Hoping for “a better future”: Researching Romanian migration in North-West London

By Ana-Maria Cîrstea, PhD Anthropology.

Over the past three decades, Romanians have become one of fastest growing and most contentious migrant groups within Europe. In 2015, the United Nations reported that Romania’s migrant population of over 3 million people registered the second highest annual growth rate after Syria. It is estimated that over 390,000 Romanians were resident in the UK in 2018, having more than doubled in number between 2014 and 2018.

Like EU migrants from other new accession states, many Romanians work in so-called ‘low-skilled’ jobs, such as retail, transport, construction, and hospitality. Think of the people making your morning coffee, building your future home, and driving your ASOS delivery to your doorstep. In short, they undertake alleged ‘3D’ jobs (dirty, dangerous and dull) making up what could be considered an invisible part of the economy. Yet, these otherwise ‘invisible’ migrant workers become highly visible in tabloid press and public debates over immigration. Seen as a threat to ‘British’ jobs and over-stretched state services, Romanians are often described as a static, heterogeneous group defined by crime and anti-social behaviour (most frequently used terms include gang, criminal, beggar, thief, squatter). Leading up to the Brexit referendum, Romanian migrants, especially unskilled workers, were specifically targeted by the Leave campaign as dangerous and abusing welfare benefits. As a result, Romanian migrants are viewed on their ‘3D’ labour and/or their perceived inherent criminality.

one key aspect stands out in my conclusions, one which I would like to share far and wide since it goes beyond academic and theoretical jargon: hope.

In my role as both a Romanian abroad and an anthropologist, I decided to enquire further into the themes of migrant labour and belonging for my Masters and current PhD project. Why do Romanians choose to come to the UK? Are these motivations simply economic? How do they understand their work and lives spanning nation-state borders?

Thanks to the St John’s Student Opportunities Fund, my Masters fieldwork enabled me to harvest some tentative answers to these questions by analysing migrants’ motivations and trajectories. During the spring of 2019, I conducted five weeks of ethnographic fieldwork in North-West London, in the Boroughs of Brent, Harrow, and Barnet. Most of my days consisted of lengthy interviews and participant observation in places usually frequented by Romanians: bustling cafes, Romanian beauty parlours, and high streets in the urban periphery. During weekends, I volunteered at various Romanian community associations and attended church services. Some days I also ventured into Central London to attend events at the Romanian Cultural Institute and sat in consultations between migrants and UK institutions. I listened to Romanians’ life stories, frustrations and laughed at their jokes. Amid all these different interactions, I found countless exciting material for the academic theories about which I read, from precarity and global capitalism to racialisation. But one key aspect stands out in my conclusions, one which I would like to share far and wide since it goes beyond academic and theoretical jargon: hope.

Despite the exploitation of their labour and the difficulties of living away from home, Romanians trust in one day being able to have what they call a “normal life”. They envision a future in which they can return ‘home’ to live near their loved ones or they plan to build a ‘home’ here, in the UK. This sense of hope and desire for a “normal life” is left out of the tabloid press and government White Papers. It somehow never penetrates the breaking news section of newspapers. Yet, in a time of political uncertainty around Brexit and crumbling economic prospects, I believe a desire for a “normal life” is something in which we can all rejoice.

I urge you to think about these intertwined goals of safety and security, of a better future, and of hope. It remains something we all badly need these days, in the face of surmounting precarity and manifold ‘crises’ around the world.

For most of my interlocutors, the reasons behind migration are part of their search for “something better” or “a better future”. For those who migrated with their partners, working abroad represents an opportunity to save money and build a life together. Diana[1], a newlywed who recently moved to London, describes their migration as a chance to have “something of our own”. Mihaela and her husband, Cristi, also work to save money for “a house of our own” in their natal village. For my interlocutors with children, their main reason for migration is also to consolidate an imagined future, one in which they will benefit from a better education. Camelia, a stay-at-home mother of two, describes her motivations to come to the UK:

“For money, sure, but not for that much money, really. I want to raise my children properly. To prepare them for whatever life throws at them.”

Whether their savings are destined for a house, a small business, or for their children, Romanian migrants often see their work as a vehicle to an imagined future around “something better”. And here lies my provocation for you, on which I end this brief reflection. What does a “normal life” mean to you? And how is this tied to the part of the world where you were born? I urge you to think about these intertwined goals of safety and security, of a better future, and of hope. It remains something we all badly need these days, in the face of surmounting precarity and manifold ‘crises’ around the world.


[1] In an interest to respect my interlocutors’ privacy, I decided to assign them pseudonyms. 

Photographs by Ana-Maria Cîrstea

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s