Open racist stereotyping in the media, denial of ethnic minority rights and political scapegoating – those are all rather far too common experiences of Gypsies and Travellers across Britain today, according to a meeting between MPs and community members on Tuesday 18th March 2008.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform (APPG) met with members and partners of the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups (NFGLG) on Tuesday morning at the House of Commons. The meeting was co-organised by NFGLG, the charity European Dialogue, and representatives from key government departments were also present.
Underpinning the policy debate was the recognition that Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers continue to face open and severe discrimination in Britain today. At a time when such a strong focus lies on building a cohesive society to integrate all of the diverse communities which make up Britain, it appears that the Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers – communities who have been living here for centuries – are still being left aside. They continue to face a barrier of racism which British multi-cultural society has yet to tackle effectively.
Community representatives pointed out that negative stereotyping of Gypsies and Travellers is frequent in the media, particularly in the local press. It is also not uncommon for politicians to use local Traveller issues in order to gain leverage with local voters – a practice which would be considered unacceptable in relation to any other ethnic group. The Chairman of the Local Government Association Gypsy and Traveller Task Group, Councillor Richard Bennett suggested that an all-party concordat be drawn up to ensure that local elections would never be fought on these issues in the future.
Several members of the community called for a clear message to be sent 'from the top' stating clearly that, as for any other community, racism directed at Gypsies and Travellers will not be tolerated. The DCSF announced that the first Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month will take place in June 2008 to promote the culture and the positive role of Gypsies and Travellers in Britain society. This will be an opportunity for British society to celebrate the forgotten history and misrepresented culture of Gypsies and Travellers.
The NFGLG/APPG meeting put the question of Gypsy ethnicity and rights under the spotlight through a robust debate. The participants were reminded about the breakthrough in the recognition of Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller rights as distinct `ethnic groups', equal to any other, brought about by the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000.
For the purposes of planning law however, Romany Gypsies still do not have rights associated with their ethnic status. Planning law bases the right to have access to planning permission for a trailer or caravan on a plot of land (known as 'gypsy status'), on whether an applicant has a nomadic lifestyle, "whatever their race or origin".
The community groups are fighting to have the planning definition altered so that 'gypsy status' is based on ethnicity too. It was pointed out that under the current framework a number of Gypsies who no longer travel have found their 'gypsy status' removed– even if this is due to ill health or old age, whilst relatives of theirs retain their 'status'!
Finally, the patchy delivery of services for Gypsies and Travellers by local authorities was also identified as a serious problem for many people. There was a call by community members for greater accountability over local spending, to challenge the 'slum-like' conditions of some Gypsy/Traveller sites. Across all the range of issues, better consultation with local Gypsy and Traveller groups was also an apparent need.
Despite the range of serious issues put on the table at the NFGLG/APPG meeting, this meeting made a significant contribution to the debates about the rights of Gypsies and Travellers in Britain today.
The press statement above mentions that Irish Travellers have been in Britain for centuries. Is this really so? How many centuries, for if the truth be told, it may be less than one century. This is yet again an attempt to put the Irish Travellers a par with the Romany Gypsy population in the United Kingdom but this will not wash and cannot be allowed to stand in such a way.
Irish Travellers, while, maybe, just about, could qualify as an “ethnic group”, if ethnicity is also made as including lifestyle and such like, which really it should not, but they cannot be ever seen as a Race, unlike the Romany who are a Race and a Race apart.
The discrimination faced by the Irish Travellers is NOT, therefore, for reasons of race but for reasons of their way of life and especially for reasons of how so many of their community, if you like, behave when they travel. This also, in return, causes problems for Romany Gypsy, and even well-behaved Irish Travellers. Something that the people themselves should police and the bad apples should be rooted out. How that is done should be left to the individual communities, for there are also rotten apples in the Romany community and we should deal with those. Maybe, and just maybe, we can then get a better reception by the Gohja when we come to a place, like it used to be in the old days. I remember always being welcome in the villages when I was younger, but then that was before certain elements destroyed it all by the way they behaved or should we better say misbehaved.
I would like to stress again, and I know it really bothers people that I do, that while the Romany are facing racial discrimination, this is not and cannot ever be termed like that as regards to the Irish Travellers. I do not care who is going to have a go again as to what I am writing here but the truth is the truth. Romany Gypsies (the only group to who the term “Gypsy” anyway applies) are a Race while the Irish Travellers simply are a group, a minority of maybe a rather ancient European nomadic people, like some of the Jenisch, but they are not Gypsy and they are not therefore of a different race. I know that is very difficult to understand to many of those do-gooders and hangers on, those that want to make political capital out of the issue, but the truth is different than they wish to portray it.
How can you have a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month? This is merging the two, for the Gypsy are Romani like the Roma, into one and this just cannot and must not be. There is NO common history bar, maybe, the history of being moved on from stopping places. But we, the Romany Gypsy, have the Irish Travellers and their behavior or misbehavior to thank for in the main for the closure of all the once common and accepted stopping places that were used by the Romany Gypsy in this country, and elsewhere, for the influence of the misbehavior of the Irish travellers is now reaching as far and wide as Scandinavia, Germany, France, Holland, and other such places.
Instead of allowing ourselves to be, basically, pushed into this false cooperation with the Irish Travellers, the majority of which do not like the Romany Gypsy, we, the Romany should separate ourselves and our work, political and cultural, from that done with, about and for the Irish Travellers and do our own thing and also have the governments accept the differences, including the overbearing and knowing all better European Union. For far too long have we been the play thing of the politicos that only really work for the Irish Travellers.
We have allowed ourselves to be steamrollered into this combined operations thing by those that accused us of being this that and the other for excluding the Irish Travellers, to the extent of calling those who advocated the separateness racist even.
We have allowed ourselves to be pushed into the use of the term “Traveller” instead of “Gypsy” and with that made a rod for our own back for as soon as the Gohja in Britain hear Travellers they think Gypsy and we all get included in the perception of those that live on a what ends up looking like a rubbish tip in some third world country.
I myself have seen Irish Travellers encamped in municipal parks performing their bodily functions, both male and female, and not just the children, in public with people passing by. Is it then any wonder that there is a problem with the general public's perception of the Gypsy? It is not. That is why we, the Romany, must separate ourselves from the entire claptrap of common Traveller culture. There is no such thing as a common culture between the Travellers and the Romany. None whatsoever and anyone claiming differently djins kek.
While the Irish Travellers may be a distinct “ethnic” group under the Race Relations Act 2000 it does NOT make them a Race.
The “Gypsy status” definition does need to be changed but it MUST NOT include the Irish Travellers in this. Gypsy is Romany and nothing more. All else are Travellers.
Personally, and I have stated that before, I do not think that Gypsies and/or Travellers should have any special treatment, nor be given any, as regards to the planning laws. Why not? Because it would then make us even more a target of the gutter press and the right wing, whether media or politicians, and of the general public and, I would add, maybe rightly so. The law should look at all people equally regardless of their ethnicity or racial background, and this should and must include the Romany and the Travellers.
Michael Smith (Veshengro), April 2008