Govanhill is without question the most intensely scrutinised neighbourhood in all of Scotland. It is a place where the ugly issue of race is front and centre every single day. A year ago, there were allegations that Roma parents were selling their children for sex on the streets of Govanhill – but a police investigation has just ended without turning up any evidence to substantiate the claims. Nevertheless, Roma people and Govanhill remain caught in the spotlight. The Roma are demonised and the area portrayed as a no-go zone. The fact that Govanhill falls into the constituency of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has only served to politicise and super-charge claim and counter-claim.

For the last month, The Herald on Sunday has been in Govanhill, speaking to all communities there – Asian, white and Roma. What we discovered is that while Govanhill, like many neighbourhoods in Scotland, certainly has its fair share of troubles and problems – including poverty, slum conditions and crime – it is most importantly an area awash in myth-making and misinformation, all exacerbated by the most potent and toxic issues of 2018: race and immigration.


LEON Puska is sipping tea with vanilla syrup in a cafe popular with Roma folk in Govanhill on Glasgow’s south side. His big smile is at odds with the conversation. He’s talking of the Porajmos, or the Devouring – the Nazi Holocaust which murdered around 500,000 Roma people like him.

Why is it so forgotten, he wonders.

READ MORE: There are two realities to life in Govanhill

Puska is only 21, but this young man wants that amnesia to change – he wants people to remember. In fact, he wants to change a lot of things – and top of his list is the perception of the Roma people in Govanhill.

It’s no exaggeration that they’ve been demonised. Last November, claims were made that Roma parents were selling their children for sex in Govanhill. One year later, an investigation into those claims has ended without any evidence.

Puska looks physically sick at the mention of the allegations. "It is a horrible lie," he says – a lie that has followed Roma people for centuries. Down the ages, Roma people have been accused of stealing children, of selling children. It’s similar to the "blood libel" which followed Jewish people – false claims that they killed Christian children and used their blood in religious rituals. The blood libel stoked murderous anti-Semitic persecution.

Puska was born in the Czech Republic – where some Roma women were subjected to a campaign of forced sterilisation. Back home, he says, Roma are routinely discriminated against – they are low on the list for jobs, and often live in the worst housing estates. Some employers simply won’t hire Roma. "You’d ask for a job and be told f*** off, you gypsy c***," Puska says.

But Puska isn’t naive. He knows that a marginalised community can have problems with crime and behaviour. "If you can’t get a job what do you do?" he asks. "How are you going to feed your child?"

Back home, he says, some Roma steal satellite dishes for money. "Don’t get me wrong," he says, "it’s a small percentage who do that. Roma people came here to get away from that. We came here to get a job and live a decent life."

He admits that some Roma people, raised in poverty and discriminated against, may bring petty crime with them on their journey to Scotland.

Puska sees similarities between the experience of black people in America over the last 150 years, and Roma in Europe. There’s a sense that some people within a downtrodden community may need to find ways to survive that the majority may not like – that if a society treats a certain set of people badly enough for long enough, perhaps they may behave in ways some find unacceptable.

Puska is brave enough to accept the problems within his own community – but he is also angry enough to say that those same problems exist in every community, including whites and Asians.

"As many black girls and white girls are prostitutes as Roma girls," he says. Puska is aware of some Roma people begging on the streets, but adds: "You’ve professional beggars around the world."

He was approached by a professional white beggar in Glasgow the other day. The woman came up to him with a child and said she was hungry. "I got out my wallet and gave her money."

Puska is also familiar with the stereotype that Roma people are lazy. He makes the point that he has three jobs – one as a delivery driver, and two jobs as a youth worker. The sight of queues of Roma lining up in the morning in Govanhill to get on buses to drive to poorly paid work in food factories across Scotland seems at odds with the idea that they’re idle.

