Shezana Hafiz is a law graduate who has spent years involved in grass roots community work, campaigning on justice related issues and leading on some of the most pertinent issues threatening fundamental human rights.
She is currently Community Relations Officer at CAGE.

I had the opportunity a year ago to work at a primary school and gain a thorough insight our current education system’s treatment of Muslim and Roma children.

The school is located in the heart of an area with a high population of Muslim children and in recent years an increasing population of Roma children.

There are many similarities between the treatment of Muslim and Roma children by the British government. The deep prejudice present in our current education and social sectors, mean these children are stigmatised, securitised and in some cases removed from their parents.

The removal of children is happening in the case of Roma communities for vague notions such as “family culture” and among Muslims, for another vague and disputed notion of “extremism”.

Educational institutions are places that have the potential to cultivate healthy and progressive environments for the next generation. But to do this they must enable children to feel safe and secure. The same goes for our social welfare sector.

Criminalising a way of life that is different, but not criminal

Roma children share much in common with Muslim children under PREVENT. Primarily, the UK government is enforcing Western “norms and values” onto children through policing schools by a right-wing regulatory body and through the threat or actual removal of children from families. This amounts to systematic oppression and in the worst cases, abuse.

My reflections underline the statements made in the annual global Kids Index, which saw the UK plummet from 11 to 156 in the Global Children’s Rights rankings. According to the report:

“Counter-terrorism measures (…) are widely perceived to have a discriminatory or stigmatizing effect on children, in particular Muslim children;(c) Many children in certain groups, including Roma, gypsy and traveller children,  … continue to experience discrimination and social stigmatization, including through the media.”

The law in itself in the case of Roma children, and through PREVENT in the case of Muslims, is enforcing schools and other institutions to treat children as “subjects” under a microscope. This threatens their identity and humanness, leading to isolation and disenfranchisement.

Our young people should not be the subjects of coercive policies, and nor should their families. The primary years should be cultivated in an environment that allows them to form their own identity based on their culture, and appreciate the diversity of the world we live in with respect.

The removal of Muslim and Roma children from their families is increasing

What is even more alarming is when this perceived “threat” to the notion of “British values” is “tackled” through the removal of children.

CAGE is soon to release a report detailing such cases among Muslim families, while earlier this year The Guardian published a story of a mother from a Roma community whose child was removed on the basis of “family culture”, though she insists that it was due to prejudice.

The mother cut ties with her family to be closer to her son, and travelled 10 hours a day to visit him while he was being held at a centre prior to being assigned a permanent foster family.

A new study shared exclusively by the European Roma Rights Centre with the Guardian shows that government figures reveal that since 2009, the number of Roma children in care in England has surged by 933% and those of Travellers of Irish heritage by 400%.

Professionals acknowledged to the Guardian that prejudice existed and there were cracks in the system: “On the whole, systems do, albeit inadvertently, discriminate against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families,” admitted one social worker.

The criminalisation of children and their removal from their families of birth in minority communities is an age-old tactic  rooted in the eugenics of colonialism. These methods have resulted in trauma, disconnection, and family breakdown.

This brings on mental health problems, societal fissures and substance abuse that plague minority communities and which result in a more serious and long-term burden for the state. Such inhumanity spells disastrous outcomes in society.

The enforcement of British “values” is taking place in a frightening way for children

I have worked very closely with Roma community and tried to understand their culture, background and way of life. The challenges have been immense, including a language barrier, cultural differences, preconceived misconceptions and pre-existing stereotypes.

The media narrative around Roma people has fueled further tensions and speaking from the inside out, I know this is far from the reality.

But from a professional perspective, the school I worked at is failing these children. This is a first generation that has come here to live in the UK. They do not understand the system as it clashes with their way of life (see facts below), and the fault lies in the way this clash is perceived and responded to by schools and social services.

We are applying rules and regulations and enforcing upon them all the policies that are well understood by those of us who have a grasp of the way of life here in the UK.

The Muslim community in this regard are ahead of the Roma community. But in both, the result is fear. And fear is an unproductive emotion that can have unpredictable outcomes.

Success and breakthrough comes through empathy and a truly open mind

Within the first week of work with Roma children, I realised that the core of my approach would have to incorporate effective and empowering communication where I am able to decipher and see the missing links, educate and encourage.

Some staff members supported this approach, others did not and many made unacceptable, derogatory remarks about Roma families and children.

But I found my interactions with the Roma children fascinating. They bring with them their own culture and heritage and they are proud. Yes they are different but instead of isolating them more needs to be done to understand their way of life and what they value and treasure.

The way forward can be summed up in one word: interact. Without sensitive and empathetic interaction and a desire to learn and teach one another on an equal level, as well as a real acknowledgement of the deep need to preserve family ties, we simply cannot create a progressive and rich environment in which young people are afforded their rights and can develop positively within their cultures, creating positive outcomes for society.

Some interesting facts about Roma culture related by elders to The Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

  • The notion of being mobile or nomadic is key to Roma identity. Their lives surround the protection of this way of life.

  • Roma have very strict moral codes and values. Gender roles are clearly defined. Young people are expected to take on adult responsibilities at about 16 years old.

  • Young children learn the skills they need to partake in the community from their elders (often artisanal or building related or selling door-to-door), that allow them to be nomadic.

  • Issues of stigmatization, bullying and lower levels of “secular” knowledge mean schooling is often unpleasant. One Roma elder summed it up: “School has no attraction to Roma children at all. No child would want to swap their lives in the open air to stay in school. [They] want freedom. We expect our young people to be a man or a woman aged 14 to 16 and then they do manly or womanly things.” This begs the question of how skills such as reading and writing might be better provided to Roma children through the use of tutors for example who may go into the community, or through smarter use of the internet.

  • The family is core and extended families are part of the network of care. If an adult dies, another adult in the family automatically assumes care of the orphaned child/children – this has resulted in run-ins with UK bureaucracy that have seen Roma children removed.

  • Some Roma people have roots in Islam, with many Roma being Muslims or having Muslim ancestors. The Roma are known as Europe’s most persecuted community.

CC image courtesy of Unsplash Kelly Sikkema

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