LET’S MAKE 2019 THE YEAR WE STAND WITH THE TRAVELLER COMMUNITY

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By Sarah Edgcumbe

Gypsy and traveller families ‘hounded out’ of areas in act of ‘social cleansing’ as councils impose sweeping bans’ was the ominous heading of a story printed in the Independent last month. It may sound like a news article from 1940s Italy, but this demonstrates the alarming fact that antigypsyism is perceived by many to be the last socially “acceptable” form of racism in the UK today.

It is estimated that there are around 120,000 Irish Travellers in the UK today – members of a community that has been present in the UK since the early nineteenth century, according to the Travellers Movement. Travellers’ presence in the UK probably pre-dates the Conservative Party – which was established in 1834, and has since that date been obsessed with privatization of land and services, demolition of community, and its most recent gifts: austerity and gradual eradication of Traveller sites.

The 2018 Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report paints a dim picture of British society. Of 3,000 respondents from across Britain, 44% openly expressed negative feelings towards Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, making them the most discriminated against group with protected characteristics (age, disability, race, sex, religion or belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, and gender reassignment) by a large margin.

This boils down to nearly half of British adults being openly racist towards the Traveller community.

This is outrageous, but also explains how the government has gotten away with continuously moving Traveller families on from public land, pushing them from borough to borough, and making it clear they are unwanted in the process. The story in the Independent points to a “chronic shortage” of authorized Traveller encampments across the country, yet the government penalizes those who use unauthorized sites. This policy echoes the current prevalence of measures being taken to keep homeless people from sleeping in shop doorways or park benches – never mind that both groups of people have nowhere to go, as long as they are out of sight.

Since 2015, 22 injunctions have been obtained by councils, allowing them to prevent Travellers from residing on public land. More councils are in the process of obtaining them. What effect does the government expect this to have on the Traveller community? A community with a life expectancy 10-25 years lower than the rest of the population, a male suicide rate 3-5 times higher than the rest of the population and the poorest GCSE results. Does it hope these continual evictions will be the catalyst for the Traveller community to move into houses, assimilate into the wider, fragmented and increasingly hateful and socio-economically doomed population?

If this is the Conservative plan, it is a violation of human rights legislation, which stipulates that states should facilitate traditional ways of life of minority groups. Whether these policies are influenced by popular opinion, influencing popular opinion, or whether they are playing into a vicious cycle of both is unclear, but the role of the government should be to protect minorities and our role, as citizens, should be to hold them to account when they fail to do this.

The Irish Traveller community is recognized as an ethnic minority group under the 1976 Race Relations Act and the 2010 Equality Act. If any other minority group was treated in such a way by local government, there would quite rightly be widespread outrage. Why do we view Travellers as so undeserving of legal protection and sympathy? Our apathy is a damning indictment of our society.

According to Brigitta Balogh, who is on track to become the UK’s first Roma barrister, Traveller children are often reluctant to go to school not because their community places no value on education, but because they are often bullied. When they report this racist bullying to their teachers, ‘It’s often not taken seriously because they’re white groups’, despite having ethnic minority status. There is no logical reason for Travellers to be feared, ridiculed, bullied or discriminated against. Other sections of society are far more deserving of being ostracized – such as those on the right who are determined to stir racial disharmony and animosity.

A quick scan of Facebook group ‘England where my heart lies’ presented posts celebrating Thatcher, celebrating the military, ridiculing students, ridiculing Diane Abbott, pro-Brexit posts, Islamophobic posts, a general tone of chauvinism… and a very proactive sowing of divisions between ‘us’ and multiple groups of ‘them’.

In contrast, a quick scan of the ‘Traveller Movement’ Facebook group presents posts celebrating members of the Traveller community who are successful and making positive contributions to society: X-Factor competitor Scarlet Lee and boxer Tyson Fury (who plans to donate his 8,000,000 prize purse to homeless charities), news articles about how the Traveller community is literally filling up food banks in the areas where they live during the run up to Christmas, information about community health services, posts from women’s groups and a picture of the winning design from a children’s Christmas card competition.

I know which online community I’d rather be a part of.

These two representations of two distinct communities underscores the question, “Why the hell are we not standing with Travellers who face eviction?”

Why are we not demanding that schools reach out to Travellers and take racist bullying seriously? Why aren’t we demanding inclusive health provision? Why aren’t we demanding that local authorities provide sites? Why aren’t we, as communities, calling out antigyspsyism and refusing to accept its presence in our society?

A spokesperson for the organization ‘Friends, Families and Travellers’ says there are two things that members of the public can do to really demonstrate solidarity with the Traveller community. ‘Firstly, speak to elected representatives at your local authority and ask what they are doing to provide places for Gypsy and Traveller communities to live; and secondly to challenge any hate speech you see in the press or in the community and report hate crime to the police and ‘Report Racism GRT’’.

Solidarity is key. After all, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

Featured image credit: Alan Denney


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