People complain that the Roma are dirty, that the streets of Govanhill are littered with rubbish and fly-tipped mattresses. Puska has recently moved from Govanhill to Barlanark. He says some parts of the east end of Glasgow are as bad as Govanhill, if not worse.

Before the regeneration brought about by the Commonwealth Games in 2014, some areas in the east end were squalid. There were problems with children truanting, gangs, graffiti, rubbish in the streets, drug addiction, drunkenness and crime. Those same problems still exist in all communities across Scotland.

"For all the things that Roma people are accused of," Puska says, "white Scottish people are doing the same." He talks of Scots people in Barlanark "not working and smoking dope". Puska says: "I don’t want to be racist ... I am just saying the same stuff that is said about us."

Some people in Govanhill complain that Roma men gather outdoors. Puska is aware that this can be seen as intimidating, though he explains that it’s part of Roma culture "to stand in the street and have a laugh".

Puska, however, wants to change Roma culture. He doesn’t like it that so many kids drop out of school, and that culturally education is seen as less important than getting a job and earning for the family. "We have to help young Roma people not have the same lifestyle as their parents had, they need to think about themselves, get an education. Young Roma kids are the future, so if you can change them, you can change the way people look at us," he says, adding: "Most Roma people are without an education, in the UK there are so many opportunities."

Puska is conscious of his own future too. "One of our biggest problems is that we don’t have a proper voice to stand up for Roma people. It’s my dream to be that voice, that is my passion, that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life," he says.


LOCAVORE cafe is a sign of the creeping gentrification of Govanhill. It’s beloved by the artists and writers who are slowly starting to move into the area.

READ MORE: There are two realities to life in Govanhill

Two Govanhill councillors are sitting at one of the tables talking about Govanhill’s problems – Mhairi Hunter from the SNP, and Soryia Siddique from Labour. They aren’t scoring political points off each other. For once the SNP and Labour seem to be in agreement, and the consensus is this: Govanhill has its troubles, and plenty of them, but it’s a decent area with decent people no matter what their ethnicity.

Race, however, has turned the debate toxic. Roma are portrayed as dirty criminals, Asians as greedy and exploitative, and whites as nasty racists. Govanhill has always been an area where ethnicity was centre stage. It was once home to a large Irish immigrant community, and then a large Pakistani community. There’s an old joke that if you said you lived in Govanhill you’d be asked what part – Donegal or Bengal?

Both Hunter and Siddique acknowledge that each immigrant community that arrives gets its share of hostility and suspicion.

Hygiene is a big issue – from rubbish in the streets and back closes to bed bug infestations. Hunter says there are bed bug infestations across many parts of Glasgow, but here in Govanhill it’s a particular issue.

"Because of the level of poverty," she says, "there is an issue with people putting furniture like mattresses out on the street and sometimes other people pick them up and take them to their property, which of course spreads infestations."

Hunter goes on: "What adds to the problem is that there are a lot of private landlords, and if you have a bad landlord, they don’t deal with a problem in the way that social housing would deal it."

Siddique and Hunter share stories about people warning them not to walk down the very streets on which they canvas. While canvassing, Siddique sees the real poverty many people – mostly Roma – are experiencing. She’d knock on a door and when it opened see so many pairs of shoes. "There’d be 10 or 15 people living in a one-bedroom flat."

There’s also exploitation. "People are arriving here, after being given lots of promises, and not necessarily aware of their rights," says Siddique. Hunter points out that "if people don’t complain because they don’t understand they can complain, or they don’t have the expectation of being listed to, then things can just build up and build up and you can end quite quickly with a situation where you have huge overcrowding and that leads to environmental issues due to so many people living in one flat".

Back in eastern Europe, few Roma would think of complaining to the authorities about slum conditions.

"The situation of the Roma people is fairly unique," says Hunter, "due to the discrimination they faced across Europe. Coming here is a big improvement on their lives."

