Thursday, January 31, 2008

Fagin's children

posted by k

This is a hasty copy of a post from Kathz's Blog. I think the topic important and the sequel to the original story is insufficiently known. Meanwhile, the version on the front pages of the tabloids is repeated all over the blogosphere.

There’s anxiety everywhere – fear stoked by politicians and the media. It’s hard to walk down the street and see three or four teenagers in hoodies talking without a tremor of alarm. I saw such sinister youths outside my local shop yesterday lunchtime, doing nothing but leaning on their bikes and conversing. Passers by were being very careful not to get too close. I looked at them again and there was a moment of mutual recognition. Two of them were friends of my son – polite, law-abiding young men, simply dressed warmly in fashionable black and talking to one another. We smiled and exchanged greetings.

Lately the papers have been concerned with “feral children” in criminal gangs. They have linked this with alarmist stories about migrants – mostly legal migrants from Eastern Europe who have done what British people are entitled to do and travelled within the European Community in search of work. Particular fear is expressed about the Roma (more commonly known as Romanies or gypsies). As a group, the Roma people have probably suffered more persecution and prejudice than any other. The history of the Third Reich’s extermination of gypsies is little known – perhaps because less fuss is made about it than the other groups who were exterminated. Few people make much fuss about the appalling treatment of the Roma today. Instead, scare-mongering is accepted and few voices speak in defence of the Roma.

But despite the prejudice, last week’s story must have shocked many people. It was front page news in the tabloids. According to the story, police had raided a number of houses in Slough where small children, sold into slavery by their Roma parents, were being trained to work as pickpockets and burglars. There had to be something in it, I thought, scanning the stories – though I hesitated when the Daily Mail declared that the youngest of these trainee burglars and pickpockets were less than one year old – and that they were being sent out into London to steal for their owners. I remember my teenagers at that age, just beginning to walk unaided. Half of every meal had to be cleaned out of face, hair and clothes. I doubt I could have instructed my toddlers in the agility and deftness required of burglars and pickpockets. At that age they couldn’t have reached many pockets and weren’t capable of the discretion required.

Unusually, there was a follow-up to the story on this morning’s Today programme. A journalist persuaded one of the Roma to conduct an interview. He didn’t find a Fagin’s gang of enslaved toddlers. He met a grandfather, a grandmother and a house full of distressed children. One young person was being held – something to do with immigration, it seemed. Everyone else – including the children – had been freed within 24 hours. There was talk of outstanding charges to do with immigration papers.

Fifteen people lived in the house. It was crowded by British standards but that level of occupation isn’t so unusual in Eastern Europe. The children were part of a family group although their parents had been absent when the dawn raid took place. According to the grandfather, the police entered the house at 5.00 a.m. wearing balaclavas. They ransacked the house, forbad the grandparents to feed the children and finally, at 11.00 a.m. – finding nothing else – took the children away and didn’t return them till the next day.

The follow-up interview on the Today programme made something else apparent – and I should have realised this earlier. The press and TV were invited to watch the police operation. It was broadcast on national television. A Metropolitan Police Commander talked about “intelligence” and denied that the policemen were wearing balaclavas. “But they were,” the broadcaster responded, who had been watching on TV. (The pictures in the Daily Mail show some police wearing crash helmets while preparing to storm a house.)

Since then, various justifications have been offered for the raids: that the Roma’s immigration papers weren’t in order or, later, that some were using stolen mobile phones. Allegations of “child trafficking” continue to be made although the children were returned to their relations.

I remember being appalled that some countries with totalitarian governments would conduct dawn raids on families to check that their papers were in order. I didn’t expect to live in a country which terrified young children and denied them food for hours before seizing them from their relatives. I find it hard to understand why the press were tipped off and encouraged to film and photograph the raids. I don't know - though I could guess - where the stories of trafficked and enslaved children came from.

There’s been far less publicity for the truth – that the children were living with family members and that social services returned them to their parents and grandparents. The idea of Fagin’s children made a better story.

And so fear of foreigners and hatred of Roma is encouraged.

Most people know the names of Auschwitz and Belsen. Most people know that Jewish prisoners wore yellow stars and homosexuals wore pink triangles. Romani wore brown cloth triangles. 23,000 Roma people died in Auschwitz. They were brought there from the concentration camps to which they had been sent in 1938. Some were gassed. Some were used for medical experiments. Some died of exhaustion and starvation. As Nazi power expanded, the persecution and extermination of Roma continued. Concentration camps like Lety u Pisku supplied extermination camps elsewhere. The aim was the eradication of the Roma people.

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. It is observed on 27th January because that is the day when Auschwitz was liberated. Local ceremonies and observances are being held today. It’s right that we remember where fear and hatred lead. We should also remember how easy it is to tolerate evil.

David Morley has written a fine poem (a pantoum) about Lety u Pisku. The text is on his blog and it’s also in his latest book, Invisible Kings. It might be worth reading for Holocaust Memorial Day.

It might be even more important to counter the lies that fuel hatred.

There were no enslaved children or baby pickpockets.

Our police wore balaclavas. They battered down the doors of family homes. They ransacked houses and forbade grandparents from feeding their children. Then they took the children away. Lies were told. Twenty-four hours later, the children were returned.

This is Britain in January, 2008. I am ashamed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite a few of us are indeed aware of the the systematic scaremongering pumped-out by the media on behalf of Big Business. Having said that, most people don't give a damn about anyone except themselves and why should they when -- as Maggie Thatcher said -- there's no such thing as society!

9:47 am  

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