‘People shout and swear at me’

Roma people have the same right to sell Big Issue North as anyone, despite the misconceptions

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In the last 15 years, the demography of our vendors has changed dramatically. In 2019, 28 per cent of them described themselves as British, compared to 85 per cent in 2004. Two-thirds of those are Romanian, while the others come from countries including Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Latvia and Italy.

Although driven by a number of factors, the increase in non-British vendors is in part due to the migration of Roma people from Romania.

A significant number of Eastern European Roma migrated to the UK to flee poverty and increased ethnic violence. Roma communities are described by Amnesty International as among the most deprived in Europe. Across the continent, they suffer widespread discrimination and are denied their rights to housing, employment, healthcare and education.

In many societies, Roma people are subject to prejudice and distrust, based on negative stereotypes of criminality and parasitic lifestyles.

With a healthier economy and a multicultural society, the UK appeared to many Roma families an ideal place to settle. But, often, they are met with the same discrimination and obstacles. A 2018 report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that Roma people had lower educational attainment rates and faced increased barriers in healthcare access. Additional research from the Traveller Movement also found 40 per cent of young people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in London had experienced bullying. Of these, two-thirds reported bullying by teachers that they felt was linked to their ethnicity.

The experience of our vendors supports these findings. Non-British vendors are more likely to be homeless and only 15 per cent of non-British vendors hold formal qualifications, compared with 50 per cent of British vendors.

Roma vendors experience racism and abuse on the street. Ana, who has been selling the magazine for two years to support her family, says: “Some people are racist because I am Roma. They say: ‘You are a Gypsy!’ I don’t know why there is this racism. Some people here are very rude. They shout at me, swear at me. They say: ‘Go back to your country!’ That makes me feel sad, but I just leave them and say nothing.”

Often, the abuse stems not only from prejudices against Roma people but misconceptions about them selling the magazine – the most common being that Roma and non-British vendors are taking opportunities to become a vendor away from British people.

This is simply not the case. We have more pitches than we have vendors. Similarly, the money that vendors spend on magazines is reinvested in the service we provide. This means that nobody ever misses out on accessing our service, and the more magazines a vendor is able to buy, the more they are helping us to support them and any potential new vendors.

Another misconception stems from an idea that vendors are abusing the benefits system. Anglia, who sells the magazine in Chester, says: “I was born in London but raised in Manchester. My mother and father are from Romania. I’m 20 years old… I am more English I suppose. But the other day there was a man who came up to me when I was selling the magazine and he said to me: ‘You are taking all the benefits!’ And I was like: ‘I was born in London.’ And he said: ‘No you weren’t!’ It made me upset.”

Anyone who is self-employed is entitled to certain benefits. Selling Big Issue North is a genuine, legally recognised form of self-employment. Vendors buy magazines for £1.50 each from one of our offices, then sell them on for £3, keeping the money they make. Of course, not all of our vendors claim benefits, but we would defend anyone’s right to claim a benefit if they are legally entitled to it.

Roma vendors, like all of them, are hardworking people who want to create better lives for themselves and their families. They sell Big Issue North to earn an income – something they often struggle to do via other means due to language barriers, lack of formal qualifications and discrimination.

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