'Britain is now home to 200,000 Roma migrants, one of the largest populations in Western Europe, a recent study shows.' asserts the Daily Telegraph. David Blunkett warns of the potential for riots, and says 'the Government has its “head in the sand” over the true numbers'. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/10442352/Roma-migrant...

Mr Blunkett's statement strikes me as grandstanding and irresponsible, but what about the figure of 200,000 Roma migrants? That would mean that the Roma migrant population in the UK (not 'Britain' as the Telegraph says) is about the same size as the UK population born in the United States (217,000) or Bangladesh (234,000), about half the size of the population born in the Republic of Ireland (403,000) and larger than the Jamaican born population (146,000) http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=... . For all I know, that may be the case, but these comparisons surely suggest that the figure deserves some scrutiny. The idea that a randomly chosen UK resident is even half as likely to be a Roma migrant as to have been born in the Republic of Ireland just doesn't sound that plausible to me.

The 2011 Census gives a figure of 57,680 for the ethnic group category 'Gypsy or Irish Traveller' for England and Wales. Of these, the great majority were born in the UK (50,616) while a mere 4,051 were born in the EU accession countries. Now the ethnic category here is not 'Roma', and it may well be that many or even most non-UK born Roma respondents will have self-ascribed to a different ethnic group. Nonetheless this is the only official figure we have.

The 200,000 figure for 'Roma migrants' is taken from a report by a team at the University of Salford- to be precise, they give a figure of 197,705. http://www.salford.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/363118/Migrant_Roma... It's worth looking at how this estimate was arrived at- both the original data collection and the inference to a national figure.

The basic data comes from questionnaire returns from 51 local authorities in the UK. The questionnaire was in fact sent to 406 local authorities, and achieved a response rate of 37% or 151 authorities. Of the authorities that responded, 80 said they were not aware of any Roma in their area, 12 had no information or couldn't access the information and 59 were aware of Roma living in their area. Of that 59, 51 provided an estimate of their local Roma population. This is the data from which the 200,000 figure is ultimately derived. How robust is it?

The covering letter sent to local authorities begins: 'In recent years Roma have increasingly migrated to the UK, particularly since the Accession States joined the EU from 2004 onwards.The Salford Housing & Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) at the University of Salford is leading a major project focusing on the experience of local authorities across the UK in relation to the presence of Central and Eastern European (CEE) Roma in their local area.' The preamble to the survey questions reads as follows : 'It is very important for us to be able to estimate the size of the Roma population at a local level, but also for the UK as a whole. The next few questions focus on estimating the size of the population and data collection. We understand that it may be difficult for you to provide accurate data; however, we would be grateful if you could provide responses to these questions even if it is based on anecdotal information.'The first question is 'To the best of your knowledge, are Roma present in your local authority area?' The third question is 'Please can you provide an estimate of the number of Roma individuals living in your local authority area?'

I note the following points:

  • The survey question asked for estimates of the Roma population in the area: not the 'migrant Roma population.'

  • Respondents were invited to provide estimates even if based on 'anaecdotal' information.

  • 13% of local authorities surveyed provided estimates.

Three concerns about the data underlying the national estimate arise immediately.

(1) The question was potentially open to different interpretations as it referred to 'Roma' rather than to 'Roma migrants' , although the covering letter made it clear that migrants were the focus. On the face of it, the possibility that some authorities included UK-born Roma can't be ruled out. This isn't the most importat concern however.

(2) Respondents were invited to provide an estimate even on 'anecdotal' evidence, so the quality of the estimates is likely to be - putting it charitably- variable, as is indicated by the following comments from local authority officers involved. ‘We’ve estimated that 80 per cent of the Slovakian population come from a Roma background and that was a figure which came to me, as I say, anecdotally and no-one has got this empirically, but that came from my contact in health, in the police and in the voluntary sector. It seemed reasonable, but it could be wrong.’ (p.32) ’We work with around 300 families. Times by ten, we knew that a lot of families wouldn’t have ten but some would have more than ten and some would have less. I did a kind of rough estimate at 3,000’(p.31). This is not estimation, it's guesswork.

(3) Only 13% of authorities provided an estimate: thus the figures used to produce national estimates are prima facie at high risk of selection bias (for example, authorities with larger populations may have been more likely to provide estimates) making inferences to authorities which did not provide estimates illegitimate.

So much for the underlying data. In order to get to a national estimate, the researchers made two assumptions, if I understand their writeup of the methodology correctly: that the figures they had received from the minority of responding authorities which provided estimates could be taken at face value and that authorities with similar socioeconomic and demographic profiles would tend to have similar proportions of Roma in their populations. The first assumption seems to me to be simply untenable given the invitation to authorities to effectively provide any figure they thought appropriate: clearly these estimates are not comparable across local authorities. The second is at the very least questionable as settlement patterns are likely to reflect a range of contingent factors only loosely correlated with the area characteristics analysed: this is quite apart from the issue of potential selection bias.

So neither the quality of the data from the survey responses nor the method used to infer a national total seem to me to be robust enough to justify use of the 200,000 figure for any purpose, and certainly not as an estimate of Roma migrants from EU accession states. The researchers themselves say:

'The procedural approach of targeting chief executives / equality leads of the survey meant that in many cases the response was not supplied by a research / data officer with experience of data management, nor was estimate scientifically validated. Furthermore, the estimates that were made were based on differing sources, or purely anecdotal assessments. Therefore, the figure proposed in this report must be preliminary.' (I'd be inclined to say somewhat less than 'preliminary'.)

The researchers didn't particularly highight the 200,000 figure in their press release http://www.shusu.salford.ac.uk/cms/news/article/?id=51, confining themselves to statements such as 'There is a significant population of migrant Roma who have migrated to the UK in the recent past' and 'the population of migrant Roma is likely to be of comparable size to the population of indigenous Roma (e.g. Romany gypsies, Irish travellers etc.). This seems to be a case of a big sounding number, rather than the substantive policy issues raised in the report, becoming the focus of media attention.

So are there really 200,000 migrant Roma in the UK? Even if the basic data didn't involve an unquantified amount of guesstimation by local authority officers based on anecdotal evidence, the procedure for getting to a national figure uses assumptions which it would be diffcult to justify. Personally, I should imagine the true number is a lot lower, but that's just an opinion, with only my feeling that people born (like me) in the Republic of Ireland probably outumber East European Roma by a lot more than two to one to back it up. But the considerations raised in this piece are enough to convince me that the 200,000 figure should certainly be taken with a large pinch of salt.