Hunter is empathetic to the Roma, though she is unafraid of talking about difficult issues. "Some Roma," she says, "come from backgrounds where the kind of norms of living in an urban environment are things that they have to learn." She adds: "At a really simple level it’s about understanding what you do with your rubbish, understanding you need to send your children to school every day and you can’t just take your children out of school."

But most children are now going to school, and more children are being registered with doctors and dentists. "These are the things who people didn’t have where they came from," says Hunter, "and now they have that here, and that is a big part of the reason why they want to be here ... I have no doubt that in a generation these kids will be doing great."

Hunter is also aware of darker problems. "There has been child sexual exploitation in Govanhill," she says, "but it doesn’t fit the pattern of parents prostituting their children.

"Some of it has involved Roma youngsters, some of it hasn’t. There have been teenagers in brothels.

"The typical pattern is girls in their late teens being exploited by older men pretending to be their boyfriends and pressurising and circulating her to have sex with other people ... This involves every community and goes on well beyond Govanhill."

Hunter had a constituent who was a Roma woman trafficked for sex – she had a child back home who was used by men to control her. Siddique adds that despite no evidence being found by police that Roma parents sold their children for sex, many still believe the myth. "Child sexual exploitation goes on all over Glasgow," she says.

Hunter says myths spread easily about the Roma people. Roma children play out in the street until late, the way Scottish children did until fairly recently in the 1980s. If someone already believes children are being prostituted, says Hunter, then false suspicions might grow at the sight of children out at night.

Siddique says the Roma don’t speak out and defend themselves because "they have a history of persecution and fear of authority. Brexit is about to happen, there is a nervousness about people’s rights to be here".

Things are starting to improve a little in Govanhill, though. At one point, the area was 60% private rented accommodation. Now there’s more social housing and more homeowners.

Siddique explains that since 2015, Glasgow City Council has been able to acquire substandard properties from landlords and turn them into social housing. With that comes factoring, and so the environmental standards rises.

The council has hired a Govanhill litter tsar to oversee cleansing. He’s put his plan to council and it’s been approved and should be unveiled soon.

None of this does much to satisfy local residents who feel Govanhill has become a "dump", "a sh*thole", "a ghetto". Some blame "diversity" – or, more bluntly, immigrants, specifically the Roma. They are angry with a council and government which they believe has done little or nothing to improve the area.

Siddique says to Hunter: "I’ve heard folk say it was okay when the Pakistanis came but not okay when such and such came."

Hunter replies: "I bet if we could take a time machine back 20 years the same people might not be saying that."

They both recognise the problems the area has, but they also see its potential.

Hunter says that Govanhill has been described as Scotland’s Ellis Island – the famous point of arrival for immigrants in America. Siddique says she’s lost count of the people who "started in Govanhill and ended up in Giffnock" – one of Glasgow’s most prosperous suburbs.

Before they leave Locavore, Hunter and Siddique swap stories about people they know from outside the area saying they wouldn’t even sit on a bus going through Govanhill. They both laugh at how outlandish such an idea is to them, but there’s more than a tinge of bitter sadness to that laughter.


Marian McSeveney, Grant McManus, Jennifer O’Brien and Jim Monaghan are huddled in the back office of the Govanhill Baths sipping hot tea on a freezing night.

READ MORE: There are two realities to life in Govanhill

Monaghan has a theory why his neighbourhood has become a lightning rod. "One is immigrants," he says, "the other is Nicola Sturgeon." Govanhill falls into the First Minister’s constituency and problems become political.

The four locals are bewildered by the view outsiders have of the area. McSeveney says: "What angers me is the claim that women are terrified to walk the streets as there’s a stranger from another country who wants to rape you. I live right in the middle of what’s called Ground Zero" – she and the others laugh at the term as she talks – "and I’m a woman and I’m not scared. Taxi drivers say they won’t drive here."

