network (among adults).
  • Adults mostly work with Roma and other migrants; few encounters with ‘locals’ in the workplace.
  • Prejudice/hostility largely from other eastern and central European migrants.
  • Viewed problems as similar to others in the neighbourhood, issues seen as class/structurally based in UK (welfare system and labour markets) unlike in Slovakia where issues seen as stemming from ethnic discrimination.
  • Generational differences: younger cohorts have more friends from outside the Roma community, identify more with neighbourhood and involved in sport, music, dance and local youth cultures.
  • Teachers report increasing attendance/academic performance (four pupils in the sixth form for the first time 2018/19) in high school where 5% of pupils are Slovakian Roma.
  • There was also an interesting contrast between stakeholder and Roma perceptions of need, with stakeholders identifying overcrowded housing, unmet health needs and unfamiliarity with life in the UK compared with Roma identifying education, community cohesion and leadership, and conflict with other European migrants as most important.

Lessons learned and recommendations:

  • Importance of an effective and dynamic intermediary known to local Roma community.
  • Stakeholders with good knowledge of local social and political environment.
  • Activities that involve the entire family (so that childcare is not an issue) and take place in a familiar environment at the high school e.g. family learning, community engagement events.
  • Issue of sustainability: short-term nature of funding leaves questions over long-term impact.
  • Mainstreaming: the UK government’s response to the National Roma Integration Strategies was to include Roma in general equality strategy, but some of the things that worked for other European migrants wouldn’t work for Roma migrants.
  • The use of ‘Roma’ as an umbrella term is problematic as there is a divergence of issues and priorities and tension between local Gypsies/Travellers and Roma migrants.
  • Potential impact is limited by wider structural factors: labour market/informal and exploitative work; public spending cuts/austerity and impact on low income neighbourhoods (27% since 2010); closure of local services and amenities; spatial concentration of poor; BME and economically inactive populations.

Discussions started with involvement as the funders wanted much more participation, however the Roma communities were not used to being asked and were largely involved through focus groups. It was suggested that involvement is often a process: people first need to be asked and need the training, support and confidence to realise that they have a role in developing the agenda and making a difference. This moved on to the impact of Brexit on Roma migrants’ sense of identity and marginalisation – many don’t have paperwork for housing or employment and are effectively invisible from authorities. Despite Roma support groups doing some work around settled status, there is a lot of uncertainty. In terms of negotiating identity, many were trying to move away from the Roma label, particularly young people who were able to integrate much more in school. Finally there was a discussion around building trust and David talked about how important the Slovak community liaison officer at the school was, alongside a couple of Roma on the Gypsy Council that he had contact with. This helped to smooth over concerns around social services and illegal deportation, but it took time which needs to be built into the research.

Author: annadadswell

As a Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at Anglia Ruskin University, I manage the Participatory Research Blog. Please feel free to contact me with questions and suggestions at anna.dadswell@anglia.ac.uk.

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