Jane Bradley: A bit of empathy for Romania, please

ALMOST a third of Britain’s children live in poverty, struggling to afford even the basics: heating; food; shoes; while one in 20 young people has suffered sexual abuse, says Jane Bradley

J.K. Rowling with Romanian children from the Robin Hood Child Protection Center in Bucharest (2006). Picture: Reuters

There are things about living in the UK of which I am not very proud; atrocities which I cannot believe are allowed to exist in 2014. But they do.

Hundreds of women still walk the streets at the mercy of both their pimps and their clients, while just a short distance from where I am writing this, there are people working as little more than glorified slaves – illegal immigrants paid well below the minimum wage.

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Even so, as a Channel 4 investigation showed, things are far worse in Romania, where hundreds of people live underground in the sewers of Bucharest, its capital city .

The video footage was heartbreaking. Almost all of them are HIV positive, a legacy of long-term drug abuse. Many have stunted growth and development. All sniff a kind of metallic paint, plastic bags pressed over their noses on a permanent high, presumably in a bid to escape the desperate reality of their situation.

The ringleader, a tattooed, be-chained man calling himself Bruce Lee, grew up in an orphanage during the time of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Anyone who was old enough to switch on a TV set in the early 1990s will have a good idea of what that entailed.

He now lives in the sewers underneath Bucharest’s main train station, where he has a network of rooms offering shelter from the freezing temperatures of a harsh Romanian winter, “taking care”, he says, of the next generation of orphans.

After watching the footage, presenter Jon Snow turned to his studio guests to ask whether a country which allowed this to happen should have been granted accession to the EU.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage was not present, but considering his recently acknowledged fear of merely living next door to people originating from this historic and civilised culture, I can only imagine what his response would have been.

The plight of Romania’s street children is not a new issue. On my first visit to the country in 1999, I saw them in the eastern city of Iasi – tiny, bedraggled, dark- haired, androgynous children, breathing into bags filled with solvents. More than 200 miles away, in Bucharest, the group featured in Channel 4’s video have lived under the Gara de Nord for many years.

I was horrified then and I still am. I am not excusing Romania for allowing this to happen.

But despite these horrors, the country has its merits – in the same way that despite harbouring some of its own horrors, modern Britain does too. The same goes for Germany and Austria and France. We all live with skeletons in our closets.

Visit Romania today and you’ll find a vibrant, modern country. The cities are thriving, full of young entrepreneurs and innovative businesses trying to make their mark.

When I lived there in the early 2000s, it was a different place. Romania was struggling to shake off the legacy of the Ceausescu years, driven down by a dusty layer of bureaucracy and corruption.

Self-service supermarkets were a novel concept and a plumbed-in bathroom and running water was a luxury afforded mainly to those living in the major cities – many villagers’ water needs still relied on garden wells.

But things have changed. Pre-EU accession in 2007, over a third of Romanians lived in poverty. Now the figure is just5 per cent.

Yes, the poverty that does still exist is extreme. But instead of condemning the Romanian people, writing them off for failing to tackle a problem which stems from decades of life under a Communist dictatorship, have some empathy.

Think about how EU money – of which only a third of the social fund cash promised at accession has actually made its way to Romania so far – could help children there.

The question should not be whether Romania should be allowed to be part of a club of privileged Europeans, but how we can try to help a neighbour who is struggling to deal with the fallout from years of neglect.

History has been relatively kind to us: let’s pass some of that kindness on.