AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO GYPSIES, TRAVELLERS AND ROMA PEOPLE
19 March 2021
This article was written by David Landau and originally published by Left Unity.
“Existential Threat” is currently a rather overused expression. But it applies to this situation. An ‘existential threat’ comes in at least two guises. It can be a threat of the actual extermination of a people – Genocide. Or it can be a threat to destroy a people’s way of life, culture, activities, and so forth. Or it can be a mixture of the two.
A Brief History
Romani people and Irish Travellers have suffered persecution throughout their history. Romani people left Northern India/Pakistan around one thousand years ago. In the ensuing millennia, they have spread to many countries around the globe – Europe, North and South America, Russia, China, and the Middle East. Some were nomadic people. Others tried to settle but were met with hostility and either abandoned their identities or became nomadic like their brother and sisters. What remained strong, on the move or in settlements, was a tight-knit community. If you visit a Gypsy site like Dale Farm, for example, you feel that you are entering into a kind of village. Static or mobile, Romani people and Irish Travellers do not want their communities broken up.
So they suffered and still suffer discrimination and persecution. Nation-states throughout the world and down the ages, try to destroy communities within them which have bonds stronger than the nation and are people without borders. Sometimes they try to destroy the way of life; sometimes they try and destroy the people themselves. In Romania, Roma were kept as slaves (enshrined in law) for about 200 years. The practice was abandoned during the 19th Century.
Along with the Jews, the Roma were a people targeted for destruction by the Nazis. More recently in some parts of Eastern Europe, fascist and far-right populist movements have carried out pogroms against Roma Settlements. In Hungary, there were incidents where settlements were set alight and fleeing people were shot dead. In parallel to this, the Hungarian state has outlawed such settlements.
In the last couple of decades, the French and Italian states have brutally cleared Roma Settlements. But the big contradiction is that they have tried to outlaw their nomadic life too. So what were Roma supposed to? Answer – stop being Roma, stop being Gypsies, stop being Travellers. Hence – Existential Threat.
So what about in Britain? Well, it did not begin well. Henry 8th declared a law making being a Gypsy a hanging offence. In later centuries, however, there was an uneasy peace between Gypsies and the wider communities. Farmers were often happy to have Gypsies doing things like fruit picking and other skills which were associated with Gypsies such as blacksmithing. However, in the 20th century progressed new tensions arose more land was bought into use. More and more sites were broken up.
However, in the early 1970s new legislation was bought in obliging local authorities to provide regulated sites. This was not popular with all Gypsies and Travellers. It meant that they were fixed and the local authority was in control. But it was a lot better than nothing.
But in 1994 the obligation was taken away. The Government encouraged Gypsies to buy their own land. Trying to do this was a tremendous financial burden but some communities managed to save up the money and buy the land only to find that they were not allowed to move on to the land because they could not get planning permission. So those who did move on to THEIR OWN LAND found themselves facing bailiffs and police often brutally smashing up their sites.
So those who were already nomadic were joined by those trying to stay but within the community. Their lesson was clear – stop being Travellers, stop being Gypsies. Break up your communities, your fixed or travelling villages, and get a house or flat. Of course, in many ways, this was counterproductive even for Capital. There is a housing crisis, as we know only too well and this policy is simply adding to the competition for housing. So you can see that there is a strong ideological, prejudiced and populist current driving British Government policy.
In the last couple of years, some London boroughs introduced blanket injunctions against anybody settling on the land. Bromley Council was successfully challenged in the courts so this tactic by local authorities has failed.
The New Proposed Legislation
This brings us to the new proposed legislation which had its first reading in its on Monday. The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill is an attack on all of us but is specifically an attack on Gypsies and Travellers. It contains a section that creates a new criminal offence against unauthorised encampments. The new offence will:
• Will target trespassers who intend to reside on any private or public land in vehicles without permission and where they are causing significant disruption, distress, or harm to local communities.
• Give Police powers to seize vehicles and arrest offenders
• The new offence will be punishable by a prison sentence of up to 3 months or £2,500 fine or both.
As a sop to critics like us, the Government says that ‘the measures will target harmful encampments which reflect badly on the wider nomadic community as a whole, the majority of whom are law-abiding. But who are these wider nomadic communities – Where can they stop, let alone settle, without breaching this law?
But Home Secretary Priti Patel gives the game away –
“They are residing or intending to reside without the consent of the occupier – this will ensure unintentional instances of trespass are not affected such as ramblers or hikers”.
So ramblers and hikers are one thing but a COMMUNITY is quite another.
Another sop is that they will only apply to cases where there is
‘a request by the occupier or police to leave the land’
but where are they supposed to go?
A very sinister sentence is that
“The amendments will broaden the range of factors which police can consider when enforcing the law, to include interference with access to utilities like water, gas and electricity…..”
So what about the health & safety considerations in relation to children or disabled people living on the site?
These proposals are like a dagger to the heart of Gypsy and Traveller communities. But it could be an opportunity. The whole of the Government Bill has antagonised vast swathes of people in this country. It can unite people in opposition. Travellers and Gypsies need to be at the heart of the campaign against it and we must facilitate that.
An injury to one is an injury to all but a victory for one is a victory for all.