ANYONE FOR CAMPING

by Gabriel Hershman

The British media focus on immigrant "squatters" but never tell the whole story

News that homeless Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants had been camping out in London's Hyde Park triggered predictable outrage in sections of the British media.

The Daily Mail informed us that the immigrants "pitch their tents in one spot for a few nights, then pack up and move to another. They say they are able to get away with camping in the park, which is technically illegal, because there are no wardens and they rarely see any police".

The article was accompanied by a flood of comments from readers urging the authorities to "kick out" the "campers".

The tabloid quoted one such "camper" in the park, a 27-year-old Bulgarian, whom it named Tsvetana Jovtchev (obviously, Tsvetana Yovcheva), who said she had been unable to find a job since arriving in London. "I do not want to go home yet. I can earn good money in this country, much better than at home. But it is much harder than I thought it would be. My government should warn us how difficult it is to come here and find work. Many of my friends had to sleep rough but they have managed to find jobs," she explained.

London is justifiably proud of its eight Royal Parks (technically owned by the Queen) perhaps the last refuges of solace, alongside libraries and museums, where ordinary mortals can escape the phenomenally over-priced capital. It's perhaps surprising that these recreational areas are free given successive governments' drives to denationalise the nation's assets. But, thankfully, the 5,000 acres of historic parkland are still common resources, a reminder that there are still some simple pleasures left to us all. If you consider this to be a statement of the blindingly obvious it's wise to consider the current context of life in London in 2007, a city where new arrivals from the Balkans are likely to be aghast at the extortionate cost of necessities.

Both accommodation and transport are scandalously expensive. A recent issue of Vagabond (December 2006) revealed that the typical rental cost of a flat in the capital is eight times that of Sofia. And a bus or tube ride is seven times the price, so much so that the fare for a hop on the London underground may be equivalent to a short taxi fare.

Remuneration for a typical, menial job would be insufficient to acquire proper accommodation, hence the problems of new arrivals who have to share overcrowded spaces in dingy bed-sits or sleep rough before they find an employer. Forget luxuries - a meal out in a London restaurant is an unattainable dream for many. Even the price of a coffee in Starbucks will leave most Bulgarians gazing nostalgically at their leva, remembering the joys of cheap banitsa in Sofia's cafes.

New migrants to Britain face an eternal dilemma; they certainly have the potential to earn far more but they also have to balance this against the extremely high cost of living. Excuse the pun, but London life is not a mere stroll in the park either, particularly for those whose first language is not English. They face not only financial hardship but separation from friends and family. Many new arrivals, probably penniless after spending their meagre savings on the journey, may have little choice but to sleep rough until they secure their - perhaps elusive - first employment.

Several factors have contributed to the spiralling cost of housing: wealthy bankers purchasing properties for investment purposes, the sale of council housing and massive over-crowding among them. Governments are simply more interested in courting the city than meeting the needs of ordinary citizens. We cannot simply trot out the old maxim that the value of an acquisition is decided by the "invisible hand" of the market. The cost of London housing is becoming a moral outrage. It's simply unacceptable that teachers, nurses, civil servants, policemen and other workers are unable to afford basic accommodation that meets their needs.

Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter, the charity for the homeless, correctly pointed out that it was incumbent on governments to advise potential migrants on the dire situation before they travel to Britain. "There is a need for local authorities to provide a good range of services for those people who remain homeless and are sleeping rough in the UK, whether these people be Eastern European or of any other nationality," he added.

Last summer it was reported on Bulgarian radio that the average British salary was 20 times that of a Bulgarian salary. But all "averages" are deceptive and totally misleading. Most people do not earn the "average" salary because the figures are artificially boosted by the colossal earnings of financial high flyers. None of this, of course, concerns the tabloids. They prefer to focus on the consequences of a problem and scapegoat the victims rather than analyse the malady itself.

It's the Eastern European encroachment on a conspicuous recreational area, this Balkanised blot on the landscape, which draws their attention. If the unfortunates in question were camping in a less prominent area of London - preferably a barren wasteland in the East End - the press would not notice. As always, there is a sub-text to stories in the tabloids. The "campers" are creating an insalubrious atmosphere, lowering the "tone" of the area, raising fears about crime and threatening the area's high property prices. There's also a great deal of stereotyping at work in the depiction of Romanians and Bulgarians as homeless itinerants content to sleep under the stars.

The failure of EU governments to counsel departing migrants does not perturb the authorities or the British media. Newspapers have developed a cattle truck mentality towards immigrants, concerned only with the threat to the indigenous population. The press quote the "campers", hoodwinked into believing the dubious propaganda that a better life awaits them, but their voices are drowned out by bigoted bloggers who want them kicked out. "How long is it before that place becomes a no-go area because all the immigrants have started robbing passers-by? The first thing we need to do is stop letting them in and start kicking a few out," said one typical contributor who commented on the article.

The immigrants' predicament also provides us with an interesting snapshot of London, notably the lack of police on the ground. Any Londoner will tell you that, outside of government buildings and privileged areas, police are virtually invisible. They may be patrolling the skies in helicopters, gazing at CCTV footage in comfortable offices, or cautioning speeding drivers, but they are certainly not on the streets. I lived in Tottenham for two years in the late 1990s and never saw a single policeman except during a football match at White Hart Lane.

The government has capitulated to the anti-immigration lobby by applying ridiculous and unprecedented employment restrictions to the new arrivals from the Balkans. These rules will make it harder for them to find employment and housing, forcing them underground into the black economy where they will face exploitation and temptations to flout the law. The British government seems unable to cope with the repercussions of its own policy. Bulgar-bashing seems likely to remain a popular sport as a consequence until the government reneges on this ludicrous exception and reintroduces a level playing field.

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