Persecuting Travelling People

By pledging to confiscate the property of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, the Conservative Party has signalled its intention to persecute one of Britain's most marginalised communities.

Nothing shows the real face of the Conservative Party more than Priti Patel’s cynical move to criminalise one of the most abused communities in the United Kingdom. 

In an attempt to hoover up the votes of the “concerned” and “I’m not racist but” brigades, Patel spent the last day of parliament releasing a consultation document about the fate of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities in Britain. In this document, she suggests that the next Tory government would allow police the right to confiscate the vehicles of “anyone whom they suspect to be trespassing on land with the purpose of residing on it.”

This was followed in the Tory manifesto with a commitment to seize “the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments,” a clear signal that a Boris Johnson government would launch a new campaign of attacks against GRT communities.

Although past laws such as the 1994 Criminal Justice Act relieved local councils of any duty to find official camping sites for GRT communities, no government has ever before made it clear they deem trespass to be so serious that you could lose your home by committing it.

I’m not sure what the Tories want those of us who belong to GRT communities to do next. Sign on to the council housing register and wait 10 years while we freeze to death in a local bus shelter, instead of waiting a similar amount of time for a council-approved plot? 

The housing crisis is bad for all of us, but for the GRT it is another league. Even those of us who own their own land have a hard-enough time battling local councils. It was telling that after the notorious Dale Farm eviction, where local Tory authorities claimed the area was uninhabitable, permission was given for a private developer to build houses on the land. It wasn’t that no one could live there, it was that we couldn’t live there. 

And what problems would end if we gave up our history and moved into houses? I live in a house. We still experience the same prejudice and racism because we don’t stop being GRT when we move into houses. The move is merely a Tory attempt to win over voters in ‘civilised’ middle England – in the semi-rural marginals they need to target to win this election. 

In elections like this, it is often the case that anti-gypsyism is a big vote winner. Everyone is aware of far-right racism, but the threat to my community doesn’t always come from skinheads, but from those who have the ‘professional halo’ – teachers, doctors, social workers, lawyers. People you think would know better spent their time knocking on doors collecting signatures, and waving racist placards on protests to stop GRT sites being sanctioned by councils.

Ironically, it is these same people who are so shocked when GRT families set up unauthorised encampments – after they been successfully complained against, and have no other choice but to set up camp illegally.

In order to solve the issue of unauthorised encampments, Tories need to take a long hard look in the mirror. Local authorities and central governments have failed to provide anywhere near enough sites for the GRT community. Thatcherite-inspired councils have sold off scores of council-owned sites over the years; the sad truth is that they’d rather spend money forcibly putting our children in care and chasing GRT communities from court to court, place to place, instead of proposing solutions to the benefit of everyone.

For centuries, GRT communities have faced serious discrimination and persecution. We face racist attitudes with regard to mental health, healthcare and education. Gypsies have the worst educational and health outcomes of anyone in the UK, dying on average 10 years earlier than other Britons.

Since the time of Henry VIII, our kids have been historically susceptible to forced adoptions sanctioned by the state. By taking our children and giving them to ‘normal’ families, the future of our community are denied any discussion about their heritage and are integrated against their will. 

Recently, a non-nomadic Romani Gypsy family on a site local to me had a niece forcibly adopted, despite around 15 family members – all of which had no criminal record – putting themselves forward to take the child as their own. The authorities showed a clear systemic bias in overlooking her relatives in favour of a family who, I understand, thought that the slur ‘pikey’ was ‘just what they are’. Lucky, after a long court battle, they managed to bring their niece back, and she has returned to her extremely loving and caring home within her community, but others aren’t so lucky. 

Stories about the positive contributions that GRT people make towards the wider community never make the news, such as the thousands of pounds of food donated to food banks in the Shopping Trolley Challenge.  Many young GRT people aim for careers as social workers, barristers, engineers, soldiers, nurses, and doctors – and some just want to continue in their family’s trade, paying as much tax as anyone else. Nobody talks about GRT veterans who fought the Nazis in World War Two, or prominent GRT business figures. The truth is, in most people’s minds when we become success stories we stop being called Gypsies and Travellers.

Despite the war of words over racism during this general election period, the Tory manifesto threatens to criminalise the life of a community that lost over a quarter of its population – and faced similar property confiscations – in the Holocaust. I’m still not sure which is sadder – that this has been barely scrutinised at all by powerful journalists, or that so much of the British public would probably nod in agreement with it.

Word needs to spread against these disgraceful policies, and people must be ready to mobilise against it. Outright opposition to these moves against the GRT community should be a core tenet of the anti-racist struggle today. Priti Patel’s proposed policies don’t shock anyone from my community, but they should surprise you.