The plight of Roma children


By Rosa Mas Giralt

At the beginning of September, the BBC programme This World broadcast a documentary by Liviu Tipurita which followed the lives of Roma – Romany Gypsy – children on the streets of large European cities. The report followed children, under 14 years of age, who were forced to beg and steal on the streets of Madrid and Milan, places in which the Roma population has risen dramatically since Romania joined the EU in 2007. However, increasingly organized crime gangs are behind the systematic trafficking and exploitation of these young people and their profits often materialize in luxurious villas owned by the gang bosses in their native country.  

Roma people are among the most vilified minorities in Europe. The film-maker searched for the root of the problem in his native Romania, where the Roma have been facing discrimination for decades and the hostility from which they have fled to try to find better lives in other parts of Europe. Unfortunately, racist backlashes have accompanied reports of increased criminality in cities like Milan and Madrid, a trend that only perpetuates the conditions within which these children are exploited.

In a forthcoming article for Area, Nick Mai reflects on the colluding geo-political forces that “hamper the identification and prioritising of ‘the best interest of the child’ in the delivery of social intervention targeting Romanian migrant minors in Italy and Romania” (2009:7). Although the research project that he reports on looked into Romanian migrant children in general, the structural elements that he analyses also play a role in the complexity of circumstances that affect Roma children. Their plight continues.


  1. Thank you for this, Rosa. I am familiar with only a small part of Nick Mai’s work – recent interim results from a study of migrant sex workers in the UK.

    I did see the Roma children documentary you mentioned and found it quite frightening, particularly the views of the right in Italy towards the issue.

    We are currently experiencing the beginnings of sex trafficking paranoia in connection with the 2012 Olympics here in the UK, with the statement that trafficking “doubled” during the Athens Olympics frequently appearing in the media and in a report to the Metropolitan Police Authority. Studies reveal it did no such thing, but a number of Roma families were cleared from an Athens suburb to make way for the infrastructure. They were promised rent and better housing, but nothing materialised.

    1. Dear Stephen,

      Many thanks for your comment and further discussion on human trafficking.
      I imagine you will already have seen this recent news item on the BBC website but just to follow up from your blog. Regards and thanks again,

      “Keep trafficking unit, Met urged”

  2. I think, Rosa, that it is always a great struggle to keep discussions of trafficking rational, especially sex trafficking, which seems to get wholly disproportionate resources thrown at it despite the fact we in the UK haven’t even properly absorbed the Palermo Protocol into UK law yet. How can we place any reliability on the numbers charged and convicted, numbers ‘rescued’ and so forth when they include cases such as this: ?

    Did you ever read the Washington Post’s special inquiry (2007) into TIPS report authors the USA and how really to tackle trafficking?

    Well worth a read.

    David Davis says (and I agree with him) that there’s probably a bigger industry in trafficked children begging in London than those trafficked for sex.

    Trouble is they created this unit with some seedcorn funding in a blaze of publicity and they’re forever trying to impress us with their diligence on trafficking, so to threaten it with closure is probably seen by the Met as an easy way to squeeze more cash from Central Government. Worked last time.

    Somebody from Cambs Police was on telly last night talking of expected 10-20% cuts whichever Government comes to power in the UK, where that sort of thing will leave this unit, who knows?

    But there’s a awful lot of silly stats about. Here, for example – only recently revealed – is the most sophisticated research the UK Home Office could manage on the numbers of sex trafficking victims in Britain. It makes one ashamed to be British:

    1. Stephen, many thanks again for your insightful comments and the gripping links. The complexity of issues involved in the trafficking of human beings often gets lost behind impacting news headlines. It is necessary to keep trying to get to the bottom of these important issues so the plight of all those affected can be addressed.

  3. A very good case could be made for keeping a human trafficking unit in London, if looked at dispassionately.

    The difficulty is that sex trafficking continues to dominate debate. Sex trafficking is a terrible problem, but all evidence suggests it is not a very big problem in terms of numbers. But sex, of course, sells, especially newspapers.

    Politically, the problem has been mishandled in Britain in general and London in particular. The latest Home Office estimate, some years back, suggested that there were 4,000 women and children trafficked to the UK for sex in 2003. If the estimate had been correct, the police could have found 378 trafficked persons by raiding 70 ‘walk-up’ brothels in Soho.

    In practice, in the two national Pentameter operations, the police found about two-thirds that number after ”visiting’ 1,337 premises throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    But sex trafficking underpins the UK Government’s sex industry legislation that it’s still to get through the Lords.

    And so, of course, prostitution crops up, an issue even more loaded and emotive than sex trafficking (with which it is invariably conflated).

    The preoccupation of the media with its stereotype of innocent migrant girls lured here with promises of vanilla jobs, then gang-raped by innumerable men in clandestine brothels does not go away easily, and it is difficult to shift either media or politicians’ attention onto the prospectively more sizeable, though undoubtedly less romantic, issue of rescuing children trafficked for begging, for example, or persons trafficked for domestic service or agricultural labour.

    These persons rarely make headlines. Perhaps the winkle pickers of Morecombe Bay did when they drowned.

    The largest number of trafficking victims found in a single raid in Britain was in a Lincolnshire field and consisted of 60 persons picking leeks.

    In London, is the concentration now on trafficked child beggers, persons trafficked for domestic service? No. It remains, of course, on sex. Here’s just one MEP’s response to news of the proposed unit closure:

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