Three Sri Lankan bakers who moved to a quiet town in Romania to work in a bread factory have unexpectedly found themselves at the centre of an anti-immigration storm, the BBC reported.
The workers had gone to Ditrau, a town of 5,000 people in a predominantly ethnic Hungarian area of the north, to earn higher wages.
Shortly after they arrived, about 350 residents protested outside the town hall.
The row escalated when the local Roman Catholic priest delivered a petition of 1,800 signatures calling on the bakery owners not to employ foreign workers while local unemployment was “higher than 2%”.
The Sri Lankans are being diplomatic: “The villagers had a bit of a problem [with us],” says one. But bakery boss Katalin Kollo is clear: “It is quite obvious that this was about racism.”
Some residents worried their cultural traditions and community’s safety could be at risk and Mrs Kollo says a closed Facebook group named “We want an immigrant-free Ditrau” attracted 2,700 members.
Ditrau Mayor Elemer Puskas called a special council meeting to answer local concerns.
“First, two enter Ditrau, then they will bring their families because they have the rights, and then they’ll bring another 10,” a moustachioed, middle-aged man told the meeting.
“They will bring their culture, but we have our own culture, so we will stick to ours,” he said.
Another man was more direct, shouting: “We don’t need immigrants.”
The story has attracted the attention of the Romanian authorities. A complaint was filed by the Romanian National Council for Combating Discrimination over incitement to hatred and discrimination.
The Sri Lankans signed two-year work contracts with the bakery, which employs 94 people and pays for their accommodation.
The bakery manager says she looked abroad for staff, partly to bridge a skills gap and partly to meet employee quota conditions for two EU development grants.
“We lost a lot of people to the West, and now we’re looking to the East for workers,” she tells the BBC.
To keep the peace, the company relocated the three men from Ditrau to two other villages, leaving them 15km (9 miles) away from where they work.
Sitting in a small room inside the private Ditroi bakery, Prasanna Piumal, 22, tells the BBC how he came to Romania to build a future. But when the race row erupted, he says “the employment agent came to see us and asked if we wanted to leave and go to Bucharest”.
He vowed to stay on, as did his colleague, 48-year-old Amahinda Amara Signha, who said he was puzzled by this strange outcry unfolding in this isolated town at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
“I didn’t understand what the problem was,” said Mr Signha. “When my contract finishes here I will go [back] to Sri Lanka. My house isn’t finished there and I want to build my house and develop my future.”
There may be several reasons why the arrival of three Sri Lankans sparked such a fierce backlash, in a country that suffers from a shortage of workers and has seen a significant exodus of its own population in recent years.
The Church pulpit is a powerful tool in Romania’s small communities and Mrs Kollo alleges that the local Catholic priest, Karoly Biro, held a Sunday service in which he stoked fears about immigration. The priest did not respond to BBC requests for a comment.
“Our fear comes from the unknown,” the priest told the council meeting. “We don’t have any resentment towards the foreigners but we plead to not bring them here to work, because we already have people here [who can work].”
In another twist, it emerged that two of the Sri Lankans were themselves Catholics.
Adalbert Horvath, a 54-year-old resident and former bakery worker, said he had signed the petition against the foreign workers “because people are scared of them”.
However, he thinks the uproar is more about local unemployment than a fear of foreigners. “[The Sri Lankans] are people as well, they are the same as we are,” he says.
Another possibility is that the views of residents in this largely ethnic Hungarian area may have had their views “shaped” by Hungarian media. That, at least, is the view of the mayor.
Hungary, under the leadership of right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has strongly pushed an anti-immigration agenda which is widely reflected in its national media.
This is a sentiment shared by Csaba Asztalos, the head of the National Council for Combating Discrimination, who is himself an ethnic Hungarian.
“The Hungarian community from Transylvania is connected to the regional media. We know very well that an element of constant communication is the anti-immigration discourse,” he told local news channel Digi24.
The head of Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, Keleman Hunor, has expressed concern that the focus on Ditrau could stigmatise residents, but he told local media that the situation was “regrettable” and that “intolerance must be rejected”.
The third Sri Lankan baker to arrive in Ditrau, Dayan Wone Peries, has more than five years’ experience as a baker. He started work recently, after the public protests had broken out.
“I didn’t take it too seriously,” the 24-year-old tells the BBC. “Half of my money I put in my [bank] account and the other half I send to my mother. I am building my own house.”
“So I don’t care about the problem, it cannot stop my dreams,” he smiles.
Despite the furore, Mrs Kollo has no regrets about her decision. “We have four more workers coming from Nepal. They should be here now but we are letting things here settle a bit,” she says.