There’s often much liberal and high brow insistence that, in this country, people who commit crimes or are junkies are victims of society, particularly young people. It’s not a belief to which I personally adhere and having watched Liviu Tipurita’s film last night for the BBC’s This World season, the main subjects of his film truly and genuinely are victims of the society in which they live. They’re pretty much the dictionary definition in fact.
It compounded my belief that in this country, few people are ‘forced’ into lives of crime and it remains a choice, whereas for Romanian Gypsies, and in particular, children, it’s not a choice at all. It literally is forced upon them and it’s an entire way of life that’s based on the commercial worth of a child. There was little evidence of love or nurture for these children who are the 21st century living re-enactment of Oliver Twist.
Tipurita went undercover in the first few minutes of the film in order to show how children as young as eight years old were stealing from people – and targeted those at ATMs – in Madrid. We heard that 95% of kids under 14 whom the Spanish Guardia arrest up for stealing are Gypsy children, and as they’re minors, they cannot be charged and are therefore freed to continue their criminal activities.
So are these kids the Eastern European equivalent of the hoodie/chav crime wave criminals that we have here? No, they are not. For them, their ability to steal literally equates to survival. There are no benefits or dole for these people. Home to some of the children featured was a padlocked shed and their only value to their parents – or the crime lords who’ve purchased the kids as commodities – is how much they can earn in a day by thieving.
Tipurita’s film was well balanced, despite his evident heartache for these children, and he impartially interviewed some scum-of-the-earth types and thoroughly researched all sides of this cultural ‘argument’. For instance, in Madrid, we heard that there is a residential centre which, in theory, assesses every child who passes through its doors and decides the fate of that child. However, most often, the kids are handed back to the adults who are entrusted with their care, and those adults waste no time in getting the kids back on the streets.
There’s a similar set up in Milan which offers shelter to Gypsies who’ve had their homes bulldozed by angry mobs – though the homes are rarely more than shacks – but it receives little public help or sympathy in a country where a state of “gypsy emergency” has been declared. As one Milan resident told Tipurita, “These people should be killed, but we can’t kill them.”
And it’s not just thieving that these children are forced into; girls, young girls, are being sold freely and not too many questions are asked as to what their future holds. One 13 year old was sold for €7,000 but it was anticipated that she’d earn that back for her purchaser within a matter of weeks by stealing.
One man Tipurita interviewed told how he’d sold his daughter and made a tidy sum in the process. “I got 25 million lei for my daughter in 2004. This is our gypsy custom; if she’s a virgin, if she’s untouched, she’s valuable.”
And as is the way of the world, the people who truly profit from the criminal activities of others are the Fagin-esque heads of the organisations who rule the Gypsy communities and skim the profits in their entirety of the €400 or so that each child ‘earns’ per day. These are men who live in parodies of Del Boy mansions where the evidence of wealth is abundant but taste not so similarly apparent.
And as the film closed, Tipurita touched on the truly virulent nature of this ever increasing crime wave as we saw and heard how these ‘men of power’ are also into loan sharking. They’re client base is, one assumes, the poor Gypsy families who live in poverty and squalor while sending their children out to steal or are selling them to the highest bidder.
It’s a desperate cycle of poverty and crime, and the only people profiting are the ones at the top of this inordinately distasteful food chain. But what’s the solution? Well, Tipurita didn’t presume to try to offer one and did his journalistic job – and therefore, subjectively reported – well, even if his sympathies clearly lay with the victims, for victims they are, despite the fact they are the ones who are almost terrorising the streets of affluent European towns.
What his film made excruciatingly clear is that for Romanian Gypsies, it’s a dog eat dog world and survival of the fittest is the order of the day. Are they amoral leeches? Arguably, yes. Are they that way out of choice? Again, arguably, no.
There are no short answers and the right and wrongs of the issue fall into an area so grey, it’s comparable to the poisonous and invasive London fogs of Dickensian times. Indeed, if we weren’t living in what most of us smugly assume is an enlightened time, this story could easily be mistaken for an uncensored Dickens novel. But these are real people and it’s 2009, which made Tipurita’s film the uncomfortable, but necessary viewing it was.