In November last year, David Blunkett – MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough – became headline news following comments made about the Roma community in the Page Hall area of Sheffield, voicing fears of an “explosion” if integration wasn’t more effectively pursued. Nick Clegg then added that incoming migrants must “behave with a sense of respect and sensitivity”. But this 12 million-strong community, dispersed across the continent, has been consistently abused and shunned. An Amnesty International report released earlier this year catalogues some of the abuse suffered by the Roma, including arson attacks, police harassment, a young Roma girl beaten at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens and an acid attack on a homeless couple near the Place de la République in Paris.

An estimated 200,000 Roma migrants now call the UK home, with a large population settling in Yorkshire. The situation in Page Hall is far from simple. On the approach from Firth Park Road, a Methodist Church and a Mosque sit side by side, a picturesque tribute to multicultural Britain, but only a few streets along, cracks begin to appear in the picture.

But this neglect is not a recent occurrence. Page Hall was identified by the Housing Market Renewal (HMR) Pathfinder scheme in 2004 as an area in urgent need of redevelopment. The final report, a collaboration between Transform South Yorkshire, LDA Design and Sheffield City Council issued in May 2005, found that housing in Page Hall was “older, in poorer condition… than across the city as a whole”, claiming that “37% of the properties in Page Hall are unfit or in poor repair”.

Despite this, the Housing Market Renewal in Sheffield report published by the Council in 2012 showed only 33 properties had been redeveloped since the 2005 proposals were shelved. Meanwhile, Park Hill received £13.6m of council investment creating 634 new units; nearly £1.3m was spent on the Home Owners Maintenance and Advice Scheme in Darnall, improving 560 properties; and £3.5m was spent on Streetscene and a further £3m creating open spaces in Park City, Southey and Owlerton.

Since 2010, the Council has delivered £1.6m in Page Hall in the form of Homezone, but this is essentially a traffic calming measure. No properties were improved. This is the only investment in Page Hall mentioned in the Council’s Review of 2010-14 Local Investment Plan, despite the same report highlighting Page Hall as a “priority location”.

This systematic neglect and lack of investment has led private investors to take advantage, buying cheap then renting out the substandard properties to migrant families. For the most part, low prices are attracting migrant families, rather than migrant families creating the price drop, as has been publicised.

Since Blunkett and Clegg made their public statements, there has been a change in the community of Page Hall. Andy Shallice, from the charity Roma Support Group, says the effects were two fold. The first is in the strategy and prevalence of the police and support groups in the area. An “enforcement mentality” has taken root. Integration and education is taking a backseat in favour of harsher interventions. The second, and perhaps more worrying, development is in the way that the Roma population now feels in relation to the rest of the community. The media circus that descended on the area following Blunkett’s remarks only stoked the fires of phobia. It has meant that the Roma community, already a tight-knit group, have been further isolated.

This is understandable from a group who have faced centuries of abuse. Up to one and a half million Roma were killed alongside six million Jews during the holocaust, yet no programmes for rehousing or compensation were ever put forward for them.

Walking the streets of Page Hall is not always a pleasant experience. Litter blows across the road, collecting in the gutters. As darkness falls, people exit their crowded homes – sometimes sleeping four to a room – and congregate in the streets, for lack of any other facilities. Consequently, anti-social behaviour has certainly been an issue in the area, with reported incidents reaching their highest level last August, since the end of 2010. Police action in the area over the last six months seems to have been effective and this has now dropped to 2012 levels. Social facilities, especially for young adults, are conspicuous by their absence, with only one youth club a week.

We must be careful that we do not reach a point where it becomes commonplace to prejudice recent migrants – especially from poorer backgrounds – in a way that would be completely unacceptable to any other societal group. As Andy Challice pointed out, since November there have been seven changes to the welfare system that have solely targeted recent EU migrants. Enough is enough. We must engage and invest if we want integration.

Josh Rowlands