The development came to light this week after a Romanian woman in the UK shared an image of the posters in a Tesco supermarket on social media. Her post was subsequently picked up by Romanian media.
The signs at Tesco’s Telford branch, in the English Midlands, warned would-be Romanian thieves of prosecution.
They were used in 2019 and produced by the local West Mercia police department.
“Hoții din magazine prinși for fi urmăriți penal” (Shoplifters caught will be prosecuted) said the posters, which were placed along aisles with expensive items, such as alcohol.
Romanian officials, individuals and writers say by using the Romanian language, the posters singled out Romanians and were evidence of a prejudicial attitude towards the diaspora.
“Tesco has used a heavy-handed and discriminatory approach that not only will not discourage shoplifters but also offend the majority of law-abiding and well-integrated Romanians living in the UK,” Alexandra Bulat, the chair of Young Europeans, part of the EU citizens’ rights organisation the3million, told Al Jazeera.
“Many of them will be customers of the chain – I am one of them. EU citizens living in the UK are no more likely to commit a crime than British citizens.”
Some 590,100 Romanians have applied to remain in the UK after the Brexit transition period ends, according to government data.
Writer Vasile Ernu, in a column for the Romanian daily newspaper Libertatea, said: “The idea that ‘the Romanian is a thief’ is programmatically induced in the masses. That is, to be Romanian means to be a criminal.
“This phenomenon is a very serious matter. Terrible violence has taken place in history around these phenomena.”
In a statement to Al Jazeera, a Tesco spokesperson said: “We have had some cases of shoplifting at our Telford Extra Store so the local police provided us with some posters advising that all shoplifters will be prosecuted. We’re sorry if these posters caused any offence – they have now been removed.”
The West Mercia police department, which produced the campaign, said: “These posters … were made available to businesses in the languages most frequently spoken within their communities”, as it claimed the signs were also made in English.
Many people on social media, in the UK and Romania, criticised the campaign.
“Did anyone find these posters translated in the other minority languages of the UK? Or did @Tesco just opt for the “language of thieves”?” tweeted Oana Gurau, a clinical neurosciences researcher at the University of Oxford.
Antonia Oprita, a London-based editor, tweeted: “@Tesco I have not heard back from you on this, I asked you to apologise to #Romanians for doing this. As a Romanian myself, I can tell you this is profoundly #racist. Why are you carrying out such a campaign in your stores?”
Twitter user @EduardChilcos wrote: “@Tesco is there a particular reason for posting this message in Romanian in one of your stores? Your racism is absolutely despicable.”
Romanians in the UK have often been stereotyped and baselessly maligned by the far right as taking employment opportunities from the British people.
In 2014 Nigel Farage, a leading Brexit campaigner and far-right figure in the UK, said people would be “concerned” if a group of Romanian men “moved in next door”.
The 2016 pro-Brexit referendum unleashed a wave of hateful attacks on Eastern European expatriates.
Romanians are the second-biggest immigrant community in the UK, with many working long hours in British supermarkets, farms and hotels.
Regarding the posters, in a statement to the Romanian daily newspaper Adevărul, the Romanian foreign ministry said it “disapproves of this type of discriminatory message”.
They do not “reflect the real image of the Romanian community in Great Britain, which is well integrated and which makes a real contribution to the development of British society and economy”, the foreign ministry added.