SPECIAL REPORT: How the 21st century Artful Dodgers are making Romanian villages rich


Last updated at 00:36 25 January 2008

Sue Reid

The journey from Romania to Britain has become one of the most lucrative moves for those leaving the Eastern European country's poverty-stricken villages.

Since the former Communist nation joined the EU in January last year, allowing its citizens to come here freely, thousands of people have made the 1,500-mile trip to Britain.

Many of those have been Roma gipsies who have embarked on a well rewarded life of crime as modern-day Fagins.

They have sent much of their money back home, transforming their villages where horses and carts were once the only form of transport to places with expensive cars and glitzy mansions.

Hundreds of these Romanians have settled in Slough. They travel overland on buses to Victoria Coach Station in London. From there it is just a £3 bus ride along the motorway.

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Entire villages in Romania are being emptied, and while some go to other Home County towns, most head for Slough.

By the beginning of May last year, 88 Romanian gipsy children, apparently without parents, had turned up at the town's civic centre. Some were only ten, others in their early teens were pregnant or holding babies.

Under British laws all unaccompanied minors - wherever they are from - have to be cared for by the council and given benefits until they reach 18. By the end of last year, the total cost to Slough of looking after the young arrivals was nearly £1million.

On one visit to Slough last summer, we found an extended family of 100 members - many under 18 - who had arrived from a Romanian gipsy village called Tandarei, 90 miles from the capital Bucharest.

The head of the family, 45-year-old Ion, said that they survived on state help, selling the Big Issue and begging for money after washing car windows at London road junctions.

Dan Cristescu is not surprised by this. He is a trade union president in Romania and was sent to study at Ruskin College, Oxford, under the old Communist regime. For six years, on his return to Bucharest, he ran a committee to help Roma families go to school, train for work and stop begging. He likes them a lot.

"But it is only fair to say they have been a problem for us and now it is yours," he says.

"Britain is naive to believe that the gipsies - which is what they insist on calling themselves because it means "free man" in their language - will change their ways overnight.

Cristescu believes they are aware of Britain's generous benefits system. "Since the early 19th century when they came to Europe from India, they have lived by asking others for money," he explains.

"They are talented musicians and metalworkers, but mostly they like to live by begging. It is their tradition and some are very rich people."

Cristescu's words may sound harsh yet they ring true. Last year there were police reports of organised gangs of Roma boys, some just ten, begging in Walthamstow, East London. They were accompanied by pregnant women and watched over by male minders who regularly collected the takings from the children.

You only have to walk the streets of Tandarei, one of the biggest gipsy villages in Romania, to understand what the problems are for Britain.

Marin Octavious, 39, lives there with his wife and ten children. He is proud to be one of the elders of the gipsy community.

In 2002 he smuggled himself and his family in a freight train across Europe, a journey he says which meant hiding in darkness in a crate for nearly a week.

He would have stayed if he could. He applied for political asylum, citing racial discrimination in Romania because he is a gipsy, but his claim was rejected and he was told to leave. Surprisingly, he did.

"I liked life in your country," he says. "Your government gave my family a flat and £720 a month in benefits. They were good times. But I couldn't find work because I only spoke little English. Like other gipsy families living there, we earned money by begging."

Since Marin returned three years ago, 600 people have left Tandarei, which once had a population of 12,000. One in eight men, many of them from the gipsy community, are without jobs in the town where a horse and wooden cart is the normal method of transport.

As Vasile Sava, the town's mayor says: "Tandarei is in decline. Here families get £5 a month in benefits, even if they are large.

"In Britain they get more help from the state, that is why they go there."

Despite the poverty, there are signs that British money is flowing back to Tandarei. Houses are being built, some with shiny tin roofs, by families who have relatives in Slough and the rest of England. Occasionally, among the horse carts can be seen a sports car, even a new Mercedes.

Stan Bitlan, Tandarei's chief of police, explains: "Those who have gone get money in three ways: stealing, begging, and benefits.

"They send it home to finance new homes, perks they could never have afforded back here."

He has been visited twice by Scotland Yard officers asking for advice on how to tackle the rising Romanian crime wave stemming from Slough.

In a spirit of co-operation, the Romanian police sent four detectives to help with yesterday's dawn raids to free the child slaves - who are driven into London each day to beg - and arrest 20 adults for questioning.

The amount of Romanian crime in Britain has rocketed by more than 700 per cent in the last year. As a senior Scotland Yard officer dealing with child protection commented recently: "You cannot expect foreigners coming here to leave their cultures behind.

"If it is normal to send children out begging or stealing, then they will do so here too."

The £50-a-head bus service from Bucharest to London is thriving. Unlike taking a cheap flight, the travellers can bring all their possessions with them. No wonder most of the tickets are one-way and the bus is nearly always full.