O’Brien chips in saying: "When I was studying I kept hearing how dangerous Govanhill was. No-one in my class was from Govanhill apart from me, but they all feared it. When I asked them about it, they’d say "just don’t go there". They were saying to me I should be scared but they’d never been here."

According to Monaghan, crime in the area was worse in the 1990s, "and some of the people doing the most shouting about the area now are the families who were at the centre of most of the crime back then".

Other residents see folk like Monaghan and his friends as living in a rose-tinted world, but they’re fully aware of the area’s problems. O’Brien worked with a Roma mothers and children’s group.

"After being there a while, I realised ‘oh, they do do things differently’. They were maybe more forceful than we would be, they don’t think much about play or toys the way we would, brushing teeth, healthy snacks – so culturally there are differences."

Monaghan says the same could be said about any ethnic group – that there are white and Asian parents who don’t clean their children’s teeth or play with them. They agree that not everyone can be tarred with the same brush, and that a few individuals do not represent a community.

Monaghan adds: "There’s a failure in people’s memories. I’ve had this conversation a hundred times in the pub with someone saying ‘my granny came here from Donegal but she kept her close clean’. Aye, but they still called her a manky b*****d, though."

O’Brien says that "people need a scapegoat", and Monaghan replies: "A high proportion of the landlords around here are Asian, but if they’re bad landlords that’s because they’re landlords not because they are Asian."

The group talks about one incident where the police were called on a Roma man after he was seen handing his child over to an Asian man. The little girl was "dolled up" and the eyewitness thought the child was being pimped.

In reality, it was a Roma father handing his daughter to her grandfather – Roma folk are often confused with Pakistanis due to the colour of their skin – after a children’s party.

Before they head home, via the newly done-up Bell Jar pub for a few pints, they arrive at a consensus that when it comes to Govanhill the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is neither a hellhole nor a multicultural heaven – it’s an area with its problems like many others in Scotland, but race has amplified everything.

And the Roma? They’re just like other people – black, white, yellow or brown – there are good and bad among them, just like among us all.


RAZA Sadiq is bidding goodbye to Govanhill – and that’ll be a blow to everyone there whether they are white, Asian or Roma.

He’s a tireless community activist who works all hours for the young people of the area no matter who they are – but a drug dealer has driven his family out of their home.

READ MORE: There are two realities to life in Govanhill

The dealer isn’t Roma, though, he’s white and Scottish.

"Everyone seems to fail at diversity in Govanhill," Sadiq says wryly, "except this guy – he’s got white clients, African, Pakistani, Roma, even a client in a wheelchair."

Sadiq is making the point that no one group is better than the other – that all groups are good and bad in their own way. "Historically, Govanhill has played host to many immigrant communities. There is always some resentment when a new community arrives."

One community comes and is hated for a while, then another community arrives and it gets a turn at being hated. For Sadiq, anti-Asian hatred is still rife, fuelled by Islamophobia.

Roma can also be racist, he claims. But right now, it’s the Roma in the firing line. "If anything goes wrong, it’s the Roma who are blamed," he says.

Different cultures can be confusing. He points out that in Pakistan straight men hold hands together in a way straight men in Europe never would.

Like many, he notes that when allegations are made against the Roma it’s hard to work out if it is actually the Roma who are responsible. Certainly, he says, he knows of men approached by prostitutes on their way to mosque, "but you can’t have a blanket statement that they are all Roma".

There’s a big problem with how the Roma are perceived, Sadiq says. A lot of them came to Scotland after "they have been promised a good life but they end up in a hellish situation" of gang-mastered jobs and overcrowded slum conditions.

"That’s not their fault," he says. When a white person does something wrong, he adds, it’s the individual who is blamed, not the entire white community. The opposite applies to immigrants.

Now that he’s leaving Govanhill, his concerns centre on the myths being spun around the Roma. "Groups like the English Defence League used to be small," he says, "but now the far right is coming to power because people believe what they say."

For the far-right, Sadiq says, "Govanhill is a ready-made meal".